By Dennis Polhill

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) was created in 1966 when numerous transportation related functions were brought together in one cabinet level department. The U.S. DOT currently consists of:

  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)
  • Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)
  • Federal Transit Administration (FTA) [formerly Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA)]
  • Maritime Administration
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
  • Coast Guard
  • Saint Lawrence Seaway Corp.
  • Research and Special Programs Administration
  • Office of Commercial Space Transportation

From 1966 to the present, massive amounts of federal funds filtered through U.S. DOT, and through its respective administrations, to the 5states. It was, therefore, expedient for the states to copy the organizational model of the U.S. DOT. Colorado was one of the last states to conform. In 1991, the Colorado Department of Highways was renamed the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). The only other transportation function consolidated under CDOT is the Division of Aeronautics (DOA). DOA sustained the Aeronautics Board as an oversight entity. The Aeronautics Board reports to the Transportation Commission.

Now that Colorado has positioned itself to more effectively compete with other states for federal funds, the game may no longer be the pursuit of federal funds. The passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991 by
the U.S. Congress, signifies a probable end to the era of massive federal subsidies. Although ISTEA appropriations decreased only slightly in 1991, the handwriting is on the wall. ISTEA consolidates appropriations to the respective states into one intermodal pool of funds. Did Congress relinquish control of funding to give states more control or to veil the inevitable future constriction of federal appropriations to the states?

The Federal Highway Trust Fund was established in 1956 with a 2C per gallon gasoline tax in order to finance the construction of the interstate highway system. The federal gasoline tax is now at 18.3C per gallon, and the fund has been building up a surplus since about 1980. The surplus has been loaned to the general fund, which will probably never be able to repay the loan. Prospects are high that federal gasoline tax will rise even more, and that Congress will allocate less to the states for transportation. As more of the gas tax is siphoned off to finance the national debt and other programs, less money will be available to be returned to the states for transportation purposes.

If the provision of adequate transportation services is to become increasingly the responsibility of the states, then a serious look at Colorado’s sources and applications of transportation resources is appropriate and the organizational model of a centrally controlled umbrella transportation entity may or may not best serve Colorado’s future transportation needs.

The assumptions that supports the concept of a state DOT are that technological experts are integrated under one roof to facilitate communication and interaction of competing modes. Policies established by the Legislature can be more effectively implemented and enforced through a central bureaucracy. Transportation resources that may be generated disproportionately among modes can be allocated via a centrally controlled plan of priorities.

Although CDOT is primarily a highway department, personnel have been assigned to the functions of aviation, transit, and railroads. Other U.S. DOT functions are not relevant to Colorado. In Colorado, these transportation services are provided by a variety of local governments, authorities, districts, private corporations, and non-profit corporations. Is it CDOT’s destiny to gobble up these disparate providers of transportation? Or is CDOT’s role more appropriately to facilitate, oversee, communicate, and coordinate? The principle of “subsidiarity” is that “no government task should be assigned to a body larger than the smallest that can satisfactorily perform it.” Subsidiarity is merely government’s version of Tom Peters’ book, In Search of Excellence, which has served to transform corporate America. Simply stated “the enemy is size.” Large bureaucratic corporations with unwieldy overhead cannot minimize expenses and find it difficult to compete. Thus, for corporations to capture efficiencies, they must down-size. Subsidiarity says that governments should do the same.

As long as CDOT is the owner and controller of Colorado’s highways, it cannot evolve into an efficient DOT. The perspective of its people will continue to slant toward highways rather than transportation.

Subsidiarity applied to Colorado’s transportation needs suggests that CDOT is appropriate, but that its role should be limited to facilitating, overseeing, communication, planning, coordinating and possibly research, technology transfer, and finance. Government owned and controlled monopolies are suspect and should be considered prospects for divestiture, devolution, privatization, contracting out, delegation, or decentralization. The big examples include highway ownership, operation and maintenance, and mass transit. The technological limitations that caused highways and mass transit to be natural government monopolies in past generations have disappeared.