Old Solutions from a Passing Generation: USDOT’s Proposed Strategic Plan Falls Short

11 0

On Tuesday, August 27th the U.S. Department of Transportation released a draft strategic plan for public comment. The 94-page document lays out how the U.S. Department of Transportation proposes to manage our transportation system for the next five years — guiding the work of some 57,000 federal employees and heavily influencing some $205 billion of annual spending on highways in this country.

The comment period closes September 10. That’s right, two whole weeks — including the 3-day Labor Day weekend — to comment on a profoundly important document that’s been under internal development since early Spring. That’s a scandalously brief period for public comment. (You can read our comments on the draft strategic plan here.)

The bold title of the plan, “Transportation for a New Generation,” suggests some exciting changes and a new direction… and the numbers are certainly there in the plan to back up a decisive new transportation strategy. Consider:

  • 32,367 people were killed in traffic crashes in 2011
  • Driver behavior causes or contributes to 90% of crashes
  • The economic costs of traffic crashes –- in 2000 -– was $230 billion
  • One-third of American’s do not drive
  • The U.S. population is expected to increase from 310 million in 2010 to 335 million in 2018 and 439 million by 2050
  • Traffic congestion creates a $121 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy
  • The average American adult aged 25-54 drives 12,700 miles a year and spends one month in their car each year; and each car costs $7,658 to buy, maintain and operate
  • Cars and trucks are responsible for 83% transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, which are 27% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have increased 21% since 1990 — 60% of that increase is due to transportation.

That all certainly points to the need for a new direction in transportation –- these problems are huge, the costs are staggering, and we’ve got $205 billion annually to spend on highways alone to do something about these problems.

Alas, that’s not what “Transportation for a New Generation” offers. Not at all.

To be fair, there are some hopeful numbers in the plan.

  • Traffic fatalities have declined 25% since 2006 as vehicle miles of travel have declined by 2 percent
  • People living in compact, walkable counties are likely to walk more, weigh less and are less likely to suffer from hypertension than people living in more sprawling counties
  • 11.9% of all trips are made by foot or bike, an increase of 25% since 2001
  • Roughly 40% of all trips in metropolitan areas are two miles or less

So maybe a strategic plan that focuses on reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT), creating more compact, walkable communities, and increasing the share of short trips made by foot or bike might be a good idea for all kinds of reasons? Apparently not.

Instead, USDOT has offered up a frighteningly complacent and vision-less strategic plan for the next five years. There are no real targets or performance measures that challenge the status quo or do anything to address the chronic safety, performance, environmental and equity issues that are so deeply embedded in our “transportation” agencies and their programs.  

Safety is the number one goal of the agency -– “Our top priority is to make the US transportation system the safest in the world” –- and yet no mention is made of how the United States compares to other countries. Spoiler alert: We’re tumbling down the international league table.

There are 18 broad safety strategies over two pages and the word “speed” doesn’t appear once.  The primary USDOT commitment to reducing bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities and injuries is: “Encourage states to adopt policies and programs that improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety.” Seriously, it says that.

The lack of a specific safety target -– “towards zero deaths” for example, or “vision zero” -– is striking. The only performance measure offered uses crashes per hundred million miles of vehicle travel as the metric. For years, the seemingly inexorable rise in vehicle miles traveled masked any real progress in reducing crashes and enables USDOT to say to this day “we have made good progress” in improving traffic safety. Obviously that’s pretty useless for measuring bicyclist safety, and has been completely overshadowed by the fact that if you actually reduce VMT, even a tiny little bit, traffic crashes (and congestion) plummet.

Remember, a 25% decline in traffic crashes matches up almost exactly with a 2% drop in VMT in the past five years. There’s no plan to reduce VMT.

There are frequent references to budget constraints, rising costs, backlogs of investment, etc., etc. And yet in the very same paragraph the document says first that “all levels of government spent a combined $205 billion for highway-related purposes in 2010” and then “estimates of the total investment needed to address the remaining deficiencies in all existing highway and bridge assets ranges from $72.9 billion to $78.3 billion annually through 2030.” My math isn’t that great, but I think I can see a way to fix our highways and bridges, well before 2030.

Economic competitiveness is focused heavily on freight issues and congestion. Yet there is no target to reduce VMT or increase other mode shares; there is no questioning whether the fact that 87% of passenger miles are traveled by cars and light trucks is a good thing or not. There’s a good section of the plan on Livable Communities with all the right language, but there’s no connection made between economic competitiveness or safety and livable communities. The idea of collaborating with housing and environmental protection agencies is excellent, but Federal Highways, Federal Transit, and NHTSA need to be working with a singular purpose as well!

Health and physical activity is almost totally absent as an issue, which seems shocking in this day and age. Equity is mentioned in passing. The whole document seems intent on preserving a status quo that isn’t delivering for current generations, let alone new or future generations of Americans.

I hear you ask: “Does a document like this really matter?”  Well, yes. This strategic plan guides the annual workplans of each of the modal administrations in USDOT. In turn, these generate the metrics, milestones and performance measures by which 57,000 employees are ultimately graded each year. Which is why, even with a window of just a few days, it’s important to get some comments in on this draft strategic plan.

There are two ways to make comments, one is to participate in the online dialogue . There are already some suggestions on the site recommending a performance goal — toward zero death, Complete Streets, and more emphasis on non-motorized travel. You can either support those or write your own. 

We also recommend submitting a letter with more detailed suggestions and directly respond to the plan — you can read our comment letter here.  This is important as the online dialogue does not lend itself to suggesting specific changes to the plan, or numerical or measurable goals. You can use the League’s comments to the plan as a guide when writing your comment. (Submit comments to USDOTStrategicPlan@dot.gov )

Please take a moment to register a comment or two –- and remember, as FHWA likes to say: Every day counts. Really, we’ve only got til Septembe10 to get those comments in.