Authorization

There were lots of transportation-related headlines to take away from Tuesday’s election: The chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee going down to defeat and what it might mean for authorization legislation… The future of high-speed rail put in doubt by the election of three new Republican governors opposed to rail projects… And a somewhat mixed message from voters on revenues for transportation. Although it will likely take a long time to sort it all out, here are some initial thoughts.

President Obama stepped up the urgency in his call for increased infrastructure spending during remarks Monday in the White House Rose Garden. Although the President primarily echoed the plan he originally outlined on Labor Day calling for the rebuilding of 150,000 miles of roads, 4,000 miles of rail lines, and 150 miles of airport runways, he came armed with plenty of new evidence that infrastructure improvements would be an effective tool in aiding the nation’s economic recovery and ensuring a brighter future.

The U.S. transportation system lacks a coherent vision, is chronically short of resources, is costing the country dearly in lost time, money and safety and is compromising our productivity and ability to compete internationally. Those are some of the conclusions in a new report entitled “Well Within Reach” issued on behalf of a bipartisan panel of transportation experts who met for three days last year at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. While none of that is likely to be news to many, the report does offer a series of recommendations for a new transportation agenda that are worthy of consideration.

More evidence this week that renewed investment in the nation’s transportation system is needed--and soon: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released their first-ever Transportation Performance Index, which shows that the performance of the system is not keeping pace with the rate of growth of demands on it. Meanwhile, two states got very different kinds of news about the challenges they face in upgrading that system.

While tolling has long been a fact of life for folks in the Northeastern United States, other parts of the country have also been getting into the act in recent years. Our latest CSG Capitol Research brief entitled “Tolling and Congestion Pricing” examines toll projects underway across the country, the use of tolling as both revenue generating mechanism and part of a congestion reduction strategy, the modernization of toll payment systems and the chances for future proliferation of toll facilities. The brief includes a 50-state chart breaking down the number of each type of toll facility in each state. With a complete list of references, it’s also a good source for further reading on tolling and congestion issues. But there are a number of other recently released reports that may be of interest to you as well.

States are increasingly turning to tolling not only as a revenue source to assist in funding improvements to highways but also as part of efforts to reduce congestion on the nation's roads. Although tolls appear to be more popular with the public than taxes for now, that popularity may be tested with continued expansion in the coming years. States are partnering with private companies to build and operate new toll roads. They're also turning to all-electronic tolling to increase efficiency, eliminate bottlenecks, save money and make payment of tolls more convenient. This brief explores the current state of tolling in the United States and prospects for future growth.

President Obama this week proposed $50 billion in new infrastructure spending for roads, railways and airport runways and promised to pair it with “a long-term framework to reform and expand our nation’s investment in transportation infrastructure.” While the plan was welcomed by many, others wondered if it was too little, too late and pretty much dead on arrival with just eight weeks to go before the mid-term elections. It was—at the very least—a long-awaited conversation starter that included some not altogether unfamiliar or unexpected ideas.

Despite billions in Recovery Act dollars spent on infrastructure over the last year and half, the nation still faces an epidemic of crumbling roads and bridges in the years ahead and a shortage of dollars to pay for it all under current funding conditions. That’s the picture that emerges from CSG’s new four-page Capitol Facts & Figures brief entitled “Condition of U.S. Roads & Bridges.”

With 45 percent of roads in less than good condition and 12 percent of bridges structurally deficient, the U.S. faces severe infrastructure needs that significantly impact the nation's economy. State governments face huge gaps between how much they need to spend to repair roads in the coming years and how much they expect to have under current funding. While there are some state success stories, the infrastructure in other states is in danger of backsliding. This brief makes the case for encouraging Congress to consider legislation reauthorizing federal transportation programs soon and for taking steps to ensure infrastructure improvements are adequately funded.

I’m not sure if it’s enough to constitute a groundswell or a movement just yet but there have certainly been rumblings in recent weeks that there will at least be a push for Congress to consider a reauthorization bill in the near term, perhaps in a “lame duck” session after the election. This after months of hearing that it likely wouldn’t happen until after the 2012 presidential election.

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