Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Transportation Legislation to Ponder as Summer Recess Nears

Though it seems like it could be years before a transportation reauthorization bill gets signed, I continue to get news of organizational positions and grand ideas ranging from broad national goals to local control. Considering that this is constant, I try not to write about it too often. I am sure that once Congress gets to reauthorization, I will have time to discuss the major players and how their preferences could affect policy, funding and our own everyday lives in the years to come.

Now that I've said I won't bother you with reauthorization "stuff," I have to mention an interesting piece in the newsletter of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). During a town hall meeting of state departments of transportation (DOT) staff and advocates and at the federal DOT, those who administer transportation programs expressed their views about reauthorization.

Delay Has its own Costs

Participants complained about the delay in getting a new bill crafted and signed. Projects are put off and long-term planning is difficult. This seemed more like letting off steam as everyone is aware that with Congressional and Administration work on health care and financial reform, not to mention immigration law, it is pretty near impossible for Congress to take on transportation as well right now.

Some called for local control and flexibility, but the major concern was how to fund transportation in the next reauthorization. Participants conceded that the gas tax will not be increased. Mentioned was the use of tolls on federal highways.

Administration's Mobility Priorities

From the Secretary of Transportation's blog post from the first reauthorization town hall meeting in January, through his and other DOT statements since, mobility options other than the car and public health are high on the Administration's list of priorities. In fact, the first town hall meeting took place in Minnesota right near a new light rail line. (This must have been important to the Secretary himself because other than Minnesotans, who would travel to Minnesota in January?)

Paying for Transportation Improvements and Maintenance

One idea that has gotten traction and has an aggressive proponent in Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell is a national infrastructure bank. AASHTO's newsletter and the Secretary's blog have both addressed that topic. AASHTO's article about a Chamber of Commerce event pointed out that the real issues are sensible funding strategies and better accounting of the benefits of transportation investments.

"The government has all these different transportation finance programs, but there isn't one central place where you can go to get funding for a project," said panelist Jack Basso, director of program finance and management at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "Instead you have to sift through all the pieces to find one that fits your project. A bank would be a much simpler solution to this problem."

Gov. Rendell pointed out that federal budgeting systems do not reflect the potentially significant benefits in job creation and income-tax revenue that transportation investment brings.

Opening Offer

According to the Secretary's blog, the Administration's opening offer for a National Infrastructure Bank included a launch of "$4 billion that will fund significant national and regional high-priority projects. It will also leverage private investment. Direct awards for this funding will model our highly regarded TIGER grants, many of which went to creative, multi-stakeholder partnerships." However, that was in February.

Even the bank's supporters concede that federal investment in the bank will not be sufficient to pay for necessary maintenance and enhancements to our existing transportation system.

More Information

An explanation of how the National Infrastructure Bank would work is explained in an interview with Gov. Rendell in an Infrastucturist blog post. A very critical analysis of the bank idea can be found in a Reason Foundation blog post from 2009. The foundation explicitly takes libertarian positions on the many topics it addresses.

For future reference, I keep a record of the major transportation reauthorization position statements and legislative recommendations of members of the National Consortium on the Coordination of Human Services Transportation, the Transportation and Livable Communities Consortium and others.


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