Staff Columnist

Congress, Ernst eye transit pilot program

COMMUTE Act offers bipartisan shift in how communities plan transportation networks

Traffic travels along I-380 near North Liberty in Johnson County on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Traffic travels along I-380 near North Liberty in Johnson County on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Isn’t the goal of effective transportation to get people where they need to go?

There is a great deal of talk in Iowa about the need to build workforce and provide for the needs of existing and future employers. But having workers with needed skills and thousands of available job doesn’t do much good if local and regional transportation networks don’t connect the two.

When we look at the overall health of our communities, we know food deserts — residential areas without access to fresh, nutritious food — negatively affect local residents and, in turn, raise safety net costs for us all. What if the transportation grid were built purposefully to connect people with the goods and services they need to access healthy food, quality education and necessary recreation?

That’s where new congressional proposal for a transportation pilot program hopes to step in and make a difference.

The Connecting Opportunities through Mobility Metrics and Unlocking Transportation Efficiencies Act, or the COMMUTE Act, is a bipartisan proposal introduced earlier this month. In the U.S. Senate the bill, SB 654, was introduced earlier this month by Sens. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, and Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican. A similar bill in the House, HB 1517, was sponsored by Reps. Mark DeSaulnier, a California Democrat, John Curtis, a Utah Republican, and Ben McAdams, a Utah Democrat.

The bills would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to create a competitive pilot program to provide five states, 10 metropolitan planning organizations, and five rural planning organizations with data sets that would allow those entities to calculate how many jobs and services are accessible by all transportation options. This would be robust data, the likes of which most communities cannot currently access, and it would be a game changer when it comes to transportation expansion and land use.

Since the 1960s, most community planning has been based on calculations such as traffic congestion and transit timing concerns. As the State Smart Transportation Initiative research in Madison, Wis., has researched, these metrics have produced a two-dimensional view of the real challenges people face in trying to connect with employers, goods and services. They haven’t produced transportation networks that necessarily get people where they need or want to go, but instead favor projects, such as expensive highway expansions, that often create more transportation hurdles.

The Wisconsin group partnered with the Virginia Department of Transportation to develop a new national model for selecting transportation projects based on how they improve access to jobs and services. Only last year, Utah overhauled its transportation planning system to make access a priority and estimates that drivers will spend nearly four less days each year behind the wheel. Experiences and tools from those projects would guide the new pilot program for a limited eight-year period.

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Not only should we encourage more lawmakers to lend their support to these bills, we should start actively advocating now for Iowa to be part of the pilot.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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