Talking Transportation with Beth Osborne, Director at Transportation for America

This week’s transportation conversation is with Beth Osborne.  Beth is a lawyer by training; She has dedicated her career to transportation public policy in Congress, the U.S. DOT, and now with Smart Growth America’s transportation program, Transportation for America.

At DOT, Beth served as the Acting Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy and the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy from 2009 to 2014. In that capacity, Beth managed the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Discretionary Grant program now known as the BUILD program, the Secretary’s livability initiative, the development of the Administration’s surface transportation authorization proposal, and the implementation of MAP-21.

Beth earned her undergraduate and law degrees from LSU.

My conversation with Beth is a slight departure from my previous two interviews with in-house attorneys at RTD and SEPTA.  But, considering that the House of Representatives recently passed a major infrastructure bill and we are now less than 100 days until the next election, Beth’s transportation policy experience is particularly relevant.

Beth’s primary critique of U.S. transportation policy is that it does not accomplish substantive policy goals, instead it seems to only be about spreading money around.  As a result, the highway infrastructure we build, cannot pay to maintain itself and is not effective at getting people to the places they need to go or supporting economic development.

Justin Marks

Beth, thank you for taking the time to discuss transportation policy with me.  Prior to your appointment at DOT, you spent six years advising Senator Tom Carper of Delaware on transportation policy while he served on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW).  What lessons did you learn through that experience that you carried with you to your DOT position and now your work at Transportation 4 America.

Beth Osborne

Thank you, Justin, I am glad to have an opportunity to discuss transportation policy with the ATLP members.

Yes, my time working in Congress was very instructive and my work on the Hill greatly informed my policy work at DOT. 

As you said, I worked for Senator Carper, he serves on EPW, the primary committee charged with transportation re-authorization bills.  While there, the Senate completed the 2005 transportation reauthorization bill, Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act:  A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU).  But, the first reauthorization bill that I worked on was the 1998, Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (Tea-21) from when I was a Legislative Assistant to Congressman Klink, though this was on the environmental issues only as I was not yet a transportation staffer.

In hindsight, after seeing how transportation policy is formulated within an administration, it would have been nice to have that perspective while I was working in Congress.  While at DOT, Congress developed two reauthorization bills, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) in 2012 and the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act). 

I am now working on my fifth transportation re-authorization bill.

Justin Marks

After seeing four re-authorization bills, what is your view of the process?

Beth Osborne

I think it is fundamentally flawed.  Our transportation policy is still rooted in a 1956 objective to build out a highway system, with all other modes layered on top.

Justin Marks

Why do you think that is?

Beth Osborne

Well, the federal investments in the highway system date back to the Eisenhower administration and before.  In 1982, House members from cities pushed the program forward because they would not support an increase in the gas tax without a portion of it going to urban transit.  This has created a policy that funds the highway system at 80% and the transit system at 20%.  And that was the last time they asked for any significant change, nearly 40 years ago. There is a notion that we can only layer over transit on top of the highway.

But, an emphasis on highway development is damaging our nation in many ways:  it induces driving, which exacerbates the climate crisis; it divides communities creating generational damage, it destroys our farmland by encouraging sprawl; it jeopardizes safety by favoring speed.

Justin Marks

Why do you think that this lack of parity in funding the modes has persisted?

Beth Osborne

I think it is – in part – because advocates of priorities outside of highways have not always been taken seriously and have become too focused on obtaining a “win” to celebrate with their constituents.  So, if they get a little pot of funding, they will take it. But fundamental reform seems too unlikely to fight for. For example, if Senate EPW incorporates a 14-million-dollar climate program, environmental groups will celebrate, but at the same time EPW will develop a many billion-dollar highway program that worsens the climate crisis.  This is not to single out the environmental community, but it is instructive of the problem. 

Activists need to look at the big-picture and recognize that when making effective public policy, someone’s priority needs to lose and, in my view, that priority should be the current highway funding structure.

Justin Marks

While at DOT you managed, the TIGER Discretionary Grant Program, can you tell us a little bit about the origins of that program?  And did this program break the mold you describe as related to the overall transportation funding program?

Beth Osborne

Well, first recognize that TIGER is very small in comparison to the overall transportation funding program.  I first worked on this program with Senator Carper at EPW.  But credit for the program goes to Peter Rogoff, the now CEO of Sound Transit.  Peter developed TIGER through his work on the Senate Committee on Appropriations.  Members of EPW bristled at the appropriations committee creating a program.  Fortunately, Senator Carper liked the idea and as a member of EPW successfully advocated for TIGER. 

I think TIGER did break the mold of layering other modes on top of the highway approach because it did not pit the modes against each other.  The highway program is a pass through, meaning any administration is limited in how the money is spent because it is dispersed amongst the states.  But TIGER was designed to accomplish multiple policy goals such as safety, state of repair, economic development, livability, and environmental sustainability.

It was challenging though because the program was administered out of the Secretary’s office and we only had 30 staff members to develop the entire process.  Then we received over 1500 applications for the first round and it is a time-consuming process to review that many applications. So, we had to develop a system where staff from across the department would work together to review applications and manage the program, which ended up being a fun process and a great way to work across modal administrations.

Justin Marks

Is there anything that sticks out in your mind from the development of TIGER?

Beth Osborne

Yes, with so many applicants and only 40-50 awards, we recognized that many good projects would be denied.  So, we developed a process whereby a project sponsor could receive a de-brief to understand how to make their application more competitive the next round.  The result is that we received a lot of incredible projects that we were able to fund, but it also meant there were even more great projects that we couldn’t.

Justin Marks

Under the Trump administration, TIGER has now been renamed BUILD for Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, what do you think of how the Trump administration has implemented the program.

Beth Osborne

Well, I do think the program had to evolve from its origins because it was developed to be an economic catalyst after the 2008 financial crisis.  I don’t mind the name change, but I am a little disappointed as an LSU alumnus that it has lost the TIGER moniker.

Substantively, the Trump administration has targeted rural areas for BUILD grants.  I don’t object to this policy goal, but there is a difference between investing money in rural locations and a project that benefits rural America.

I do not think building a highway in rural America necessarily provides a solution that improves the lives of the people living there.  Yet, a port project in an urban area could be essential for getting products from rural America to market. Transportation is a system, for real. Also, people living in rural small towns often need similar projects to people living in cities.  They have main streets and would be concerned about trucks barreling down them in the same way I would, here in Washington, DC. And just because a project is present in a community, does not make it beneficial. Look at the highway building of the 1960s as an example.  We destroyed neighborhoods for the development of highways through cities.  This did not improve those neighborhoods, even though technically that money was being invested in those neighborhoods.

My concern is that the Trump administration is not spending wisely in rural areas.

Justin Marks

Moving on to your current position – You are with the organization, Transportation for America (T4A), can you explain T4A’s priorities for the reauthorization bill?

Beth Osborne

We would like to see a reauthorization bill that funds maintenance before expansion, in order to cut the maintenance backlog in half; Establish a culture of designing for safety in order to lower vehicle speeds and making roads safe for all road users and; Measure the success of transportation programs by how well they connect people to jobs and services, whether they can drive or not.

We would also like to see any transportation prioritize the climate crisis and to provide equitable development for communities. 

Justin Marks

The House of Representatives recently passed the Moving Forward Act, a $1.5 billion infrastructure bill, can you tell us what of T4A’s priorities are included within that bill and what you would have liked to have seen included in the bill which was not?

Beth Osborne

This one met T4A’s all three of priorities.  It is focused on fixing our infrastructure first, this provision was enhanced through a bipartisan amendment.  It also includes good safety language including funding and it creates a mechanism to measure a transportation project’s access to jobs and services.

This is a very exciting step forward, we hope that the Senate adopts it, but currently the Senate is bragging about its bipartisan bill that fails to repair our infrastructure or address safety and access.  

Justin Marks

Is T4A strictly an advocacy organization?

Beth Osborne

No, we also offer technical assistance to help change roadway design policies and to implement rules for walkability.

We also conduct research and reporting.  We have two reports out recently: Repair Priorities, a look at how much existing transportation funding goes to repairing versus expanding roadways. Our other report is the Congestion Con.  This is a study that demonstrates the folly of attempting to build out of congestion because it demonstrates how more traffic lanes and more money only equals more congestion.  Our study demonstrates that out of the top 100 metropolitan areas of the country, congestion has increased no matter if an area is losing or gaining population.  Our sister organization, the National Complete Streets Coalition, has a report that we lean on for our safety priority called Dangerous by Design, a study of pedestrian deaths on American roads that are designed for the movement of vehicles at speed and not pedestrians. 

Justin Marks

If Vice President Biden is elected, what direction do you think he will take the transportation program?

Beth Osborne

I think it depends, people love to say that transportation is bipartisan.  This is true.  But bipartisan too often means the bad status quo. There appears to be a bipartisan agreement to undermine progressive and conservative goals equally as long as everyone gets a chunk of funding sent to their districts. 

If you look at T4A’s transportation ratings of the democratic candidates, our harshest reviews were for Vice President Biden, Senator Warren, and Senator Sanders.  But I do see the staff that were pushing interesting policies from the other presidential campaigns are now working with Vice President Biden’s campaign team.  It will all depend on who he installs at the White House, Office of Management and Budget and at DOT.  Also, stakeholders need to stand-up and demand something different.

Justin Marks

What kind of fundamental overhaul of U.S. transportation policy would you like to see?

Beth Osborne

I would like to see funding parity between highway and transit.  I would like to see transit built as a network connecting people in a similar manner that highways and roads are all interconnected. 

Finally, I would like to stop seeing the highway program as a highway program.  It builds highways and major local roadways that all have to work with very local streets.  Our highway program applies highway standards (which only have to consider cars) to even local roads and streets (which should be moving more than cars).  We need to recognize this and recognize it needs to take care of everyone. 

Further, we need to stop looking at our transportation program as a means to get people through communities as quickly as possible and instead see communities – rural, suburban, and urban – as destinations.  We need to end this idea that economic success is a wide-open roadway, instead we need to see economic success as creating attractive places for economic activity and job growth. 

One way we can accomplish this is to stop measuring vehicle speed as the primary measure for success, because when you measure speed as a measure of success you will fund priorities that only focus on speed.  And as our Dangerous by Design report notes, this policy is killing too many Americans. 

Justin Marks

Beth, I really appreciate your time today.  Thank you for discussing transportation policy with me.

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