They said “no new money for transportation” was a bad message. They were wrong.


Two years ago, Transportation for America bucked advocacy convention by refusing to talk about funding, discussing only the outcomes of funding instead. We even said that we do not support any new funding for transportation if the underlying policy doesn’t change. Our surprising strategy has yielded results. 

The U.S. Capitol in February 2021. Photo by Ted Eytan in the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool (Creative Commons).

If insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, the converse must also be good advice: If at first you don’t succeed, try something different.

Over the last 12 years, Transportation for America (T4America) has conducted well-respected work advancing incremental reform in national transportation policy, but falling far short of transformational. In those years, T4America took a more traditional approach, advocating for more transportation funding because a piece of a larger pie of new funding could be dedicated to the things we have underinvested in—transit, biking, walking, intercity passenger rail, and smarter land-use planning. 

We believed (as most still do) that a “rising tide lifts all boats” approach is how you get invited to the table. Through this strategy, we made important progress by getting more money dedicated to alternative forms of transportation. However, with another transportation authorization approaching, we knew it was time for a different, bold, approach. 

Bucking convention, two years ago we shifted our strategy and message away from advocating for funding. Transportation policy is complex and our past platforms reflected that. This time, we sought to coalesce around two to three simple, easy-to-understand ideas that could transform the transportation system. 

In June 2019, we convened a group of partners representing communities large and small and a variety of organizations to identify three goals and associated outcomes that, together, would take the federal transportation program in a new direction. We tasked the advisory group to identify outcomes that were easy to understand, achievable and ambitious. 

We unveiled these principles in September 2019 and made a splash, especially with our announced break from the traditional approach of advocating for more funding, introduced earlier in 2019 in a widely-circulated Washington Post op-ed from T4America director Beth Osborne. The op-ed made serious waves by landing at the start of Infrastructure Week’s usual and predictable calls for more money. 

We stood out in a major way from most of the transportation advocacy community in DC, whether trade groups or nonprofits, because we were no longer willing to support more money for a broken program—even if our priorities got a little piece of the pie. These principles, re-released earlier this month, have been so potent precisely because they are indeed easy to understand, achievable and ambitious. 

The principles and outcomes are designed to rebuild crumbling infrastructure, reduce climate emissions, save lives, and equitably improve access to opportunity. They are:

  • Prioritize maintenance: Cut the road, bridge and transit maintenance backlog in half by dedicating formula highway funds to maintenance.
  • Design for safety over speed: A serious effort to reduce deaths on our roadways requires slower speeds on local and arterial roads. The federal program should require designs and approaches that put safety first.
  • Connect people to jobs and services: Don’t focus on speed. Instead determine how well the transportation system connects people to jobs and services, and prioritize the projects that will improve those connections.

And no more money for a program that will not deliver these results.

Many thought our strategy (especially opposing new funding until our priorities were addressed) would get us excused from the table, but it actually got us invited to draft a better approach. In June 2020, a little over a year after T4America started the effort, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee drafted a reauthorization proposal, the INVEST in America Act, that reflects all three principles and significantly better outcomes for decisions involving transit, highways, and balanced intercity passenger rail. Some key elements:

  • A destination access performance measure was included in the INVEST Act. This followed bipartisan legislation (the COMMUTE Act) introduced in both chambers of Congress creating a pilot program to promote access (which was included in the Senate authorization). The INVEST Act also establishes grant programs in the bill focusing transportation funding on getting people access to jobs and necessities like groceries and medical care instead of increasing vehicle speed.
  • The bill prioritizes “Complete and Context Sensitive Design” across federal spending and requires states and metro areas to consider and design for the safety of all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, public transit users, children, older individuals, individuals with disabilities, motorists, and freight vehicles.
  • While the initial version of the INVEST Act made progress on prioritizing repair and maintenance, it had some loopholes. Working with leaders Rep. Chuy García of Illinois (the Future of Transportation Caucus co-chair) and Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a bipartisan amendment  was passed to strengthen the language—and not a single member of the committee opposed it.
  • Transformative climate legislation, the GREEN Streets Act, was introduced in both chambers, and would require a vehicle miles traveled performance measure. A greenhouse gas performance measure and programs to fund electrification infrastructure were then included in the INVEST Act.  

This five-year transportation bill subsequently passed the House. The bill isn’t perfect, but it is a huge improvement over the current program. We are proud to have changed the debate and established a new standard for what national transportation policy can look like.

By taking a bold position on the long-term problems with our nation’s approach to transportation and the immediate need for change, T4America has also influenced other policy-making this spring to a degree that is far beyond the scale of the organization. For example: 

  • After we led the effort to organize support for providing public transit with emergency financial relief during the public health crisis, Congress provided an un prescedented $69.5 billion in emergency operating support ($25 billion in the CARES Act, an additional $14 billion in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 (CRRSAA), and $30.5 billion in the American Rescue Plan). 
  • The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis legislative action plan incorporated T4America principles throughout, featured our reports, included dozens of our recommendations, and proposed language throughout the transportation section that emphasizes traffic reduction strategies that center equitable outcomes, rather than limiting itself to the inadequate strategy of electrifying the vehicle fleet.
  • Because of direct T4America engagement and pressure, the CDC revised its first COVID transportation guidance to be more transit friendly after initially releasing guidance that ignored the health impacts of discouraging transit ridership and encouraging more people to drive alone.
  • We released a policy proposal in partnership with Third Way to undo the damage in communities of color caused by urban renewal projects. T4America successfully worked to include Capital Instruction Grant’s to remove urban renewal projects in Sen. Schumer’s Economic Justice Act.

We now have a leader at USDOT singing from our hymnal. We expect a stronger Senate bill. The debate has shifted. We’re in position to win big in 2021 with your help if we continue to stand for change and not agree to bad bills just because it throws a little more money our way.

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