Skip to Highlights

The nation's economic vitality and the quality of life of its citizens depend significantly on the availability, dependability, and security of its surface transportation network. Our nation has built a vast surface transportation system of roads, railways, ports, and transit systems that facilitate commerce and improve our quality of life. The flow of people and goods is enormous: The nation moved about 5 trillion ton miles of freight and 5 trillion passenger miles of people in 2004. In total, about 4 million miles of roads, 117,000 miles of rail, 600,000 bridges, 19,000 airports, 11,000 miles of transit lines, and 500 train stations make up the surface transportation network. For the past several decades, demand has outpaced the capacity of the surface transportation system, and population growth, technological change, and the increased globalization of the economy will further strain the system. For example, according to the Transportation Research Board, an expected population growth of 100 million people could double the demand for passenger travel. Moreover, this population growth will be concentrated in certain regions and states, intensifying the demand for transportation in these areas. Likewise, freight traffic is projected to grow substantially, putting additional strain on ports, highways, and railroads. Furthermore, as we have recently reported, federal surface transportation programs are not effectively addressing key challenges, such as congestion, or ensuring that transportation dollars are well spent, because federal goals and roles are unclear, many programs lack links to needs or performance, and the programs often do not employ the best tools and approaches. As a result, we and others have called for a fundamental reexamination and refocusing of the nation's surface transportation policies--and we have recommended that Congress consider restructuring these programs so that they (1) have goals with direct links to an identified national interest and role, (2) make grantees more accountable through more performance-based links between funding and program outcomes, (3) use tools and approaches that emphasize the return on federal investment, and (4) address the current imbalance between federal surface transportation revenues and spending. Although reexamining and reshaping surface transportation programs is a challenging endeavor, it provides an opportunity to address both current and emerging needs by eliminating outdated or ineffective programs, more sharply defining the federal role in relation to state and local roles, and modernizing those programs and policies that remain relevant.

Full Report