Top 5 Issues for 2012 Expanded: Transportation

As 2012 dawns, there is still no agreement on new legislation to authorize federal surface transportation programs. The previous legislation, known as SAFETEA-LU, officially expired in 2009 and the programs have been operating under a series of temporary extensions since then, the latest of which expires at the end of March. The primary cause of the delay in approving a SAFETEA-LU successor is of course money. The federal gas tax in recent years has not produced the kinds of revenues it once did and faces an unsustainable future. The Highway Trust Fund, which relies on the gas tax, has required frequent infusions of cash to continue programs. Yet the still struggling economy and other factors have made efforts to seek new revenues to fund transportation politically impossible. While some state governments have used this time of uncertainty at the federal level to move forward on their own to creatively fund infrastructure improvements, others appear to be hunkering down, making the decision to do only maintenance on existing facilities and hoping they can ride out the lack of revenues, shaky economy and growing infrastructure needs until better times are upon us. Here is my expanded list of the top five issues in transportation for 2012.

Defining a New National Vision and Purpose for the Federal Transportation Program

One underlying reason there is little agreement on investment in the nation’s transportation system is that there is also little agreement on the role the federal government should play in transportation going forward. The Interstate system produced a national rallying point in the middle of the last century, as the American people were presented with a map of what it would look like when complete. They knew exactly what their tax dollars were going towards and the benefits of this network of roads to the country’s future. Today there is no map and no clearly defined vision for the federal program. The number of programs at the federal level has grown exponentially over the years but ultra-specialized programs and their requirements have in many cases severely limited the flexibility of states and territories ("the states") to spend federal dollars where they are most needed. That’s led some to ask whether programs that lack a specific national purpose should be eliminated as the federal program returns to its core national interests, such as managing and preserving existing assets, improving safety, ensuring the mobility of freight and tackling important, tough-to-finance projects that bring taxpayers the biggest return on their investment from an economic development and job creation standpoint. But what is in the national interest as far as transportation is concerned? Does it extend beyond moving people and goods from state to state and region to region? What should the federal role be in shaping the transportation system of the future, in ensuring that states are investing in the best projects to ensure that future and in making sure that national objectives are being met? Is there a federal role and interest in investing in high-speed rail? Public transit? Bike and pedestrian facilities? Preservation of historic covered bridges? Rural connectivity? While these issues are likely to be decided in part by future federal authorization bills, states have an important role to play in helping to define a new national vision for transportation that can capture the imagination and support of the public and their leaders to move infrastructure forward. In helping to define that national vision, they can set the course for state governments going forward as well.

Localizing Transportation

But capturing the public's imagination also may require localizing transportation—defining specifically how states, localities and even individual commuters stand to benefit from specific transportation projects and the funding required to move them along. Congress has indicated that earmarks for specific projects won't be allowed in the next authorization bill. While the intent of the earmark ban may be to prevent expensive or inefficient projects that may not be in the national interest from being tacked onto the bill by powerful members of Congress at the 11th hour, the ban—along with what may be a reduced or at best static federal financial commitment to transportation—may mean that state governments have to play an increased role in making the case for infrastructure projects and funding them at home. Fortunately, some states have a track record of success in winning support for things like local bond issues and dedicated taxes when they are tied to specific projects. Although surveys show people don’t want to pay for an abstract idea (like “infrastructure improvement”), they will consider paying for very specific things that impact their daily lives, including capacity improvements that allow them to spend more time with their families and less time stuck in traffic. In Georgia this year, voters will decide on a region-by-region basis whether to approve a one-cent sales tax increase to fund transportation projects in their part of the state. Other states will be watching what happens closely. But regardless of what happens in Georgia, other states are likely to experiment in the years ahead with targeted approaches to financing infrastructure with campaigns that seek to win support for revenue increases by letting the public know exactly what they’re getting in their region for their tax money and that it’s not being spent on transportation facilities they never use in other parts of the state.  

Moving Towards Data-Driven Decision-Making in Transportation

Limited federal and state funding for transportation in recent years and the focus of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on “shovel-ready” projects like road repaving and bridge repainting have to some degree meant scaled-back or delayed ambitions for the nation’s transportation system. While many still hope that passage of a long-term federal authorization bill will allow states to dream big again, be bold in their planning and get out of infrastructure triage mode to tackle lots of major, transformative projects, fiscal and political realities make that seem unlikely. Most believe in order to get America back on the path to “doing big things” again, it will be necessary to have programs in place to ensure we’re investing in the most “shovel-worthy” projects, those with the potential for long-term job creation and economic development and not just temporary road construction jobs. Under this scenario, megaprojects like major bridge crossings could see added emphasis. So too could multimodal and intermodal transportation solutions that provide commuters with travel options and help improve the flow of the nation’s supply chain. In some cases it could mean not investing in new projects at all but fixing the existing infrastructure and using technology to improve operations of the overall system. Whatever the case, new levels of accountability and transparency will be important, along with the development of new performance measures and tools to perform cost-benefit analyses and measure return-on-investment. A number of states--including Arkansas, California, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, Oregon and Texas--are already moving forward to develop the metrics needed to make assessment of our transportation investments a reality.

Streamlining Project Delivery

States are also likely to play an important role in improving the processes under which transportation projects are completed if, as expected, the next federal authorization bill makes reforms a priority. Possible targets for reform include streamlining project delivery by: reducing the number of funding categories, providing greater flexibility to states to spend federal dollars and allowing concurrent completion of environmental requirements and other project stages. Some states may explore making greater use of alternative procurement methods such as design-build contracting, which allows one contractor to tackle both the design and construction of the project rather than having different contractors make bids at each stage. That can also open the door to a greater role for the private sector at all stages of transportation projects. Public-private partnerships are expected to become more common in the years ahead and several states have already established a track record on how to shape and manage such relationships to take advantage of private sector innovations and efficiencies while protecting the public interest.

Convincing the Skeptics

For those state policymakers who believe additional investment in infrastructure is needed, one of their biggest challenges in 2012 may be convincing a skeptical public. It may require them to take political risks in helping educate the public on the ongoing costs of infrastructure, the fiscal challenges facing state governments, the unsustainable nature of current transportation revenue sources and the kinds of projects that will be needed to modernize the nation’s transportation system. Some among the public will likely require convincing that their tax money is not being wasted on bloated, inefficient, poorly planned projects and monuments to political influence. Surveys show many Americans have a limited understanding of what transportation actually costs or how it is funded. Policymakers and others haven’t always done an effective job of explaining to the public what the federal gas tax is used for versus what state gas taxes are used for. Moreover, many Americans mistakenly believe their gas taxes go up every year. There is also a lack of understanding of the life-cycle costs of transportation facilities. Roads and bridges are never “free” or “already paid for” since they require frequent maintenance. Experts say there are a number of other arguments policy makers should emphasize in their efforts to inform the public about the need for transportation investment, including:

  • Improved transportation systems help consumers save money by making the nation’s supply chain run more efficiently and reducing the price of the goods they buy.
  • Investing in transportation now saves us money in the long run and helps create jobs at a time they are most needed.
  • Infrastructure investment is also vital to the nation’s long-term economic health.
  • Finally, rather than emphasizing the Herculean effort and massive sums it will take to address all of the nation’s infrastructure needs, policymakers should emphasize the details of state and regional transportation plans where benefits to citizens will be most visible, especially those with the potential to have a significant impact on their quality of life.

Additional Resources:

CSG Resources

Other Resources

American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO)

American Society of Civil Engineers

Bipartisan Policy Center: National Transportation Policy Project

Transportation Research Board

U.S. Chamber of Commerce: Let’s Rebuild America

U.S. Department of Transportation

U.S. House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure:

U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works


See the rest of CSG's Top 5 Issues for 2012: