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United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Winter 1997

The Road to Reauthorization: Building on The Success of Istea

by Cheryl Hoffman and Lawrence Paulson


isteaThe Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is on the road -- both literally and figuratively -- to develop a legislative proposal that will lead to the reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA).

Because of the overarching importance of ISTEA to the mission of FHWA, it should come as no surprise that preparing for the 1997 reauthorization of the act is a major priority at the agency. Like any other complex and comprehensive law, ISTEA has had its share of imperfections, but officials are convinced that overall, ISTEA has been a resounding success. As Secretary of Transportation Federico Peña told the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee in September 1996, "This legislation is working."

On the Road Again

That ISTEA has been a success is a conclusion based on solid evidence. Some of that evidence has been gathered through the most extensive outreach program in the history of FHWA.

An example of outreach is the program of road tours initiated by Federal Highway Administrator Rodney E. Slater in 1994. Inspired by the challenge specified in ISTEA to designate a National Highway System, Slater set out to travel throughout the country to meet with people who use, build, maintain, and manage the nation's surface transportation system. The goal of the road tours was twofold: to deliver the message that roads are about people -- not just asphalt and concrete -- and to bring back to Washington, D.C., real stories about our transportation system and its success in meeting people's needs and enhancing the quality of their lives. Deputy Administrator Jane Garvey has also made a number of road tours, including one through Oklahoma where she paid tribute to the victims of the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Executive Director Tony Kane, other members of FHWA's senior staff, and FHWA's nine regional administrators and 52 division administrators have also participated in road tours.

Slater's first tour in April 1994 began at the U.S.-Canadian border near Buffalo, N.Y., and ended in Laredo, Texas. In subsequent tours, he covered New England; the South; the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area; and California.

In June 1996 -- the 40th anniversary of the legislation establishing the Interstate Highway System -- Slater traveled from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., on a tour to note the accomplishments of the system and to rededicate FHWA to maintaining and improving the system. Another purpose of the trip was to pay homage to former President Eisenhower and his efforts to ensure a national system of superhighways. Eisenhower's interest in good highways sprang from his participation in 1919 in the U.S. Army's first transcontinental motor convoy, which took 62 days to travel from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.

Along the way of the 5000-kilometer trip, which generally retraced -- in reverse order -- the 1919 convoy, Slater spoke to the Western Governors Association and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Other highlights of the trip included:

  • In Sacramento, Calif., Slater addressed the state legislature and accepted an assembly resolution commemorating the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the Interstate Highway System.
  • In Nevada, he talked with city and county officials in Winnemucca, then stopped for an afternoon break with officials in Elko.
  • In Colorado, he traveled Interstate 70 through the spectacular Glenwood Canyon and visited the control room at Hanging Lake Tunnels.
  • In Kansas, he met with the president of the Haskell Indian Nations University to discuss the proposed Lawrence Trafficway.
  • In Missouri, he attended a celebration for the funding of a four-lane replacement for the two-lane Hannibal Bridge, built in 1934.
  • In Ohio, the tour was joined by two representatives of the Hard-Hatted Women, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting women entering nontraditional jobs, and Slater heard about initiatives under way in Ohio to get better representation of women in highway construction.

Back in Washington, D.C., in a speech to the National Press Club, Slater said a concern he heard wherever he went on the road tour "was whether, in light of the budget squeeze taking place at every level of government -- federal, state, and local -- we would be able to continue the level of transportation investment needed to sustain the national economy and keep us competitive."

But, as difficult as the budget challenges are, "perhaps the greatest challenge we face in working for America's transportation future is restoring and sustaining faith in government itself -- in our capacity to share great visions and achieve common goals," Slater said. As the nation completes the last few miles of interstate highways, some people want to declare, "It's done. We can rest on our laurels."

"But I can tell you from my trip across the nation that it is not so," Slater said. "That's not what I heard from a gold miner in Nevada, who recognizes that transportation is his country's lifeblood. That's not what I heard from Sam Caudill in Glenwood Canyon, who recognizes that transportation can coexist with -- and complement -- our environment. And that's not what I heard from a truck driver in Effingham, Ill., who knows how vital our nation's highways are to the movement of goods across our land."

On the cross-country road tour, Secretary Slater collects feedback from the highway users -- the real people.

Slater said these ordinary citizens, along with the governors and mayors he met on his trip, "are looking at this nation's transportation needs in the 21st century -- and their bags are packed for the future." He said FHWA is helping to forge a vision for that future "crafted by listening to the American people."

Although they were not originally designed to be part of the ISTEA reauthorization effort, the road tours certainly took on this focus. Tour participants worked to identify best practices and determine how ISTEA's successor could better serve people and communities. Most of all, their job was to listen to the people they met along the way.

Finding the Right Focus

Listening has taken other forms as well. Focus groups -- small, informal discussion groups led by a facilitator -- are considered an efficient and reliable method of gathering detailed opinions on particular topics. FHWA, along with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), held more than 90 focus groups during the spring and summer of 1996 to help assess which aspects of ISTEA should be retained in reauthorization legislation and which should be changed in the new bill. Topics included national defense and security, the transportation planning process, motor carrier safety, the Surface Transportation Program, environment and design, innovative finance, the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, federal land highways, intelligent transportation systems, civil rights, the National Highway System, freight transportation, and research and technology.

The sessions were intended not as forums to resolve issues or draft legislation but as venues for practical discussions of particularly difficult or complex issues. Discussions were framed by three issues: what's working, what's not working, and what should be included in succedent legislation to ISTEA. Each of the half-day sessions included 10 to 12 participants who had technical knowledge of the session's topic area. University professors, association members, industry partners, representatives of metropolitan planning organizations, state and local government officials, and members of citizen activist and environmental organizations were among those who participated in the groups, which were held throughout the country.

Another outreach initiative held in 1996 was the first-ever nationwide FHWA open house, held to celebrate the signing of the National Highway System Designation Act. On Jan. 23, more than 3,000 visitors were welcomed to about 60 FHWA offices throughout the country. Many offices staged seminars and slide presentations on a variety of subjects. One region had more than 600 visitors, while an FHWA division brought its celebration to a local road builders' convention and met more than 300 conventioneers. A highlight of the day was a nationwide teleconference with Deputy Transportation Secretary Mort Downey and Administrator Slater.

FHWA also participated in U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regional forums in Philadelphia (on urban needs), Chicago (intermodal freight), New York (intercity passenger rail), Vienna, Va. (safety), San Diego (innovative finance), Portland, Ore. (environment), New Orleans (needs of special communities), Huntington, W.V. (economic development), Missoula, Mont. (rural needs), Minneapolis (intelligent transportation systems), Providence (livable communities), St. Louis (planning process), and Miami (global economy). Like the focus groups, the regional meetings were designed to give DOT the opportunity to hear assessments of ISTEA and ideas about its succedent bill. Congressional leaders, state and local officials, businesses, and labor and citizens' groups participated in the forums.

National Challenges

President George Bush signed ISTEA into law on Dec. 18, 1991. The act was immediately recognized as a significant step forward in the effort to address the nation's transportation problems in a comprehensive way. It has been described, in fact, as the most significant legislation dealing with transportation and national infrastructure since the creation of the Interstate Highway System.

The act's purpose is "to develop a national intermodal transportation system that is economically efficient, 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." The act called for total funding of about $155 billion in fiscal years 1992-97. Most of the money was earmarked for surface transportation, primarily highways, with authorizations of $121 billion provided through programs, chiefly administered by FHWA, that were dramatically restructured from previous highway law.

The commuter ferry service across San Francisco Bay is an example of intermodalism.The commuter ferry service across San Francisco Bay is an example of intermodalism.

The most revolutionary concept in the new act was undoubtedly "intermodalism" itself. It was a recognition that the components of the nation's transportation infrastructure truly function as a system. They constitute a network of transportation modes -- highway, rail, air, water -- that link every spot on the map, no matter how tiny, with every other spot. However, for the system to function in a way that will best serve the needs of individuals and businesses, these transportation connections must operate efficiently and effectively. In short, intermodalism means that all forms of transportation must come together in a seamless network that will permit the transportation of people and products with minimal congestion or interruption.

The foundation of ISTEA and efforts to develop its successor is the principle that transportation plays a central role in the nation's economic life. This is particularly true at a time when the United States is competing in a global economy that depends on the unimpeded movements of people and goods. Burgeoning international competition means the United States simply cannot afford a second-rate transportation system. In addition, business innovations such as "just in time" delivery systems rely on effective, efficient transportation.

In a recent policy statement on ISTEA reauthorization, DOT identified four transportation challenges that the nation must meet to stay competitive in the global marketplace and maintain our quality of life: (1) safety, (2) the continued growth of traffic and travel and its attendant congestion, (3) environmental concerns, and (4) demographic changes.

The latter challenge could be particularly daunting. The elderly are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, with the number of Americans older than 85 expected to increase fourfold by 2050. The majority of these people are accustomed to relying on self-operated automobiles for transportation, and as they grow older, their special transportation needs will require focused national attention.

In addition, transportation is vitally affected by population shifts and changes in land-use patterns. While the flight to the Sun Belt appears to have slowed, the migration from urban centers to outlying areas such as the new "edge cities" is expected to continue.

DOT's policy statement declares that ISTEA's successor should be based on policy principles "that will sustain a strong, globally competitive economy and ensure the mobility, safety, and well-being of our people." The policy statement says post-ISTEA legislation must:

  • Promote economic prosperity.
  • Improve the quality of life.
  • Improve safety.
  • Enhance the environment.
  • Ensure national security.

Post-ISTEA legislation will certainly contain provisions to ensure the enhancement and protection of the environment.

Although it is too early to see the exact shape of ISTEA's successor, DOT's reauthorization effort will clearly be centered around the aspects of ISTEA that promise to prepare the nation's transportation system for the 21st century.

"For our bridge to the 21st century, the twin towers are the National Highway System and the National Information Infrastructure," Administrator Slater told the participants at the annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in October 1996. He declared that transportation and communication are more interwoven than ever before, citing the central role of sensors and communications systems in the intelligent transportation infrastructure and in modern freight operations. He also quoted presidents Eisenhower and Clinton.

Eisenhower wrote, "Together, the united forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear -- United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts." When President Clinton signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, he compared the projected impact of that act and of the "information superhighway" to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the interstate highway system and "literally brought Americans closer together. We were connected city to city, town to town, family to family, as we had never been before. That law did more to bring Americans together than any other law in this century."

DOT has identified eight building blocks for the creation of post-ISTEA legislation:

1. Promote intermodalism.
Reauthorization must continue progress toward intermodalism. Better choices of transportation modes and improved connections between modes will create a unified system that meets the demands of travelers and shippers.

2. Improve planning and public participation.
ISTEA has provided for a more inclusive planning process, and the result has been plans that have proven to be more feasible and publicly acceptable. Post-ISTEA legislation should not abandon this principle.

3. Empower state and local officials.

Flexible programs such as the Surface Transportation Program and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program have increased the opportunities for state and local officials to target funds for projects that make sense for their communities. ISTEA's successor should increase that flexibility, perhaps by including areas such as rail and intermodal projects where local and state participation is currently limited.

4. Strengthen partnerships.

ISTEA has strengthened federal-state partnerships and expanded them to include local governments, metropolitan planning organizations, and the private sector. Other countries are also potential partners. Post-ISTEA legislation should build on the partnership concept.


Strengthening partnerships is one of the DOT building blocks in the development of legislation to succeed ISTEA.

5. Encourage performance management.
This concept, with its outcome-oriented goals and clear measures, is particularly well-suited to transportation management. Increased reliance on performance management will allow DOT to maintain accountability for the use of public resources while reducing unnecessary rules that delay improvements and add costs.

6. Promote innovative financing.

ISTEA programs such as the Partnership for Transportation Investment have created new opportunities for cutting red tape, involving the private sector, and financing transportation improvements through tolls and other innovative methods. ISTEA's successor should continue these efforts.

7. Encourage new technologies.
Under ISTEA, the federal government renewed its emphasis on applying technology to improve safety, system capacity, and travel times. The act expanded investment in research and development through increased funding and the federal-private sector partnership, leading to the deployment of such successful technologies as the intelligent transportation systems and the Global Positioning Satellite System. ISTEA's successor should continue this commitment.

8. Encourage better infrastructure investment and management.

In an era of limited public funding, continually improving the performance of infrastructure investment programs is especially important. Post-ISTEA legislation should encourage state and local officials to base investment decisions on systematic cost-benefit analysis and adopt operating, maintenance, and pricing practices that maximize return on investment.


With a reauthorization bill due to be submitted to Congress in February 1997, DOT policy-makers have had to summarize and evaluate the results of the department's ISTEA outreach efforts almost as quickly as they have been received. While there are literally thousands of local stories and as many sets of special circumstances and individual problems, the overall message from states and localities seems clear -- the promise of this landmark legislation is indeed being realized.

As Administrator Slater said in testimony to the House Surface Transportation Subcommittee in June, "ISTEA's flexible funding and transportation planning provisions have empowered states and metropolitan areas to identify for themselves the transportation improvements that best serve their own communities, with flexible federal resources now providing a greater range of choices than ever before." Communities want the ability to shape their own transportation destinies, and ISTEA has provided the tools to bring this about.

There are, of course, countless questions that must be answered in shaping ISTEA's successor. Which funding level is appropriate and sustainable in an era of budget constraints? Should the federal role be changed? Should federal mandates and categorical programs be replaced by incentives? Can the planning process be improved? How can funding equity among the states be established?

But the concepts that underlie ISTEA seem firmly established. As Administrator Slater told the House subcommittee, "ISTEA has been a landmark surface transportation bill, in no small part because it built on the best of what preceded it. We should do the same, building on the fundamental ISTEA principles of strategic investment, comprehensive transportation planning, intermodalism, flexible funding, and strong commitments to safety and research."

Cheryl Hoffman and Lawrence Paulson are partners in Hoffman Paulson Associates, a writing/editing and public relations firm in Hyattsville, Md. They have written and edited numerous studies for the Federal Transit Administration and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.