Shaping the 2009 Transpo Debate: Rockefeller Foundation’s Nick Turner

American transportation policy has not fundamentally changed since gasoline cost a nickel a gallon and President Eisenhower started building out the Interstate highway system. Today, with gas prices through the roof, gridlock grinding our cities to a halt and many Americans feeling trapped in barely affordable, far-flung, exurban homes, it’s clear that our 1950’s-era transportation system is failing.

Nick_Turner_031.jpgIn the coming months Streetsblog will turn increasing attention to
Capitol Hill and the 2009 federal transportation reauthorization bill.
With hundreds of billions of dollars up for grabs, organizations are mobilizing to influence the outcome of the debate. One thing many of the groups pushing for mass transit, smart growth and livable streets have in common is funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. The old adage says “Follow the money,” so Streetsblog spoke with foundation Managing Director Nicholas Turner.

Aaron Naparstek: What kind of work is Rockefeller Foundation doing in the transportation sector right now?

Nick Turner: We’ve undertaken an initiative that’s focused on trying to advance a more equitable and sustainable transportation paradigm in this country. When you look at the cost of transportation for low-income families, you see this is the second highest cost for working Americans. Then if you look at the slice of those who earn twenty to fifty thousand dollars a year, it’s the highest cost. Having to own and operate a car eats up 30 percent of household income.

AN: Why did Rockefeller Foundation decide to focus on transportation?

NT: When we look at challenges for the 21st century globally, not just for the United States, there are really three factors that made us interested in transportation. First, is that we’ve entered an urban age and so more people live in cities now than do in rural communities, and that trend is only going to accelerate. We’re interested in strengthening the capacity of cities to advance prosperity, to be centers of opportunity for people, and in the United States transportation obviously is one of the key determinants of access to opportunity.

The second thing that made us alight on transportation again was the climate impact. With transportation accounting for 33 percent of emissions in this country we thought it was essential to look at the lever of federal policy and funding as a way of reducing that impact.

The third thing, and it’s smaller than the other two, is when we look at this country and other developing countries we see an increasingly tattered social contract. Investing in sustainable and equitable transportation, and the building of that infrastructure, is a source of good jobs and increases access to good jobs for lower income Americans.

Transportation should be seen as a tool to achieve a variety of social benefits and ends. Transportation is not an end in and of itself but it should be a tool to enhance quality of life for people.

AN: What kinds of changes would you like to see made in federal transportation policy?

NT: The specifics of it we leave up to our grantees, who are really the true experts and have a sense of what’s doable. I think that it’s important to define what a national vision is — what is the federal interest in transportation — and get clear about that. It should be hopefully something that is more contemporary than the residue of the 1950’s interstate highway system, which obviously is complete. What we have now is a bias and a subsidy for building roads. I think that certainly served its purposes in the 20th century. But now we have to think about what is the next national purpose.

AN: If Rockefeller Foundation’s investments in transportation policy reform work well and pay off in the way that you hope, what kind of outcomes will we see in the coming years? 

NT: I think that we would be looking at a recognition that — and again this might be incremental and slow based upon our political system — but an eventual recognition that transportation should be seen as a tool to achieve a variety of other social benefits and ends. Transportation is not an end in and of itself but it should be a tool to enhance quality of life for people. We need adequate investment in a range of transportation options so that people are not spending 90 minutes a day or two hours a day stuck in their cars, away from their family, sitting in traffic and angry about it. Transportation policy should serve our climate imperatives, and have to take into account that by 2020 and 2050 we really ought to be hitting some benchmarks for the reduction of our emissions. Transportation should serve social equity. It should be seen as a tool that enhances opportunity for individuals and helps them to prosper, to move up the income ladder, to be connected to good jobs. Finally, federal transportation policies and funding should be directly related to broader national economic prosperity. It has to be thought of as an investment. If this country is to continue as an economic force globally, what kind of transportation networks do we need?

AN: So, you don’t really come out and say ‘We need a national rail network’ or ‘We need electric cars,’ or anything like that.

We see an increasingly tattered social contract. Investing in sustainable and equitable transportation, and the building of that infrastructure, is a source of good jobs and increases access to good jobs.

NT: To date, the argument has been about this mode versus that mode. And no doubt we’ve subsidized highways to a far greater extent than we’ve subsidized railroad or other means, so it’s certainly understandable when people say we need to shift more resources towards public transportation, high speed rail and the like. But if you’re thinking about transportation, again, as being a tool that helps you get to a set of broader societal benefits, you want to be somewhat mode-neutral. My guess is that any attempt to move towards those social benefits would, obviously, expand public transportation, rail, bus rapid transit, walking and biking. But I think it’s important to get out of this mode-against-mode battle because otherwise you’re not really addressing the problem.

AN: What organizations and projects is Rockefeller funding then to make this happen?

NT: The Brookings Institution has launched a metropolitan infrastructure initiative and put forth a seminal report called "A Bridge To Somewhere." The Bipartisan Policy Center is another grantee that has created a commission-like body that is really trying to think about what the long term vision should look like for transportation and also what is plausible in the short term. We’ve invested as well in the development of Transportation for America coalition, the campaign that will seek to really mobilize people and advance change on Capitol Hill. Building America’s Future is a coalition established by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that exhorts the federal government to acknowledge the crisis of insufficient infrastructure investment both in dollar terms but also in terms of climate sustainability. Those are just a few examples of our grantees.

AN: Does the media do an adequate job of covering this set of issues?

NT: No, not yet. I should actually mention that one of the grants that we’ve also made, we’ve established a communications partnership with Channel 13, WNET, which has launched something called "Blueprint America." It’s a multi-platform effort that seeks to explore the challenge facing America’s infrastructure, in particular, transportation infrastructure. One of the reasons why we entered the partnership with WNET was because it’s a complicated issue to understand when you talk about transportation infrastructure. I think that it’s hard to put into sound bites and to simplify in ways that are cogent. Take the example of the high gas prices this summer. To the extent that people discussed policy, it all turned towards expanding offshore drilling and the need for better gas mileage. There was little talk about what the federal, state and local governments can do to really reduce people’s reliance upon the automobile, and therefore reduce their costs. We want to see the paradigm start to shift more in those directions.