A Bridge to Somewhere: Rethinking American Transportation for the 21st Century

In the past, strategic investments in our nation’s transportation infrastructure—the railroads in the 19th century, the interstates in the 20th—turbocharged growth and transformed the country. But more recently, America’s transportation infrastructure has not kept pace with the growth and evolution of its economy. At the precise time when the nation desperately needs to prioritize its limited investments and resources, the federal transportation program has lost focus.

The time is long past due for a national transportation vision that recognizes America’s economic challenges and opportunities and where those challenges and opportunities are located. Specifically, the top 100 metropolitan areas together take up only 12 percent of the land in the United States, but account for 65 percent of our population, 68 percent of jobs and 75 percent of the nation’s economic output. This is in part due to their high concentrations of the nation’s key economic assets, such as infrastructure. Here, these largest metro areas handle 72 percent of the nation’s seaport tonnage, 92 percent of air passengers, and 93 percent of rail travelers. In short, metro areas are the economic engines of the U.S., drawn by the clustering of people, the movement of goods, and the agglomeration of economic activity.

If talented people, quality jobs, innovative firms, advanced universities, planes, trains, and automobiles make the world go round—then metropolitan areas are the axis. They need a strong, deliberate and strategic federal partner (working closely with states and the private sector) to do what is necessary to keep America competitive and sustainable.

In other words, our nation needs a new federal transportation program that keeps pace with today’s economic, social, and environmental landscape and helps the U.S. prosper. Yet, the nation’s transportation program falls short of this vision.

This report provides a framework for understanding the myriad policy problems that undergird the federal transportation program today and how those structural issues hamper the ways federal, state, and local leaders work together to meet our nation’s most critical transportation challenges. A Bridge to Somewhere: Rethinking American Transportation for the 21st Century then offers the kinds of reforms needed to unleash the economic potential of metropolitan areas and, by extension, the rest of the nation.

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