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OPINION

A new vision for transportation

The proposed federal COVID-relief package provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest strategically in a more sustainable and equitable transportation future.

The Southeast Expressway in Boston.
The Southeast Expressway in Boston.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Predictions of a post-coronavirus pandemic future, where telecommuting will largely replace the office, call to mind a different time, when many questioned the future of cities. In the mid-20th century, with the massive post-war diaspora to suburbia, few of the outcomes of more automobility (traffic congestion, carbon emissions, particulate matter emissions, poor land-use choices, exacerbated spatial disparities based on income and race) were anticipated or given much thought. Certainly, none stood in the way of the rise of the interstate system and the spatial and racial impacts of that massive government-funded intervention.

Today, what may appear as a good idea — as telecommuting is embraced by employers looking to reduce overhead costs and by employees, largely white and wealthier, who are privileged to work from home — can quickly become our generation’s version of the mistakes of the mid-20th century. Permanent telecommuting will exacerbate spatial and racial disparities that the interstate system facilitated in the last century, creating a more separate society between those privileged to work from home and all others.

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Will history repeat itself? The answer lies not in guesswork but in action, in the deliberate enactment of policies that respond to the pandemic in ways that improve people’s lives.

Reauthorization of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act as well as the Biden administration’s proposal to make historic investments in national infrastructure combine to create a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest strategically in a transportation future that responds to the post-COVID 19 moment in ways that pave a strong pathway to a more sustainable and equitable future. To be fully effective, the president’s American Jobs Plan must be supported by specific reforms to the FAST Act that can advance the policies underlying this groundbreaking infrastructure initiative:

▪ Provide ongoing federal funding support for maintenance and operating costs. The three COVID-19 relief bills have included operation and maintenance funding for roadway and transit agencies to keep agencies running and to avoid worsening of deferred maintenance. Recognizing that maintenance and operating costs have been systematically underfunded for decades, in part because of limited federal funding of these activities, reauthorization should make increased federal support for operation and maintenance funding for roads and bridges, transit systems, and services for the elderly and those with disabilities a permanent component of the program.

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As former state transportation secretaries, we have seen the unintended and perverse incentive of the current law, which encourages many roadway and transit officials to underfund maintenance as something that can eventually be remedied with federal capital dollars, a moral hazard strategy that may help them avoid the political pain of raising net new revenue at the state level but inevitably leads to failing infrastructure that can only be remedied by more expensive projects funded by federal capital funding. Providing federal support for increasing operating and maintenance expenditures can put an end to these wasteful practices and create more jobs in the relatively short term.

Permanent increased federal operating subsidy for transit will also break the unsustainable heavy reliance on fare revenue as a driver of policy, enabling transit agencies to use lower fares, higher frequencies, and less crowding (as a result of increased capacity) as elements of a post-pandemic transit transformation.

▪ Reinstitute a “cost to complete” approach. Cost to complete goes back to the early days of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway Act of 1956. At a time when there was no historic basis to estimate costs, this approach committed the federal government to pay 90 percent of the cost to build the interstate system to full standards, whatever the cost turned out to be. What that meant in practical terms was a strong, ongoing federal funding commitment that enabled projects to advance without concerns about future funding availability or changing political winds.

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This approach did not give states complete blank checks, because the Federal Highway Administration’s biennial review of a state’s cost estimates provided what amounted to an “owners’ rep” function to oversee any cost increases in real time. It established a stability and certainty for projects at realistic and verified scales of scope and cost. It’s a proven way to ensure the kind of transformative investments that are necessary to support a more sustainable and connected national transportation system, but whose costs are difficult to estimate in advance until some basic engineering has been done. This monitoring function should be overseen by the Commerce Department’s Office of the Secretary.

▪ Treat transit on a level playing field with highways and bridges. Shifting federal program and funding focus toward sustainable modes such as transit and rail is essential to advance decarbonization and public health. This can be achieved by expanding and fully funding transit and intercity rail investments at new statutory 80 percent levels, rather than the de facto 50 percent funding practice of the recent past, and expediting and reducing the “one size fits all” notion embedded in the Federal Transit Administration’s cost-effectiveness process, which unfairly evaluates transit projects from different cities as if they are in competition with each other.

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Recovery of urban areas across the country, regardless of size, depends in part on improving sustainable mobility networks in ways that support small business and small city recovery and growth. A federal infrastructure initiative that becomes more of the same won’t effectively respond to the urgent need to build back better, which means providing states and cities with the funding and programmatic support they need to provide the essential transportation services that make our economy work equitably.

Frederick Salvucci and James Aloisi are former Massachusetts secretaries of transportation. They both lecture at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.