Those of you interested in strengthening the ability of public transportation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil should check out Congressional testimony from Brookings metropolitan policy expert Robert Puentes, entitled, um, "Strengthening the Ability of Public Transportation to Reduce Our Dependence on Foreign Oil."

I’m not sure the general public — or even the interested, paying-attention public — is aware of just how dysfunctional our system for allocating transportation funding is. Says Puentes:

… federal transportation dollars continue to be distributed to its grantees based on archaic funding and distributional formulas. There is no reward for reducing the demand for driving, nor overall spending. In fact at the same time Americans are seeking to drive less due to energy and climate concerns, federal formulas actually reward consumption and penalize conservation.

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There also continues to be almost no focus on outcomes or performance. So at this moment of transportation crisis, billions and billions of federal transportation dollars are disbursed without meaningful direction or connection to advancing national interests on critical issues such as reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

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Federal transportation policy has long favored highway building over transit investments. Transit projects are evaluated and funded differently than highways. The pot of available federal transit funding is so small that the federal government oversees a competitive process for new transit funding, requiring multiple hypercompetitive bureaucratic reviews that demonstrate a project’s cost-effectiveness. Funding is also subject to annual congressional appropriations. Highways do not undergo the same level of scrutiny or funding uncertainty. Also, while highways typically receive up to 80 percent of federal funds (and 90 percent for improvements and maintenance), new transit projects’ federal contribution is often less than half of the project cost.

Taken together, these biases ensure that state transportation policy pursued under federal law works against many metropolitan areas’ efforts to maintain modern and integrated transportation networks.

Puentes goes on to offer some sensible policy recommendations, summarized thusly:

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First, the federal government must lead and develop a coherent national vision for transportation, and focus on specific areas of national importance such as reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Second, the federal government should empower states and metropolitan areas to grow in energy-efficient and sustainable ways. Third, the federal government should optimize Washington’s own performance and that of its partners in order to spend taxpayer dollars better and implement the vision.

The transportation bill of 2009 is the most significant energy/environment bill that will come before the next Congress, with the possible exception of a cap-and-trade bill. Who controls Congress, and who is in the White House, will make an enormous difference on how the bill plays out.