A group of transportation experts yesterday urged Congress to develop a new agenda for transportation that creates and expands bond-related financing programs and sets specific national goals but gives states and localities maximum funding flexibility for projects.

The Bipartisan Policy Center's national transportation policy project made the recommendation in a 136-page report.

"We don't care how they achieve these goals, as long as they show progress," said Emil Frankel, the project's transportation policy director. Contributors to the project included former federal and state transportation and budget officials, and various private stakeholders and policy experts.

The bipartisan co-chairs of the project were Democrat, former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, and former U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo of Minnesota, of the Democrat-Farm-Labor Party; along with Republicans, former U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington. More than 20 members contributed to the project.

The goals outlined in the report were economic growth, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, energy security and environmental protection, and public safety.

In order to meet those goals, Congress should begin the process of transitioning to a mileage-based user-fee system that would replace gasoline and diesel fuel taxes as a revenue source, the group said. While that transition is taking place, funding tools such as tolling should be used instead of traditional approaches such as general fund spending, they said.

"Road tolls, in particular, offer the added benefit that either public or private entities can bond against the projected revenue stream - thus providing an up-front source of capital to improve or expand existing networks," the report said.

The federal government's influence on state and local decisions about transportation should be "prescriptive on their goals, but permissive on meeting those goals," Frankel said, stressing that the financing piece of the puzzle "should be totally permissive."

He said that would mean that Congress may need to revise provisions in the current Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU, including those that currently cap at $15 billion the amount of private-activity bonds that can be used for transportation projects.

The ideal federal plan would "support sustainable state funding," said Joshua Schank, the project's transportation research director, and it would "not [stand] in the way" of state attempts to toll existing roads.

In addition, the group recommended creation of a national infrastructure bank and expansion of the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program that provides low-interest credit to private and public entities for projects. The TIFIA program should adopt a set of performance metrics and should be expanded "to allow for loans that are paid back with variable pricing tolls on national highways," the report said.

Similar to other recent reports that have been released as the Sept. 30 deadline for reauthorization of the current highway bill approaches, the Bipartisan Policy Center's report recommended consolidating the more than 100 programs that currently guide U.S. transportation programs.

The group proposed divvying up federal funding between two categories, with 75% to be distributed through a formula and performance-based system for use in infrastructure preservation and maintenance, and 25% to be distributed competitively for capacity-expansion programs. Funding for metropolitan areas would be provided competitively for expansion projects and through a formula based on a metro area's gross domestic product and use of its transit system.

Some of the report's contributors were skeptical that a reauthorization will be enacted before the end of September, when SAFETEA-LU expires. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who contributed to the project before being elected to the Senate, warned that "jurisdictional divides" in Congress make it difficult to craft an over-arching national transportation policy. Policy and financing for transportation are divided among several committees in the Senate and House, he noted.

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