Transportation Reauthorization Efforts Unfold

Posted on July 13, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

The transportation systems that are essential to the functioning of our economy and quality of life are in a state of crisis. They have been allowed to fall into dangerous disrepair and obsolescence due to decades of underinvestment in maintenance and expansion of capacity.

A huge fight in Congress is underway which will redesign our transport system and determine how it is paid for. The outcome of this Congressional fight will determine our economic future and shape our national destiny. Its implications for all our citizens and every business in America are immense.

Technological improvements in cars, trucks, planes, and locomotives have allowed us to travel faster, farther, much more efficiently, and with less environmental impact than ever before. Yet, the highways, rail networks, and airports that these new vehicles must operate on actually provide less capacity, in poorer condition, than twenty years ago.

Congestion on our highway, freight rail, and aviation systems levies billions of dollars in costs on U.S. businesses and consumers each year. Transportation costs are the major reason our manufactured goods can’t compete in global markets despite decades of management and technology-driven innovation. Some of our Interstate bridges are in such poor condition that access ramps are being torn off to reduce weight loads sufficiently to keep them open to traffic.

Many of these issues collide in the pending reauthorization of the pathetically inadequate highway and transit law enacted in 2005. This law is already in its sixth short term extension. Some experts predict that months-long extensions may continue for years. But extending poor policy only increases costs and jeopardizes safety and jobs. Postponing infrastructure rehabilitation, like postponing dental work, only leads to greater pain and greater expense.

In a remarkable series of Congressional hearings, both public and private sector have been unified in their call for an increase in highway user fees to finance urgently needed investment in these transportation systems. But, as yet, there is no political will to increase user fees sufficiently to assure safe operation – let alone the expansion and modernization – of America’s highway and transit systems. Congress and the Administration aren’t listening.

President Obama, after making campaign promises to address our nation’s huge infrastructure needs, opposes any increase in the federal gas tax or other transportation user fees. His Administration endorses “livable communities” and increased investment in non-motorized modes of travel, i.e. bikes and pedestrian facilities. But unless user fees are increased, these livable community initiatives will further reduce federal investment in basic highway and transit needs.

A few brave leaders on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee have proposed a $500 billion six-year complete overhaul of the U.S. surface transportation programs. Although there is no consensus on how to finance this legislation, there is remarkable bipartisan support for this proposal.

The future of this House legislation will depend on whether Congress will heed the urgent call of public and private sector interests to increase user fees, and how the resulting revenues are divided among programs and states. Not until the Ways and Means Committee determines the amount of revenue available, can the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee move its legislation to restructure U.S. DOT and federal highway and transit programs.

The Senate claims to be developing its own rewrite of the highway/transit law in a version sure to include strong environmental mandates and an emphasis on congestion relief. While laudable, this approach won’t gain enough votes to pass in the Senate unless both increases in user fees and distributions of resulting revenue among programs and states are considered fair by at least 60 Senators. This is a huge legislative task, which is not likely to foster the sizeable increases in user fees necessary to fix the problem.

There are geographic tensions inherent in this reauthorization. Balancing these competing interests will be a challenge, but there is no excuse for delay. Both public and private sector shareholders need to participate and support dramatic changes in federal transportation policy and investment now. Without this, there will not be the political will to address what is becoming one of the most serious problems facing our nation. Billions of dollars, the future of our economy, the safety of our travel, and our world leadership depend on it.

Be sure your voice is heard and your interests protected as highway, transit, aviation, freight, rail, and waterborne transportation reauthorization efforts unfold.

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