The transportation community in the states should want the federal government to be fired. Over the next few weeks, they are waiting for negotiators in Congress to pass a highway bill. If lawmakers are successful (and there is no guarantee of that), a few much-needed updates to the transportation program would be in place. But then it will only be 18 months, at most, until policymakers have to address again a handful of percolating problems like shoring up the highway trust fund for the long term. If the chambers can't reach agreement, that likely means a shorter extension of current highway authority. Cuts are possible.
This scenario does not offer a ringing endorsement of the federal government as transportation caretaker. The inability of Congress and the White House to articulate and carry out a federal infrastructure policy could give credence to arguments from the right that the states would do a better job of regulating and funding their own transportation. But then Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., colorfully points out the very real problem with that idea--the highway to nowhere. DeFazio has a poster of a Kansas turnpike in 1956 that ends in a farmer's field in Oklahoma. "Devolution, baby! That's where we're headed," he said when showing it off in the Capitol in March.
What if the transportation didn't have to wait around for Congress and the White House to make a move? Are there examples of states or regions taking initiative where the federal government is failing? What stands in the way of states or localities acting on their own? Does it make sense to diminish the power of the congressional purse strings if Congress can't do its job? If the federal government is essential to infrastructure, what can be done to make sure it actually can take care of the nation's needs?