Extended Interview: James Corless, Transportation for America

Transportation for America is a Washington, DC-based alliance of elected, business and civic leaders from around the country that advocates for locally driven transportation solutions as a key to economic prosperity. Next month in Denver, the organization will host a two-day conference entitled “Capital Ideas: Raising Money for Transportation Through Innovative State Legislation” (register here; see full agenda here). The conference, which is geared towards state legislators and others, will look back on the experiences of states that have recently had success in passing transportation funding measures, examine innovative state policies and provide a how-to guide for policymakers on messaging, campaign strategy and coalition building to move funding initiatives forward. Transportation for America Director James Corless discussed the conference in this recent interview, portions of which also appear in the October 23rd edition of the CSG Capitol Ideas E-Newsletter.

CSG: What does T4America hope to accomplish with this conference?

James Corless: “Transportation for America (T4A) wants to unite civic, business and elected leaders in order to advance state transportation funding and policy reform in state legislatures over the next two years.”

CSG: What do you hope attendees will be able to take away?

Corless: “T4A hopes that participants will come away from this event with new knowledge, tools and networks to achieve their objectives in advancing innovative transportation funding and policy reform at the state level.  We also hope they’ll be inspired to act based on the many success stories that we’ll be highlighting from states who have succeeded in raising transportation revenue over the last two years.”

CSG: Who is the audience for the conference?

Corless: “The conference will draw a very diverse audience including legislators and state officials, local elected, civic and business leaders and transportation experts, community-based organizations and advocates working in state capitols across the country.”

CSG: As you look at the states that have tackled transportation funding legislation over the last couple of years, what can folks in other states learn and how much of what happened in those states is a factor of unique circumstances, politically or otherwise?

Corless: “While the situations in each state vary, we see many similarities in the new funding legislation that has passed in recent years. Each state has been placed in the same bind: traditional gas tax revenues are falling, making federal and state funds less certain. Yet states face a growing demand for maintaining aging transportation systems and building new 21st century transportation networks to meet the needs of growing local and regional economies. As a result, many states are reaching a critical point and need to find new transportation funding. A key feature in all of the successful legislative efforts in the past two years was building political will and consensus, and most efforts featured a governor who stood up for new transportation investment along with a wide range of political interests who united to support the effort. Moreover, with each of these efforts legislators needed to clearly demonstrate the value of additional transportation funding. Innovative policies, including competitive grant programs, transportation performance measures, and innovative financing tools are allowing state officials to prove the value of these investments. These policies are valuable for all states to look at and that is why they feature prominently in our agenda.”

CSG: There are some in Congress who would like to cut the federal gas tax and let states have the bulk of responsibility for raising money for transportation and deciding what to spend it on. When we talk in the same breath about the inertia we’ve seen at the federal level in recent years and the recent burst of state activity, is there any concern that the message those members of Congress will take away is that states can stand on their own if the federal program goes away entirely?

Corless: “States and local governments need a reliable federal funding partner, period. After a long recession that depressed revenues of all kinds and with gas tax revenues flat or dropping, state and local governments face a huge backlog that they are working to address. Their efforts are absolutely predicated on the continued existence of a federal program.”

“They make these investments because their economies depend on them.  And because the nation’s economy is the aggregation of these local economies, the country depends on them, too. Stripping away most federal funding for surface transportation projects would reduce funding for the federal-aid highway program by more than 80 percent by 2019, from $45 billion to less than $8 billion annually. How states would make up for this is anyone’s guess. It would also decimate the federal transit program, extinguishing $8 billion from state and local public transportation agencies, which rely on these funds for more than 43 percent of their capital investments. How many states want to have the fight over replacing those revenues?”

“If the defunding proposal in Congress passed, every state would have to have a battle over huge increases in their gas taxes, with some needing to raise taxes by up to 30 cents a gallon to make up the difference.”

“States and localities should be acting to increase revenues to fund priority projects, but they should be doing so as a supplement to a strong federal commitment, not as an action to fill the federal government’s constitutionally mandated role in shaping interstate commerce.”

CSG: One of the folks who is going to have a prominent role at the conference is James Whitty from the Oregon Department of Transportation. As we look ahead to 2015, how important is the effort to get Oregon’s (Mileage-Based) Road Usage Charge Program up and running going to be and will a lot of states be keeping a close eye on that?

Corless: “A road usage charge (RUC) program is just one option available to state and local elected officials in shoring up and providing sustainable long-term transportation funding mechanisms. Other possibilities include dedication of general revenues for transportation investment, increasing gas tax revenues or other transportation-related taxes or fees, and increasing non-transportation related taxes for transportation use. However, many in the transportation sector believe RUC programs offer states the ability to adequately sustain user-generated revenue models for long-term investment needs, while also distributing user fees across all vehicles regardless of fuel source and reducing the impact of the current regressive gas tax structure.”

“For these reasons, the launch of the nation’s first permanent RUC program in Oregon in July 2015 is important. Oregon’s leadership has spurred other states such as California, Indiana and Washington to evaluate RUC programs and move towards their own pilot programs. However, many states and local governments are looking to the outcomes from Oregon’s program as the bellwether. Further, if successful, Oregon’s implementation of its RUC Program stands to greatly advance a national framework for movement from the federal excise gas tax to a RUC program.

“As the nation’s leader on RUCs and other innovative financing mechanisms, James Whitty will provide conference attendees insight into Oregon’s development of its RUC Program and lessons everyone should consider, and provide a vision and strategy to advance state and local RUC programs throughout the country.”

CSG: What other states should we keep an eye on for 2015 where transportation funding might be on the agenda?

Corless: “The squeeze of falling revenue and new passenger and freight mobility demands is pushing transportation funding to the top of the agenda in many states. Some interesting cases include Idaho, which may expand the availability of local option taxes; Minnesota, which, after a growing effort in the past two years, will again pursue new statewide transportation funding; and Georgia, where transportation advocates are aiming for new funding after the (Transportation Special Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax) effort came up short in much of the state two years ago. Look also for active debates on new state and local funding in Connecticut, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee and Wisconsin.”

CSG: Denver will be the backdrop for this meeting and that city has a unique story to tell, particularly when it comes to local funding for transportation and transit. We’ve seen the Denver Eagle P3 light rail project provide something of a roadmap for Maryland as they undertake a public-private partnership to build the Purple Line for instance. What will attendees learn during their time in Denver and in hearing from community officials there?

Corless: “The Denver region provides inspiring examples of how leaders from across a region can unite on a transportation vision that ensures continued prosperity and how officials can overcome numerous roadblocks—including collapsing revenue during the great recession—by ambitiously adopting new policies and new financing tools. We are dedicating a panel to learning from ‘the Denver Story’ and will feature the diverse leaders who recognized the need and fought to realize the solution.”

CSG: The second day of the conference is going to focus on things like messaging, campaign strategies and coalition building. How important a part of what you hope to accomplish with the meeting are those aspects of the discussion?

Corless: “The ‘how-to’ is a vital part of our conference. Our goal is not just to discuss the trends in state transportation funding, but to arm attendees with all the tools they need to enact these policies in their states through legislative action and advocacy campaigns. Reaching any of these solutions will require much more than smart policy alone: it will require a broad and diverse coalition, a tailored message and effective legislative strategy.”