Volume 52, Number 11
Public Policy Matters:
Focus on Driver Distraction and Transportation Law
Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009
By William J. Horrey
The current U.S. federal surface transportation authorization - the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU, P.L. 109-59) - was set to expire on September 30, 2009. However, Congress enacted a one-month continuing resolution, and various committees are now working to extend the authorization into 2010 or beyond. This authorization and the Surface Transportation Authorization Act (STAA), described below, are critical in determining the nature of federal funding for surface transportation as well as shaping transportation policy.
Looking ahead, it will be in the collective interest of human factors/ ergonomics professionals to monitor how the surface transportation authorization takes shape and how it will affect HF/E research opportunities. Although a comprehensive description of the proposed new authorization goes well beyond the scope of a Bulletin article, it is important to highlight a few points and provide some links to Web sites where more information can be found.
SAFETEA-LU was signed into law on August 10, 2005, with $244.1 billion guaranteed funding for highways, highway safety, and public transportation. The authorization focused on several major challenges facing the transportation system, including improving safety, reducing congestion, protecting the environment, increasing connectivity, and improving freight efficiency. Of particular interest to the human factors/ergonomics community, the Highway Safety Improvement Program was a core program, receiving $5.1 billion in funding from 2006 through 2009. SAFETEA-LU also authorized nearly $2.3 billion for research programs and initiatives, including surface transportation research, training and education, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, university transportation research, intelligent transportation systems (ITS) research, ITS deployment, and transportation technology innovation and demonstration.
SAFETEA-LU was funded largely by the Highway Trust Fund, which, in turn, is funded largely by federal motor fuel taxes (18.3 cents per gallon). Unfortunately, this fund was at risk of a shortfall; it lacked sufficient revenues to meet all commitments and current projections. Consequently, the Senate passed a bill to deposit an additional $7 billion into the Highway Trust Fund to ensure adequate funds until the end of the fiscal year in September 2009.
Although the economic downturn has certainly played a role in the shortfall, in the era of increased fuel economy, reliance on a fuel tax is becoming obsolete. The question that remains unanswered is how best to replace it. This has spurred much debate.
The Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, led by Chairman James L. Oberstar (D-MN) and Ranking Member John L. Mica (R-FL), is developing the next surface transportation authorization, which will shape policy and investment over the next six years. On June 18, the committee released the blueprint for the Surface Transportation Authorization Act (STAA) of 2009.
The STAA builds on the previous authorization and aims to address the growing needs of the nation's surface transportation system, including issues pertaining to maintenance needs, safety costs, congestion, and environmental impacts from transportation. More specifically, it is designed to achieve specific national objectives: Reduce highway fatalities and injuries, reduce congestion in major cities and the freight transportation network, provide transportation alternatives for commuters and travelers, reduce adverse environmental impact, and promote public health and livability of the nation's communities. The STAA calls for an investment of $450 billion over the next six years, plus an additional $50 billion for high-speed rail.
The committee's report identifies 108 distinct and current federal surface transportation programs administered by five different agencies (Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and Federal Railroad Administration). The STAA consolidates or terminates more than 75 programs. In the new authorization, highway safety represents one of the four core categories within highway funding. STAA aims to direct federal highway-safety investments to specific activities that are demonstrated to reduce fatalities and injuries while requiring state and local governments to establish transportation plans with specific performance standards that would be measured annually and periodically adjusted according to specific objectives.
Those interested can find additional information regarding the authorization at the following sites:
William J. Horrey is chair of the Surface Transportation Technical Group. He is a research scientist at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety in Hopkinton, MA.
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