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Report: We Really Need to Divert Money from Drivers to Transit Users

The federal government needs an entirely different way of funding transportation — one that would divert billions of dollars that currently subsidize and encourage driving to fund and expand transit, a new report argues.

The Center for American Progress analysis, “A Reform Agenda for the U.S. Department of Transportation” [read it here], focuses on the many ways federal highway money could be used better — to create more equity, reduce pollution and increase safety.

“New federal dollars must be paired with policy reforms to ensure that funding from Washington yields the greatest social, environmental, and economic return on investment,” the report’s author, Kevin DeGood, argues.

The main problem, as DeGood sees it, is that the current way in which Washington doles out money doesn’t do anything to solve five of America’s basic transportation problems: a high roadway death rate, climate change, congestion, inequity of economic opportunity, and general level of repair of our nation’s infrastructure.

The report offers a mix of new and old recommendations:

    • New policies:
      • Safety:
        • Require localities to track the share of housing units and roadways that have dedicated non-motorized infrastructure, such as sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, and crossings that comply with Americans with Disabilities Act guidance.
        • Stop allowing localities and states to set safety targets that are worse than the year before, something Streetsblog has decried in the past.
        • Create a 1.5-cent-per-gallon excise tax on diesel fuel to build safe rail and highway crossing infrastructure.
        • Do not allow trucks to get any bigger.
      • Climate:
        • The federal DOT should use its power — which it may not want to acknowledge it has — to require states and metropolitan regions to track and set performance targets for greenhouse gas and other harmful emissions.
        • Federal law currently allows states to expand highways without considering their long-term effect on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Not only should that change, but “states should be required to … fully offset those emissions,” DeGood argues. And states should be rewarded when they reduce lanes or lower greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.
        • Fund a massive increase in electric vehicle charging stations. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has advocated this regularly.
        • Require airlines to be more transparent about greenhouse gas emissions and require, by 2025, that all airline carriers offset their carbon.
      • Transit:
        • The federal transit “New Starts” program should set a minimum federal share of eligible project costs at 60 percent and a maximum share of 85 percent (for projects that lack state participation). Currently, the program covers less than 50 percent of construction costs, compared to up to 80 percent for the typical highway project, DeGood told Streetsblog.
        • Increase funding for low- or no-emission buses to $500 million a year, from the current $130 million. And stop funding any buses that aren’t zero-emission by 2025.
        • States and regions should be required to set performance targets that either hold per capita VMT constant or decrease it.
        • Allocate $8 billion annually in the Highway Trust Fund for Amtrak as well as capital expansion grants for high-speed intercity service. Currently, the trust fund provides nothing for Amtrak. “Creating the account within the Highway Trust Fund is mostly about ensuring funding predictability/stability as trust funded programs lock in those amounts compared to the ups and downs of annual appropriations,” DeGood told Streetsblog.
        • Allow states to use their National Highway Performance Program funds for intercity passenger rail capital projects.
        • But don’t allow states to spend as much of their National Highway Performance Program funds for anything except repair, rehabilitation, and reconstruction projects until all pavement and bridges have achieved a state of good repair.
    • Oldies but goodies:
      • Safety:
        • Reform the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways to discourage states from using the “85th percentile” rule to establish speed limits. That guideline encourages states to set speed limits based mostly on how fast drivers want to go rather than what is actually safe for a given roadway.
        • The federal government has to get serious about vehicle safety standards — for people outside the car. According to the report, only 60 percent of 2019 cars offered for sale in the U.S. had pedestrian crash avoidance technologies as standard or optional equipment. (Reminder: the pedestrian death rate is up 50 percent since 2009.) “The secretary of transportation should include pedestrian safety tests as part of the New Car Assessment Program,” DeGood writes. (Streetsblog covered the issue here.)
        • Start using good design guides, such as the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ “Urban Street Design Guide,” which “provides dozens of excellent roadway and intersection design templates to safely accommodate and support pedestrians, cyclists, and other nonmotorized users of all ages and ability levels.”
        • Stop prioritizing roadway construction and design around a “level of service,” a term that puts driver experience front and center. “The goal of transportation investments cannot simply be to increase vehicle speeds,” DeGood writes.
        • Don’t allow the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to weaken rest rules for truckers.
        • Stop stalling on “positive train control.” The federal government had originally set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2015 for all trains to have the new safety technology, but that deadline has been extended to the end of this year. DeGood estimates that holding to that deadline could save carriers $4 billion and reduce crashes.
      • Climate:
        • Go back to the Obama era fuel economy standards for cars, which the Trump administration discontinued in March. Under the Obama plan, vehicle fuel efficiency standards would have gotten to 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025. The Trump plan reduces fuel efficiency by 27 percent, “resulting in more than 80 billion additional gallons of gasoline consumed by the vehicles produced during the period covered by the rule,” DeGood writes.
      • Transit:
        • Reward states and cities that remove on-street parking to enable better transit during peak hours. Currently, the federal model sees a car stuck in traffic and a bus stuck in traffic as the same thing.

Equity is a main thread through all of the report’s recommendations. In this area, the report suggests:

    • A new $300 million annual program (to start) for removing old inner city highways and converting them to people- and business-friendly boulevards.
    • Support for historic “main streets” so that people are encouraged to support economic development in safe, walkable areas.
    • Vehicle speed should not be a crucial metric. Instead, cities “should be required to measure the ability of the transportation system to affordably, safely, and sustainably connect people to jobs, housing, and essential services, including health care, child care, and education, among others.”
    • Get carless people to work by prioritizing “transportation projects that help to reduce the imbalance in the location of workforce housing and employment centers.” Streetsblog has often covered cities’ failure to do that.

“Federal transportation policy [must] promote inclusive prosperity and social equity,” DeGood writes. “This means accounting for the discriminatory legacy of past investments that resulted in geographic dislocation, reduced economic opportunity, and poor community health. To remediate these harms, the U.S. Department of Transportation should target funding to those communities facing the greatest need. … Continuing with a business-as-usual approach will not result in progress on these pressing challenges.”

Neither the White House nor the Biden campaign responded immediately. We will update this story if they do.

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