It's time to reform the federal transportation program to ensure investments are made in projects that meet larger goals of increasing efficiency, reducing congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, writes former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. A bipartisan group meets in Seattle to discuss reform.

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ALL of us experience frustration, annoyance — and even rage — from being stuck in traffic. In the Puget Sound region, where traffic congestion ranks among the worst in the nation, most of us experience these feelings almost every day. But the problem goes well beyond a rotten commute. The gas that our vehicles consume as they sit in traffic, the greenhouse-gas emissions they produce, and the accidents that result from congestion cost us all.

But federal transportation dollars are disbursed as if these costs did not exist. The federal government does not measure how well its transportation investments improve traffic, safety, energy or the environment. The result: Our transportation system is losing effectiveness and our nation is losing its global competitiveness.

Even though they are the economic engines of the nation, large metropolitan regions like ours bear the brunt of misallocated investments. Unfortunately, the current federal program restricts funds from being used in ways that can best advance regional and national goals.

Recognizing the urgency of this issue, I have helped to lead a bipartisan effort to develop a more effective, accountable and performance-based federal transportation policy. The National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) is a project of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell. In June 2009, NTPP released its plan for reforming surface-transportation policy titled, “Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy.” It proposes a simple, common-sense approach:

• Set clear objectives for federal spending;

• Develop measures to evaluate whether these objectives are being advanced, and

• Adjust funding to reward good performance.

Today the NTPP will host its first transportation forum, in Seattle, to discuss local and national impacts of the next transportation bill.

The current federal transportation law expires Sept. 30. That means we have an important opportunity to reshape federal law, giving states and metropolitan areas maximum flexibility to spend their federal transportation dollars, as long as they do so in a way that advances national goals.

We propose that national goals should be shaped around economic growth, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, energy and climate, and safety. The new federal program should make sure that every federal transportation dollar advances these goals, but it should not dictate how such goals are being advanced. States and metropolitan authorities should themselves determine how they will contribute to national goals through combinations of greater investments in transit, alternative fuels, and drunken driving enforcement mechanisms.

Our region stands to benefit greatly from a federal program that aims to maximize returns on its transportation investments. Investments like the Alaskan Way Tunnel alternative and extensions of the new light-rail system are likely to perform well with respect to the metrics we propose, and may well have an easier time securing federal dollars.

Instead of going through the earmark process, projects should be funded based on merit. Instead of being considered as individual projects, they should be considered as components of a larger program of metropolitan investment that advances economic, environmental and safety objectives.

The best way to confront the frustration we experience every day is to reshape the federal transportation program. Now is the time to act — to push for real reform. Congress is unlikely to adopt a performance-based system unless concerned citizens make clear just how important this issue is. Make your voices heard. In this great Puget Sound region, no message could be more important to our economic and environmental future.

Slade Gorton, who previously represented Washington as a U.S. senator for three terms, is co-chair of the BPC’s National Transportation Policy Project.