Rethinking the Federal role in Transportation Funding

Federal involvement in transportation is key to the nation’s economic success and social integration. Transportation is a core sector that has always played a key role in shaping economic development, and the quality of life for millions.[1] As the economy expands and grow, the movement of goods and people are wholly dependent on a well-functioning, interconnected network of road and rail systems to ferry people, goods, and products. As such, there is a fundamental role for the federal government’s involvement in urban and metropolitan transportation. But I also believe that an increased role of state and local governments in funding public transit, roads and highways in urban and metropolitan areas is also needed. I think State and local government apparatus are more flexible and well positioned to enact policies and coordinate resources than the federal government. A bottom-up policy-making framework or approach to urban and metropolitan transportation could lead to better outcomes, with federal policy and vision as guidelines.

In a 2010 Congressional testimony, John Porcari, then Deputy Secretary of Transportation summarized the federal government’s five strategic goals (Links to an external site.) in meeting the 21st Century transportation challenges as follows:

  1. Safety – to improve public health and safety by reducing transportation-related fatalities and injuries;
  2. State of Good Repairs – to ensure that critical transportation infrastructure is in a state of good repair to preserve transportation safety, reliability, capacity, and efficiency;
  3. Economic Competitiveness – to promote transportation policies and investments that bring lasting and equitable benefits to the Nation and its citizens;
  4. Livable Communities – to foster livable communities through place-based policies and investments that increase transportation choices and access to transportation services; and
  5. Environmental Sustainability – to advance environmentally sustainable policies and investments that reduce carbon and other harmful emissions from transportation sources and lessen transportation’s dependence on fossil fuels.

State and Local government role in urban and metropolitan transportation

In examining the federal role in regulating and funding transportation, Miller et al (2013) argue that the federal government’s role in funding and regulating transportation infrastructure, and its oversight is indispensable. But they also added that to improve transportation management an increased role of state and local governments, including the private sector funding and managing surface transportation infrastructure, could help facilitate a more efficient transportation system as well as reduce the federal role in funding and regulating transportation.

Federal government role in urban and metropolitan transportation

Of all the goals listed above, federal funding may be important in the areas of livable communities through place-based policies and investments. This is because transportation has a profound impact on people’s lives – means of sustenance and daily activities, and it is a civil right. With a long history of transportation discrimination and bigotry against minority groups, federal support could be helpful in achieving the goals for livable communities. Even in today’s transportation environment, minority and other disenfranchised groups continue to face disproportionate impacts or burdens (Sanchez et al. 2003).

In addition, because of varying laws and regulations on the environment, federal support in advancing environmentally sustainable policies and investments, to standardized requirements and help reduce carbon and other harmful emissions from transportation sources are needed. The economic externalities from planning decisions often lead to suboptimal and inequitable outcomes, to include the social costs relating to traffic fatalities, pollution, and congestion (Duranton & Guerra 2016). Federal support and especially needed is needed to help shape local policies and to address the negative effects of transportation externalities.

While some degree of state and federal corporation is needed to promote economic competitiveness, and regional growth and development, local and state actors may be better suited to develop transportation policies and fund investment options. Federal funding may be limited to address exclusionary practices, issues structural inequities and systematic barriers that may hinder economic success and causes of transportation discrimination (Alexander, 2012; Williams & Collins, 2001).

In summary, there are many contradictions between federal and state transportation policies and measures to assure safety, reliability, environmental sustainability, livable communities, and economic competitiveness. I believe local governments are best suited to implement policies, but federal support is still required to maintain parity and harmonization of policies which a sustainable market economy depends on.


Work Cited:

[1] Porcari, John (September 15, 2010). The Federal Role in National Transportation Policy. Statement to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation United States Senate. Retrieved on October 21, 2018, from (Links to an external site.)

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press.

Dumas, R. A. (2015). Analyzing transit equity using automatically collected data (Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Duranton, G., & Guerra, E. (2016). Developing a common narrative on urban accessibility: An urban planning perspective. Brookings Institution, Moving to Access.

Miller, T., & Deignan, B. (2013). Why the Dot’s Role in Funding and Regulating Transportation Should Be Reduced.

Sanchez, T. W., Stolz, R., & Ma, J. S. (2003). Moving to equity: Addressing inequitable effects of transportation policies on minorities.

Williams, D. R., & Collins, C. (2001). Racial residential segregation: a fundamental cause of racial disparities in health. Public health reports116(5), 404.