Cargo and Freight

As President Obama prepares to deliver a major jobs speech next week, he and two key Democratic Senators are warning that not extending transportation programs by the end of the month could compound America’s already significant job losses. This just as the federal government announced today that employers added no net jobs in August. There are also items this week about the impact of potential transportation funding cuts to states, the condition of U.S. infrastructure, alternative funding options, public-private partnerships, climate change and freight transportation.

State transportation officials this week called on Congress to take action by September 30th to extend the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax that funds federal highway and transit programs and to pass a long-term reauthorization of those programs. I also have items this week on the future of infrastructure finance, tolling, public transit, Smart Growth, a model for regional freight plans, Seattle’s new Big Dig and possible restructuring for the South Carolina Department of Transportation following a recent fiscal crisis.

The chances that the federal gas tax, which is set to expire Sept. 30, could be extended improved a bit this week as Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, announced he won’t oppose an extension. Also this week, New York’s Governor gives a boost to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, Georgia prepares for next year’s regional referenda on transportation project funding, and Seattle gives a thumbs up to a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Plus, items of note on transportation spending as stimulus, tolling and public-private partnerships, high-speed rail, public transportation, the 2012 presidential election and mileage-based user fees.

With the debt deal behind them and the Federal Aviation Administration at least temporarily reopened, members of Congress left on their annual month-long summer recess this week. When they return, only 24 days will remain until September 30, the end of the federal fiscal year when both the latest extension of SAFETEA-LU and most of the federal gas tax are due to expire. Some believe renewal of the gas tax could face opposition in Congress. Meanwhile, Senate leaders say the body could act on a successor to SAFETEA-LU after the break, as reports surfaced that Sen. Max Baucus has come up with a way to bridge the $12 billion funding gap between how much is in the Highway Trust Fund and how much the Senate’s two-year reauthorization measure proposes to spend. And state officials are pondering what the debt deal could mean for transportation. Plus, items of note on public-private partnerships, high-speed rail, tolling, motorcycle helmet laws and other issues.

With Washington still embroiled in the debt ceiling debate and no momentum for a new transportation reauthorization bill, we get a glimpse this week at the potential cost of doing nothing to improve America’s infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issues a new report today entitled “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Surface Transportation Infrastructure.” The report indicates that not only are American households and businesses absorbing enormous costs today as a result of deteriorating infrastructure, over the next 30 years these costs could further reduce America’s productivity and competitiveness in the world, cause millions of Americans to forgo discretionary purchases in order to pay transportation costs that could have been avoided, cause the U.S. to lose out on creating jobs in high paying services and manufacturing industries, produce a significant drain on wages and productivity and result in the United States losing billions of dollars in foreign exports.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $48 billion to states for transportation infrastructure projects. States achieved significant successes in 2010 in  meeting deadlines associated with the legislation, starting and completing projects on time and under budget, creating jobs and doing it all with little fraud or waste. Still, some questions have been raised about whether the stimulus could have had a greater impact, which types of projects were funded and which states received the most funding. Despite its political unpopularity in 2010, the Recovery Act proved its worth to state transportation officials around the country.

I’ve written before about how many suggest that future funding for transportation could and should be based on performance measures (see here and here). Now the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project is just out with a new report that offers their recommendations on how to incorporate them into the decision-making process.

It appeared to be a promising development last week when Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Max Baucus and Republican Sens. James Inhofe and David Vitter released a joint statement citing “great progress” and “common ground” on a new transportation authorization bill. But there is already significant skepticism that Boxer and her colleagues can deliver a promised six-year bill that would allow state and local leaders around the country to fund long-term transportation projects going forward. And as usual, there is no shortage of opinions on how changes in federal and state policy might help the nation better address its infrastructure needs.

Last week I blogged about a recent forum in which transportation and infrastructure experts came together to discuss how to move the conversation forward on addressing the nation’s infrastructure needs. One of the consistent themes throughout that meeting involved the need to put greater emphasis on performance metrics to assure the public and their representatives in government that investments in infrastructure are being well spent and having the kind of impact they hope in areas like economic development. Well there’s a new report out today from The Rockefeller Foundation and the Pew Center on the States that assesses the capacity of all 50 states to use those kinds of metrics to identify just what they’re getting for their transportation dollars.

State officials have plenty of thoughts on what should be in the next authorization of federal transportation programs. Last week they used a variety of venues to once again let Congress know their priorities for the successor to SAFETEA-LU, the 2005 authorization legislation that officially expired in 2009 which has been operating under a series of temporary extensions since. But many wonder whether a new bill that is expected to be substantially more limited in scope and dollars than past efforts can come close to meeting state wish lists.

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