Beyond silos—Funding a multimodal transportation system

By Mary Ebeling
There is an increasing urgency to addressing the transportation funding crisis, not simply for highways but system-wide. As urban areas—where most of the country’s population lives—become increasingly multimodal, a shift in the funding paradigm is required for such a system to truly flourish.
A recent report released by the Center for American Progress rebuts the assumption among the general public that roads are paid for through user fees. The report asserts “objective measures of transportation system needs should determine transportation priorities regardless of the source of funds.” Specific recommendations include:

Congress should establish a multimodal account within the Highway Trust Fund to provide funding for highway, transit, passenger and freight rail, port development, and intermodal facilities, among other projects. Funding from this multimodal account should be distributed through a competitive program administered by the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Secretary. In addition, states should be given the flexibility to use any portion of their federal highway funds for any project category eligible under the multimodal program.

Some states, regions, and local governments are responding to new transportation preferences. States like Tennessee have created a Multimodal Access Fund to help support community driven, multimodal projects. Similarly, the Nashville MPO has prioritized funding projects that support multimodal and active transportation modes.
Nationally, as transportation preferences change—small upticks in VMT , transit systems showing record high ridership numbers, and the growing numbers of people biking and walking—many places are struggling with inadequate ways to fund this shifting demand. However, as the CAP report documents, reforming outdated funding formulas to allow greater flexibility in use of existing funds could open the door for states, regions, and local governments to better plan for a transportation system that is both efficient and balanced, providing greater benefit to a larger portion of the population.
Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.