federal transportation policy
The following material is excerpted with written permission from How Smart Growth Can Stop Sprawl, a briefing guide for funders by David Bollier. The views expressed are those of the author. (Washington, D.C.: Essential Books), 1998. 

The Importance of ISTEA & TEA-21
The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, ISTEA ("ice tea"), represented a dramatic advance in federal transportation policy because it allowed federal funds to support all modes of transportation (light rail, bicycle and pedestrian projects, intermodal connections), and not just highways. This 1991 law strengthened metropolitan planning requirements for transportation, and required for the first time that transportation spending "address the overall social, economic and environmental effects of transportation decisions."  ISTEA also gave local communities and citizens a greater role in how federal monies are spent.  From supporting downtown shuttle buses in Boulder, Colorado, to commuter bike stations in Long Beach, California, and a railroad depot in Lafayette, Indiana, ISTEA made transportation more efficient while mitigating the environmental impact and spurring economic development. 

In 1998 ISTEA was renewed as the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21).  Although most of the publicity surrounding its passage focussed on the fact that it was the largest public works spending bill ever, TEA-21 institutionalized the important changes ISTEA brought about, such as regional planning, enhancments, and local control.  However, as with ISTEA, TEA-21  is not self-administering.  State governments, which are often captives of the highway lobby and rife with cronyism, were rarely receptive to the goals of ISTEA, and still hold the same institutional bias against TEA-21.  They still often pursue the traditional transportation investments (highways) that worsen sprawl (for a review of how state DOT's have spent their federal dollars since the passage of ISTEA, read "Changing Direction:  Federal Transportation Spending in 1990's" by the Surface Transportation Policy Project). Some conservatives and libertarians, such as the Cato Institute, have attacked ISTEA as "the same old command-and-control, central planning process that has caused most transportation problems in the first place." 1 Ideologically driven and empirically threadbare, such arguments nonetheless are often influential with key members of Congress, and need to be rebutted.  To help ensure that ISTEA remains in force and is well administered, the Surface Transportation Policy Project, in concert with state and local citizen groups, has become the leading TEA-21 advocate and watchdog. While ISTEA and TEA-21 represent a significant advance over preceding decades of transportation policy, many additional issues urgently need attention as the fight gears up for the 2003 reauthorization.

1 Cato Institute News Release, "Cato Study: ISTEA Congressional Pork Gone Hog-Wild," November 5, 1997.  A collection of articles and web site postings by by right-wing opponents of ISTEA had been collected into an STPP report, "Black Helicopters, ISTEA and Smart Growth: Readings from the Right," January 1998


Surface Transportation Policy Project

Department of Transportation