Running on Empty: The Case for a Sustainable National Transportation System

By Benfield, F. Kaid | Environmental Law, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Running on Empty: The Case for a Sustainable National Transportation System


Benfield, F. Kaid, Environmental Law


I. Introduction:A New Era in Transportation Policy

With the election of the 104th Congress, our nation's federal government began a potentially historic transition. What is emerging from new concepts being considered and adopted in the executive and legislative branches is a government that in many respects will be leaner, more oriented toward incentives than regulation, and more concerned with results than process in its efforts to assist local governments and citizens in achieving social and policy goals. All of this will be particularly manifest at the federal Department of Transportation (DOT).

DOT is a focus of these efforts not only because it is a target for deficit-reducers in Congress, but also because our nation's system of transportation investment and management is at a crossroads. In particular, the Interstate Highway System (IHS), the centerpiece of federal transportation investment for the last forty years, is now essentially complete. It is time to consider what we learned from that impressive undertaking and what we should do next as a matter of public direction and policy in transportation.

Creative thought on these issues certainly will be welcome. All evidence indicates that in the past several decades we were far too indiscriminate as a nation in applying our transportation resources. Notwithstanding the achievement of the IHS, the overall result has been a patchwork system of various modes of travel that consumes far too large a share of our economic and environmental resources and now threatens our limited supplies of energy, clean air, and open space.

No one need be blamed for the mistakes of the past. The truth is, we know more now about the social harms of inefficient transportation than we did when our current system was under construction. In addition, unanticipated pressures of serving a growing population caused us to adopt short-term solutions that created long-term problems. Today, the nation's collective energies should focus on the future, on managing our transportation resources in a way that saves money and energy, decreases pollution, and enhances the lives of American citizens.

To this end, in late 1993 DOT began a challenging administrative exercise to piece together a new national transportation system" (NTS) that will integrate management of the various surface transportation modes-automobiles, trucks, rail, public transit, bicycling, pedestrian travel, and so on - into a more coherent fabric.(1) The Department also intends to adopt a new administrative structure that integrates the functions historically performed by the federal Highway Administration, federal Railroad Administration, federal Transit Administration, and certain other subagencies into a new "Intermodal Transportation Administration."(2) At least in principle, both initiatives build on the direction set by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA),(3) which places new emphasis on intermodalism and gives new attention to environmental concerns in transportation planning, investment, and management.(4)

It is important for the nation's economic and environmental well-being that the promise of these initiatives be fulfilled with a blueprint for a sustainable NTS that will provide efficient mobility for present and future generations. The remainder of this Essay details the factual and legal context in which such a system must be considered, a procedural framework for federal transportation managers to follow, and a group of policy strategies for moving the system toward a sustainable course.

II. Economic and Environmental Inefficiency in Our Current

Transportation System

Efficiency is not everything. It is, nonetheless, an excellent starting point for evaluating our current NTS and establishing policies and objectives for improved patterns of travel and an improved Department of Transportation in the twenty-first century. This is particularly so in a climate in which public and private resources are increasingly regarded as scarce in our society. …

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