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Public Roads - Winter 1997

Architects of Change: Creating America's 21st Century Intermodal Transportation System

by Rodney E. Slater

isteaFrom the start, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) was called the bill that would launch the post-interstate era of America's surface transportation system. It was widely praised as a "landmark" and a "turning point" in the history of surface transportation.

Many bills fail to live up to the promises made on the day they are signed into law. But in the case of ISTEA, the success that has resulted from the dedicated efforts of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and all of our partners throughout the past six years shows us that the praise was justified. Because of all of our hard work, ISTEA has truly proven to be a landmark and a turning point in surface transportation history and a detailed transportation blueprint to guide America toward the 21st century.

ISTEA set lofty goals, beginning with:

It is the policy of the United States 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 intermodal transportation system would, ISTEA declared, "consist of all forms of transportation in a unified, interconnected (network)."

To attain its goals, ISTEA's authorizing provisions began the process of breaking down the walls that had separated the modes in legislation, in philosophy, and in practice for so many years. There can be no such thing as a "highway bill" in the post-interstate era of ISTEA. As President Clinton has said, "transportation infrastructure should be viewed as a single system with each mode complementing the others."

In one sense, ISTEA is about the programs it created and the programs it enhanced. It authorized, for example, the National Highway System (NHS). NHS, the first major post-interstate highway program, is about more than highways. It will provide the vital links in an intermodal transportation web that spans the nation and reaches out to marketplaces around the world. Enhanced programs include the Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program and the Federal Lands Highway Program. ISTEA also took major steps to advance the public-private initiative creating intelligent transportation systems (ITS), a concept that is already in place in some areas but will be as common in the 21st century as traffic lights are in the 20th.

In another sense, ISTEA is about choice. Consistent with the heart of the federal-aid highway program since 1916, ISTEA ensured that state and local officials are responsible for project selection. Further, ISTEA strengthened the transportation planning process, leveled the playing field for highway and transit programs, and provided for consideration of intermodal transportation needs. State and local officials today have unprecedented authority for deciding the mix of projects -- highways, transit, or alternatives such as bicycling and walking -- to address each area's unique needs.

But beyond the concrete, the asphalt, and the steel of the thousands of transportation projects funded each year, ISTEA is truly about people and about making their lives better. It opened the transportation planning process to more public involvement than ever before. It focuses our efforts on making our intermodal network more efficient so people will have fewer obstructions to their freedom of travel, whether for business or pleasure. In addition, ISTEA called for greater consideration of designs that protect scenic and historic resources, created the National Scenic Byways Program, and provided for transportation enhancements that help blend our transportation network into the communities and the environments through which it passes.

Make no mistake about it; ISTEA rocked the boat! And making ISTEA work has been a challenge that faced not only the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration, but also state and local officials as well as the broader transportation community. ISTEA realigned the balance of authority and responsibility among the three levels of government and brought new players to the table when funding decisions were being made. Inevitably, as the old order gave way, new relationships had to be established, sometimes with the new partners eyeing each other warily.

Had ISTEA been up for reauthorization after only one or two years, it might not have survived. We see, however, that over six years, the sincere attempts by all parties to work within the ISTEA framework strengthened old partnerships, created new ones, and brought them all together in a way that has energized the transportation community.

Part way through the final year of ISTEA, now is a good time not only to assess what our nation has accomplished under ISTEA but also to look ahead to the reauthorization issues that will be a major topic of debate in Congress in 1997. This special section of Public Roads includes an article that describes some of the ISTEA success stories -- but only a few. We could fill this magazine with such stories from across the land, everything from the opening of the Ted Williams Tunnel in Boston to designation of the Selma-to-Montgomery Highway (U.S. 80) as an All-American Road under the National Scenic Byways Program.

These success stories are examples of why so many state and local officials and a diverse range of organizations have agreed with us that in 1997, we must use ISTEA as the foundation for a new reauthorization bill. "The Road to Reauthorization" discusses the steps leading up to the Department of Transportation's reauthorization proposals and many of the issues that will be most challenging during the debates in Congress next year.

I am also pleased that this section includes two articles about the technology that is so important to building a 21st century intermodal transportation system. Transportation throughout the ages has depended on applied innovation -- be it the steamship, the railroad, the automobile, the airplane, or, today, ITS. Each has shortened distances, made travel easier and safer, and enhanced the mobility of what is now the most mobile country in history. Looking to a future in which efficient operation, rather than network expansion, will be the watchword, we must continue to harness technology to create a better transportation network. "Closing the Technology Gap" explains why the research and development aspect of ISTEA reauthorization is so important.

The final article in this series, "Moving Forward Smartly," is about one of those innovations -- ITS. Where past transportation innovations were mechanical, the next innovations will be electronic. ITS has already demonstrated its feasibility in applications around the country. And that is just the beginning as ITS reaches out to more communities under Secretary of Transportation Federico Peña's Operation TimeSaver and to new safety, motor carrier, navigation, and operational uses. But the truth is that today, we probably cannot foresee all its uses and benefits. Like the inventors of the computer, who saw it mainly as a way of making rapid mathematical calculations, we are seeing only the first stages of the intelligent infrastructure revolution advanced by ISTEA. Reauthorization can launch the revolution.

If the history of ISTEA is any judge, 1997 will be a year of debate among conflicting philosophies, of controversies over shares of the funding pie, of fighting for additional authority within the transportation planning process, and of emotional ups and downs as the debate swings first one way, then the other. For FHWA, it will be a year of long nights, of continuous "number crunching," and of seeking common ground amidst the fury.

But the intensity of the debate will reflect, as it did in 1991, a central premise that all agree on: transportation is the core of our society. We must emerge from reauthorization with a nation strengthened by the promise of a 21st century transportation network that is second to none and that will support economic growth, enhance our international competitiveness, and increase the mobility and freedom of our people.

In short, 1997 will be a time of battling for constructive change. And change, not to mention fighting for it, can be difficult, perplexing, and frustrating. However, as John A. Volpe, a former federal highway administrator (1956-1957) and former secretary of transportation (1969-1973), once said, "I submit that as we live in times of change, we must be the architects of that change, or we will most certainly be its victims."

Those who faced the challenge of change in 1991 succeeded in creating ISTEA, the first step in adapting our post-interstate 20th century transportation network to the demands of the 21st century. Now, in 1997, we again face that challenge. I believe the administration, Congress, and the transportation community are prepared, once again, to be architects of change.

Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater.
red line for spacing.

Rodney E. Slater is Secretary of Transportation and the previous federal highway administrator. He was sworn in as FHWA chief on June 16, 1993. He was formerly the chairman of the Arkansas State Highway Commission and a member of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' Executive Committee of Commissions and Boards. Earlier, he served as assistant attorney general for Arkansas, and he was a key member of then-Governor Clinton's staff, serving as executive assistant for economic and community programs. He graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law.