Legacy of A Landmark: ISTEA After 10 Years
When the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) was signed into law, it was hailed as a turning point in the history of surface transportation in America. ISTEA was envisioned as landmark legislation that would launch America into the post-interstate era.
Ten years later, has the act with the catchy moniker lived up to its lofty promise?
"ISTEA was indeed a revolutionary act and changed many, many aspects of the highway program and the transportation community," said Thomas Sorel, team leader in the Office of Legislation and Strategic Planning for FHWA. "It has certainly lived up to its reputation."
One of ISTEA's chief goals was to develop a "National Intermodal Transportation System that is economically efficient and environmentally sound, provides the foundation for the nation to compete in the global economy, and will move people and goods in an energy-efficient manner."
This was brand new. Instead of focusing on just highway transportation, ISTEA emphasized intermodalism - the seamless linking of highway, rail, air, and marine transportation. The act included many provisions designed to chip away barriers that had separated modes of transportation in legislation and practice for many years.
"ISTEA brought a multimodal thought process to the forefront," said Sorel. "No longer could plans and programs focus only on one modal option. The intermodal mindset prompted by ISTEA is prevalent today in most transportation agencies."
ISTEA precipitated thousands of changes designed to help fulfill the law's goals - several of them significant enough to be considered a sea change in the way business is conducted in the transportation sector. "Flexibility," "innovation," "involvement," and "collaboration" became the new buzzwords for transportation planning and development.
The $155 billion act, which authorized federal highway funding for fiscal years 1992 through 1997, transformed the relationship between the federal government and states and localities in terms of funding transportation projects. It restructured the Federal-Aid Highway Program, the vehicle through which states and localities obtain funding for projects.
At the same time, ISTEA gave state and local governments greater flexibility in determining transportation solutions. ISTEA made money available for new kinds of programs, including projects that mitigate traffic congestion, increase safety, and contribute to the attainment of air quality standards. It also opened the transportation planning process to more public involvement than ever before, bringing new players to the table when decisions were being made and increasing collaboration among old players.
ISTEA's successor, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) built on the key provisions of its predecessor and increased funding for highways, highway safety, and transit for fiscal years 1998 through 2003 to $218 billion.
New Focus for Programs
Prior to ISTEA, the Federal-Aid Highway Program had been directed primarily toward the construction and improvement of four federal-aid systems - Interstate, primary, secondary, and urban. ISTEA changed that to two - a new National Highway System and the Interstate Highway System.
"ISTEA called for a national reclassification of our highways and a focus on functional classification for eligibility of Federal-Aid Highway Program activities. This was a sorely needed effort in our transportation systems and simplified the complexity and confusion over functional class and programs that existed prior to ISTEA," said Sorel.
The National Highway System (NHS) was established to focus federal resources on the most important roads in the United States. Its 260,000 kilometers (160,955 miles) include the Interstate Highway System, as well as other roads vital to the nation's economy, defense, and mobility. Although it represents just 4 percent of America's 6.4 million kilometers (4 million miles) of public roads, NHS carries more than 40 percent of the nation's highway traffic.
With the Interstate Highway System essentially completed after nearly four decades of construction, ISTEA shifted emphasis to maintenance rather than wholesale expansion of the highway network. Among other things, it established an Interstate Maintenance Program for resurfacing, restoring, and rehabilitating the Interstate Highway System.
Directing federal dollars to maintenance was a change in direction, according to Richard Osborne, transportation specialist in FHWA's Office of Legislation and Strategic Planning.
"We're not talking about routine maintenance, such as snowplowing and grass-cutting," he said. "We're talking about preventive maintenance - those activities that can dramatically extend the life of a roadway." That includes such activities as topping a cracked road surface with a seal coat before it deteriorates further, lengthening the time until more extensive and expensive repairs are needed.
"Before ISTEA, funding for maintenance was an anathema," Osborne said.
More Flexibility for States
ISTEA also created the Surface Transportation Program (STP), which brought a new level of flexibility to the funding process. STP dollars can be used for a broad range of highway and transit projects, including federal-aid highways, bridges on public roads, transit capital projects, car-pooling projects, safety improvements, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and transportation control measures.
Although STP did not become the block grant-type program originally envisioned, it did open up new categories of projects on which federal dollars could be spent and gave states more leeway in determining where to direct those funds. Under past funding acts, highway funds were strictly for highways and transit funds were for transit. STP changed that.
"Federal highway funds can now be applied to transit projects, such as buying buses and building intermodal centers," said Osborne. "Financing was changed to support the intermodal concept of eligibility for project funding. States now have a lot more flexibility in deciding how to use funds."
Another ISTEA innovation was the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ). CMAQ is designed to direct federal funds to transportation projects that help state and local governments improve air quality, a switch from the traditional federal transportation funding goals of mobility and safety. It is central to ISTEA's effort to refocus the transportation planning process toward intermodalism.
CMAQ funds are available for projects ranging from more traditional efforts in traffic flow and transit improvements to projects focusing on the conversion to cleaner fuels for public fleets. Program funds have been used to establish ride-share services, promote employer trip-reduction programs, and support bicycle and pedestrian travel - all with the goal of improving air quality and reducing traffic congestion.
At first, CMAQ funds were available only for projects in areas that failed to meet national air quality standards set by the Clean Air Act. Later, the law was changed so that areas in compliance for air quality standards could use CMAQ funds to stay that way.
"There had been some controversy before the change because if you instituted projects and your area came into compliance, you couldn't get funding anymore," Osborne said.
ISTEA also funded a variety of special programs that states could tap into to accomplish such transportation-related goals as increasing use of safety belts and motorcycle helmets, developing state scenic byways and recreational trails programs, and conducting research and development to resolve highway problems.
"Bottom line, ISTEA meant more money for states and a huge change in programs and program eligibilities," said Osborne.
While ISTEA gave states more flexibility in deciding how to use federal transportation funds, its successor, TEA-21, offered them a new planning tool: guaranteed funding. For the first time, spending for highways, highway safety, and transit was protected by "firewalls" that kept it from being reduced to increase spending for other discretionary budget programs. This put highway spending in a category with defense and violent crime reduction, which also have firewall protection.
In a major change to federal budget rules, highway and transit programs are now guaranteed a minimum level of spending. Before TEA-21, funding for surface transportation programs was one item among many on a list of priorities for federal program spending in the budget.
Now, guaranteed amounts for highway spending are linked to actual Highway Trust Fund receipts and can be used only to support projects eligible under federal highway and highway safety programs.
That means a state's obligation limitation - the ceiling on the amount of federal assistance that a state may obligate for transportation projects during a fiscal year - is essentially guaranteed.
Although it has not happened, the possibility exists that Highway Trust Fund tax receipts could drop far enough below projected levels to reduce the amount of funding available to states.
"There's always an exception to the rule," said Osborne. But guaranteed funding provides a mechanism that allows states to plan complex transportation programs in advance and have a reasonable expectation of having the funds to pay for them.
"Guaranteed funding provides predictability. States not only know how much funding they will receive through authorizations, they know how much they can actually spend in a given fiscal year," said Osborne. "This is a dramatic change. It's a whole new way of operating for states that makes it easier for them to plan and develop transportation programs."
ISTEA heralded a new philosophy in designing and planning transportation programs - public involvement.
"Highway development had some element of public participation prior to ISTEA, but not to the extent that ISTEA required," said Sorel.
Transportation stakeholders, ranging from the freight community to environmental groups to bicyclist and pedestrian interests, saw the increased array of ISTEA's funding opportunities and wanted to participate in the planning process. As a result, many states revamped their planning and program development processes to accommodate the new demand for stakeholder involvement.
"The processes became more open and responsive to the needs of the myriad of transportation stakeholders, including the general public," said Sorel. And the shifts in the planning and program development processes formed the basis for shifts in other functional areas. "Some states began including public participation in the design process and the environmental process," he said. "It was the new spirit of things."
The Transportation Enhancement Program, part of STP, is one ISTEA program that embodies the spirit of public participation. The program opens up the Federal-Aid Highway Program to new types of activities, such as construction of pedestrian and bicycle facilities, acquisition of scenic and historic sites, rehabilitation of historic transportation facilities, archeological planning and research, control and removal of outdoor advertising, and mitigation of water quality effects from roadway runoffs.
Although not a big-dollar item compared to other ISTEA programs, the Transportation Enhancement Program has had a major impact because of its visibility, according to Sorel. It has attracted considerable interest from many state and local officials because it resonates with constituents.
"The program provided an unprecedented level of access to transportation funding for many groups and members of the general public. Thus, high-level officials had a newly found interest in the transportation concerns of their constituents," he said. "It has turned out to be one of the most competitive programs in ISTEA. States typically have more applicants for programs than they can fund."
In addition to increasing public participation, ISTEA also prompted an unparalleled level of collaboration in the transportation community.
"New players became involved with programs such as transportation enhancements, recreational trails, and CMAQ," Sorel said. "These new players were often very passionate about their interests and demanded to be heard. Thus, a new balance of power in the community was born."
Increased collaboration is a key part of the new intermodal mindset.
"Before ISTEA, highway options were always the first consideration. Any other options, such as transit, were secondary," Sorel said. "ISTEA gave all options equal standing in the decision-making process." The trend toward collaboration has not happened overnight. "Some states are still struggling with this," he said. "Some are better than others."
ISTEA drove organizational restructuring in many transportation agencies because of the new emphasis on intermodalism and public participation and the raft of program changes.
"Many state highway departments weren't set up to administer the new programs," he said. "They actually created new teams to address such things as transportation enhancements, CMAQ, and bike/pedestrian projects."
Not only did ISTEA influence organizational change, it had an effect on many activities beyond the purview of federal oversight.
"Many organizations redefined their entire statewide and metropolitan planning and program development processes to be consistent with ISTEA philosophies," Sorel said.
Originally, ISTEA called for states to establish management systems to set priorities for transportation projects in six areas - highway pavement, bridges, highway safety, traffic congestion, public transportation facilities and equipment, and intermodal transportation facilities and systems. Management systems are designed to help states address transportation needs from a technical standpoint so that decisions are not purely politically driven.
Before ISTEA, many states had in place some management system elements, such as those to manage highway pavement and bridge programs, but for other states, it was a new way of operating. Although ISTEA's requirement for states to create management systems was later modified, it has had a long-term influence on many state highway departments, according to Sorel.
"While this was very controversial because it was perceived as an unfunded mandate, it did prompt a serious discussion about the importance of management systems in the transportation community," he said. "While many states dropped some of the mandated systems, many have survived and proved to be extremely valuable. In many cases, this would not have occurred if the ISTEA management systems provisions didn't exist."
Continuing ISTEA's Legacy
When Congress was considering ISTEA a decade ago, it was asking the basic question, "What is the federal government's role in surface transportation now that the Interstate Highway System is essentially complete?" Congress' answer was a far-reaching act that, as we can see 10 years later, left a legacy in the way federal highway programs are structured, planned, developed, and financed.
ISTEA has broadened federal efforts from a focus on highway transportation to an intermodal mindset. It made wholesale changes to programs, eliminating the Primary, Secondary, and Urban programs and creating NHS and STP as well as a dozen other programs. It has redefined programs eligible for federal funding to include new kinds of transportation-related activities, such as those that contribute to cleaner air and provide facilities for bicyclists and car-poolers.
Also, ISTEA has given states increased flexibility in determining how to spend federal dollars. ISTEA has transformed the transportation planning and development process, giving new stakeholders a stronger voice and increasing opportunities for collaboration among those in the transportation community.
TEA-21 continued the major features of ISTEA, but it is not merely an extension of ISTEA with more funding. It represents an enormous change as did ISTEA but in a different direction. TEA-21 is a budgetary bill that changed the way the Federal-Aid Highway Program exists within the budget of the United States. It focuses on equity - hence, its name - creating the Minimum Guarantee and Revenue Aligned Budget Authority programs and providing guaranteed funding as well.
Work is underway at FHWA on the next round of reauthorization for federal highway programs, slated for 2003. The upcoming round is expected to build on the legacy of ISTEA and TEA-21.
"There's a lot of sentiment to continue along this path," said Sorel. "People are fairly happy with the way it has worked out."
Ellen Schweppe is the president of Ellen Schweppe Co., an editorial and public relations services corporation. She writes occasionally for Public Roads.