Where does transportation planning come from, and who is to blame?

Whether walking, driving, or taking a bus from the ferry, you have probably wondered, at one time or another: where does it all come from? Why does road construction happen when and where it does? Why does everything seem broken and yet in perpetual state of repair? Who are these people who decide when to close a lane on an already congested street and dig something out for months at a time?

The news media may choose to blame particular individuals for everything from too-slow pothole repair to congestion pricing schemes. But we do live in a democracy – imperfect as it is – which means that where transportation money comes from and where it goes is set through laws voted upon by our elected representatives. Much of the magic happens in Congress. Due to the history of the federal highway program and the gas tax, the multi-year federal transportation bill sets the stage for how our tax money is spent when it comes to everything from highways to bike lanes.

The latest such bill is called MAP-21. It arose after numerous extensions of the previous bill, SAFETEA-LU. It is shorter than a typical bill (it lasts through September 2014, while earlier bills would span 5-6 years), but otherwise it is remarkable only in its conservatism – the attempt to keep most money dedicated towards building new roads and highways, rather than to realign funding with the greater need for transit, walking, and biking.

Nevertheless, anybody concerned with congestion and pollution on our roads or interested in healthier transportation options can speak out and pressure public officials to use our money wisely. Streetsblog Capitol Hill says as much when describing the Transportation for America guide to the new law:

Go to those public comment sessions. Participate in citizen review meetings. Check the DOT or MPO website for plans. If you were used to waiting until the environmental review process for input, you might be too late: changes in MAP-21 accelerated that process such that your chance to weigh in could slip away before you know it.

Without understanding and participating in the planning processes that exist within our government (and, one day, changing them) we have little leverage over issues like transportation policy.

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