Surface Transportation Programs:

Proposals Highlight Key Issues and Challenges in Restructuring the Programs

GAO-08-843R: Published: Jul 29, 2008. Publicly Released: Jul 29, 2008.

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Jayetta Z. Hecker


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

The nation's economic vitality and the quality of life of its citizens depend significantly on the availability, dependability, and security of its surface transportation network. Our nation has built a vast surface transportation system of roads, railways, ports, and transit systems that facilitate commerce and improve our quality of life. The flow of people and goods is enormous: The nation moved about 5 trillion ton miles of freight and 5 trillion passenger miles of people in 2004. In total, about 4 million miles of roads, 117,000 miles of rail, 600,000 bridges, 19,000 airports, 11,000 miles of transit lines, and 500 train stations make up the surface transportation network. For the past several decades, demand has outpaced the capacity of the surface transportation system, and population growth, technological change, and the increased globalization of the economy will further strain the system. For example, according to the Transportation Research Board, an expected population growth of 100 million people could double the demand for passenger travel. Moreover, this population growth will be concentrated in certain regions and states, intensifying the demand for transportation in these areas. Likewise, freight traffic is projected to grow substantially, putting additional strain on ports, highways, and railroads. Furthermore, as we have recently reported, federal surface transportation programs are not effectively addressing key challenges, such as congestion, or ensuring that transportation dollars are well spent, because federal goals and roles are unclear, many programs lack links to needs or performance, and the programs often do not employ the best tools and approaches. As a result, we and others have called for a fundamental reexamination and refocusing of the nation's surface transportation policies--and we have recommended that Congress consider restructuring these programs so that they (1) have goals with direct links to an identified national interest and role, (2) make grantees more accountable through more performance-based links between funding and program outcomes, (3) use tools and approaches that emphasize the return on federal investment, and (4) address the current imbalance between federal surface transportation revenues and spending. Although reexamining and reshaping surface transportation programs is a challenging endeavor, it provides an opportunity to address both current and emerging needs by eliminating outdated or ineffective programs, more sharply defining the federal role in relation to state and local roles, and modernizing those programs and policies that remain relevant.

Stakeholders we interviewed agree that the current federal approach to surface transportation is not working and called for reform and a new direction to effectively address a wide range of challenges facing the nation's surface transportation network. Although the stakeholders we interviewed have different policy agendas and represent different constituencies, some of their key issues for restructuring and funding surface transportation programs overlapped. In reviewing the seven restructuring proposals, we identified the following common themes: (1)defining a federal role in freight and goods movement given the regional benefits provided by freight corridors and the importance of interstate commerce; (2) linking transportation policy and funding to the environment and energy sectors given transportation's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and concerns about energy security; (3) promoting better management of existing assets through more efficient use of existing infrastructure or asset management strategies; (4) incorporating performance and accountability into transportation programs to ensure projects that receive funding result in commensurate public benefits; and (5) using multiple funding sources to ensure the long-term sustainability of the programs.

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