Study: ISTEA is ‘Going Down the Wrong Road’

Published December 1, 1997

A bill renewing the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) “is the biggest pork barrel in the 105th Congress,” according to the author of a new study published by the Washington-based Cato Institute. Randal O’Toole contends that, except for a few provisions allowing more toll roads and experiments with congestion pricing, the ISTEA bill pending in Congress “sticks with the same old command-and-control, central planning process that has caused most transportation problems in the first place.”

O’Toole notes that with the decline in discretionary spending in other parts of the Federal budget, members of Congress have swarmed to the committee that spends money from the Highway Trust Fund. “The demand for seats at the table when the [spending] decisions are made has been so great that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, with 73 members, has become by far the largest committee in Congress. At 50 members, the House Subcommittee on Surface Transportation may be one of the largest subcommittees in Congressional history.”

ISTEA and the bills to reauthorize it “especially promote mass transit such as light rail and subways,” O’Toole notes. “But those systems carry only a fraction of commuters and cost from 10 to 100 times more per mile to build than do roads.”

“ISTEA: A Poisonous Brew for American Cities” offers a detailed critique of the ISTEA reauthorization bill expected to become law some time next year. The study also reviews the impact of mass transit on air pollution and counters popular myths about the value of mass transit. For example, the report notes that a Transportation Department/EPA study using data from San Diego and Los Angeles found that “huge investments in both rail and bus transit systems are likely to reduce CO pollution by less than 1 percent.”

O’Toole further notes that supporters of mass transit, the so-called New Urbanists, actually favor increased congestion on roads, seeing congestion as a way to get people out of their cars and force them to live in central cities rather than suburbs. “But increased congestion will not result in significant shifts by commuters to transit; it will only result in millions of wasted hours and increased levels of air pollution as commuters sit in gridlocked traffic,” O’Toole writes.

Given a clear choice, the study says, few Americans would be willing to give up their cars and the lifestyles they make possible. Yet an extreme anti-auto view has become the dominant paradigm behind ISTEA. The “supporters of immobility have stolen the terms of the debate,” writes O’Toole, “by claiming to want to reduce congestion and pollution whereas, in fact, they want to increase congestion and, in effect, pollution.”

O’Toole warns that ISTEA mandates a comprehensive central planning process for transportation that has been captured by the New Urbanists in many cities. The bill gives cities substantial incentives to build rail lines and other expensive but practically useless transportation projects, and also creates perverse incentives for cities to increase congestion, making them less likely to meet Federal air quality standards. Moreover, the bill offers billions of Federal dollars for mass transit, roads, and other projects that satisfy political agendas rather than local transportation needs.

“Transportation policy is best left with state and local authorities as well as with the private sector,” O’Toole writes. “Congress thus could make travel more efficient by getting out of the transportation business and repealing the Federal gasoline tax that pays for Federal pork.”