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Aligning Transportation Priorities for an Urban Nation

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Last Friday, President Obama signed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), a long overdue surface transportation bill. After more than 1,000 days since the last bill expired, the passage of this bipartisan infrastructure bill -- which will provide funding for roads, highways, transit, bike paths, and walkways for 27 months -- is a major accomplishment.

The bill succeeds in allocating more money to local governments to make streets safer. Through the Cardin-Cochran provision, grants are available to local communities for ensuring the safety of bikers and pedestrians. Grants will also be made available to fund community-led planning for neighborhoods. This is a step in the right direction of local-led comprehensive planning efforts.

On a macro level, though, the bill does not appropriately align available resources with the needs of constituents. The bill gives the vast majority of funding to highways and roads, modes of transportation that are becoming increasingly antiquated due to demographic shifts -- for the first time since the 1920s, urban growth is outpacing suburban growth. Given that urban dwellers are more likely to use public transit and alternative transportation infrastructure, a strong transportation bill should increase dedicated funding to those modes of transit as more people choose to live in cities.

Yet, the exact opposite happened. Since the last transportation bill, funding for alternative transportation decreased significantly. Bike/ped funding suffered a 33 percent decrease, and states can choose to reallocate much of that funding to roads, decreasing it by an additional 33 percent. Given that 2011 had one of the highest levels of mass transit ridership in decades (10.4 billion trips), and between 2001 and 2009 the average annual vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by Americans ages 16 to 34 fell by close to a quarter while transit ridership, biking, and walking increased, transit should receive a greater share of the funding. In this regard, MAP-21 fails to meet current transportation demands.

Under this type of allocation scheme, cities cannot keep up with the same breadth of transportation that is found in many suburban areas. While transit must compete for funding, highway funding is guaranteed, and the government is further incentivizing driving by offering a $240/month tax cut for parking and only a $125/month tax cut for using public transit. These numbers should be, at minimum, re-equalized (as they were in the Stimulus) to reward urban dwellers as well.

The United States is not a car-dependent country any more. An ever-growing portion of the population now lives in cities and is choosing to live without private automobiles. To create transportation options for this changing demographic, Congress should allocate funding to support public transit, biking, and walking in the same manner it has been supporting driving for decades. The good news is that it is already time to start thinking about the next surface transportation bill. This time, though, America needs a bill for the 21st century that strongly supports alternative transportation and recognizes that urban density is an increasingly important priority for many Americans, young and old.