Policy Analysis No. 287

ISTEA: A Poisonous Brew for American Cities

Executive Summary

Will travel be faster and easier in the 21st century, or will traffic be bogged down by a cumbersome central planning process that creates more urban congestion and gridlock? The answer depends on how Congress acts on the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). Passed in 1991 and recently extended for six months, the act is to be reauthorized early next year.

A better title for the law, which allocates billions of dollars from the federal gasoline tax, might be the “Urban Immobility and Pork-Barrel Act.” ISTEA creates enormous incentives for urban areas to waste money on pork-barrel projects that are unlikely to meet local needs and that will actually promote congestion.

ISTEA especially promotes mass transit such as light rail and subways. But those systems carry only a fraction of commuters and cost from 10 to a 100 times more per mile to build than do roads. Worse, many supporters of transit, the so-called New Urbanists, actually favor increased congestion on roads. They see it as a way to get people out of cars and to force them to live in central cities rather than suburbs. But increased congestion will not result in significant shifts by commuters to transit; it will only result in millions of wasted hours and increased levels of air pollution as commuters sit in gridlocked traffic.

Transportation policy is best left with state and local authorities as well as with the private sector. Congress thus could make travel more efficient by getting out of the transportation business and repealing the federal gasoline tax that pays for federal pork.

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Randal O’Toole is executive director of the Thoreau Institute and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.