Under one roof

Every year or so a report hits the news that our infrastructure is crumbling, that our bridges and roads are slowing us down, that transport systems in foreign countries are more interconnected than ours.

How did we come to this sad state of affairs?

We believe, counterintuitively, that the problem might have started in 1956, when President Eisenhower put his signature on legislation creating the Highway Trust Fund, the financing vehicle for the Interstate Highway System that bears his name.

Fed by the federal tax on gasoline and a few other taxes, the fund became the nation's single biggest stash for infrastructure spending, and it eventually spooled out over 47,000 miles of highways.

Unfortunately, it's broke.

Congress is keeping it going by transferring money from the general treasury, and will likely have to do it again before the end of the fiscal year.

Amtrak President Joe Boardman recently pronounced the trust fund "dead," saying it reflects "an outmoded vision" because it locks transportation planners into "chasing mode-restricted dollars" rather than taking a broad perspective on transport.

Of course, Boardman runs a cash-starved railroad that might benefit from a different approach, but he has a point. The mode-specific trust fund concept was a great way to funnel money into highways in the 1950s, but in the 21st century it funnels money -- and thought -- into compartments, and there is no "intermodal" silo.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx admitted as much in a recent speech, saying "the way we think about transportation is fractured. Highway people like highways, transit people like transit, rail people like rail. ... But our transportation system should be greater than the sum of its parts."

Of course it should. In fact, that's one reason why we created the Department of Transportation in 1966, to coordinate federal transport activities under one roof. As President Johnson said at the time, "America today lacks a coordinated transportation system."

Isn't that what Secretary Foxx just said?

Over the years, several DOT secretaries have flirted with the idea of consolidating the administration of all surface transportation modes, to energize more intermodal thinking, but none of them managed to do it.

Let's hope Mr. Foxx can make better headway.
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