Proposed transportation bill eagerly awaited

Center for Transportation Studies comes in.
With funding from the federal and state government, the center works to make the nation’s veins safer, less congested and easier for emergency vehicles to navigate.
About 19 percent of the center’s annual budget comes from federal money. The center, which began its work in 1985, applies the $1 million it gets from the federal government each year to a host of projects.
Some of the projects the center executes include:
ù using video cameras and computer simulation programs to study problems with congestion;
ù researching car-pool lanes with heat-detecting cameras to cut down on lane abusers who use blow-up dolls and animals to satisfy occupancy requirements;
ù studying whether relationships between telephones, computers and e-mail cut down on business travel or increase it because of expanded transaction circles.
Certain projects require collaboration with the state transportation department. Because of this, the Minnesota Department of Transportation contributes some of its federal aid to the University.
Each year the state can allocate 25 percent of its federal funds to the University’s center.
How much the center gets from the state varies by year and the number of projects underway. The University has gotten anywhere from $250,000 to $2 million annually from the state’s research branch called Guidestar.
The center works in conjunction with faculty from several University departments to further transportation initiatives. From the English department to the Institute of Child Development, the faculty is as varied as the projects.
Although the center funds and executes hundreds of projects, it doesn’t accept just any proposal. Each one is examined by a team of 10 to 20 volunteers who consider the project for three to six months.
Resources are allocated to different projects depending on whether they can be used outside in the real world, not just in the lab.
This, said Minnesota Rep. Martin Sabo, makes the center’s federal funding justifiable. Sabo has championed the center’s causes as a key Democrat on the House Transportation Appropriation Subcommittee.
Sabo said the reports he gets every year on the center’s progress prove to him that its research is essential and has great potential for the future.
Other factors also play into decisions on what projects the center will undertake.
McCullough said the center rates projects depending on whether they can find a partner who can use the product and a faculty member with the expertise to make it.
There have not been any real research failures, McCullough said, and the teams don’t look for specific things to turn down when looking at proposals. It’s just a matter of timing and convincing possible supporters.
A study involving the possibility of charging people to use specific freeways in Minnesota hasn’t panned out the way center officials would have liked. The idea for the research wasn’t a failure; getting support for it was the hard part.
“It’s not that the research is bad, it’s just a controversial idea,” McCullough said.
Cities in California and Georgia are among the places where this concept is being implemented as a way to alleviate traffic.
Other University departments, such as the Human Factors Research Laboratory greatly depend on funding from the center. They work extensively with the center on many projects.
The lab has screens and computers to simulate driving situations and road conditions.
“We try to understand how people drive and those factors that might contribute to problems and factors that might contribute to their safety,” said Stephen F. Scallen, interim director of the Human Factors Research Laboratory.
Each year the lab gets a significant portion of its funding — about $350,000 — from the transportation study center.
Running down a list of accomplishments of the Center for Transportation Research, McCullough is firm in his belief the center casts a wide web of influence across the state and nation.
“I think that there are tremendous benefits to transportation but it imposes a very high cost to the public in terms of pollution, cost and safety — we want to reduce this,” said McCullough. “I think there have been some real successes over the past six years.”

Proposed transportation bill eagerly awaited

With a fifth of its $5 million budget coming from the federal government, it’s no wonder why the University’s Center for Transportation Studies officials have their eyes on Washington, D.C., this year. Members of Congress are sifting through project requests as they put together a six-year blueprint for federal transportation spending. In all, more than $200 billion could be doled out to state and local governments and transportation centers like one at the University.
The center, which studies transportation habits and develops transit innovations, secured $6 million during Congress’ last bout with transportation policy in 1991.
A repeat performance is expected with Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, in the center’s corner. In fact, officials say it could come away with twice the amount it did in 1991.
“He’s happy enough with what we’ve done here to say we’ll double the funding,'” said Lowell Benson, manager of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Laboratory.
The bill would give more than $400 million to Minnesota transportation projects each year for the next six years. Of this, $12 million would go toward the University’s research.
Specific projects endorsed by members of Congress in the transportation act, like the center, are not what has political heads talking. Officials worry the bill, if passed in its current form, would put the 1997 balanced budget agreement out of whack by $33 billion.
“If you look at the way money is actually allocated, it has to do with political seniority and influence more than anything else,” said Ronald Utt, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. His conservative foundation monitors legislation like the transportation bill, highlighting projects that are politically motivated.
While the Heritage Foundation did not pinpoint the University’s transportation center allocation, it has been described as a generous benefactor of Oberstar.
Under the 1991 law, Minnesota is one of several states that came out ahead in allocations for federal gas tax money. For every dollar Minnesotans put into a transportation trust fund, the state gets back an average of $1.08.
Although Minnesota doesn’t get the most money — Massachusetts receives $2.40 per dollar of gas taxes paid — the state gets more than its neighbors to the east. Wisconsin gets 89 cents; Michigan pulls in 81 cents.
Rep. David Minge, D-Minn., is one of the bill’s critics. He said he is not opposed to the transportation bill itself, but he disagrees with the budgeting process that designated 1,400 individual projects requested by legislators.
He said these projects, which are sometimes called “pork,” are used by lawmakers to garner support from voters. Minge referred to these pork projects as “tantalizing little plums.”
Some Republicans have said in order for the transportation bill to pass in its entirety, other programs such as Social Security, Medicare and education would have to be cut. Yet, that is in dispute as well.
“You don’t need to take money out of Medicare,” Oberstar said in an interview Tuesday with Minnesota Public Radio. “You don’t need to cut Medicaid, don’t need to cut Social Security or any other of the mandatory spending programs of the federal government to spend out the revenues that are coming in from the highway trust fund.”
That’s because the money for transportation comes from highway users themselves — through gasoline taxes.
“Anyone proposing cutting mandatory programs is playing with fire and is playing politics with this initiative,” Oberstar said.
Like Oberstar, Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., has visited the University’s center. While he doesn’t support the size of the total bill, he backs the appropriation to the University.
Sabo said the center does good work and that’s why its funding should be increased — not because it’s a pork project.
“I always suggest to the people that say that, that they come and take a bite and see if it tastes pork,’ said Sabo. “I say it tastes more like beef.”