Top 5 Issues in 2012: Transportation
As 2012 dawns, there is still no agreement on new legislation to authorize federal surface transportation programs, and much of the transportation funding states received from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is gone. While some state and territorial governments (“the states”) 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 are the top five issues in transportation for 2012.
Defining a New National Vision and Purpose for the Federal Transportation Program
One underlying reason for the lack of agreement at the federal level regarding investment in the nation’s transportation system is a lack of agreement on the role the federal government should play in transportation. Some suggest the federal program should return to core national interests, such as managing and preserving existing assets, improving safety, ensuring the mobility of freight and tackling important, tough-to-finance projects. States will play an important role in helping to define a new national vision for transportation that can capture the imagination and support of the public and its leaders at both the state and federal levels to move infrastructure forward.
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. In Georgia this year, for example, voters will decide on a region-by-region basis whether to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase to fund transportation projects in their part of the state. Regardless of what happens there though, states are likely to experiment more in the years ahead with these sort of targeted approaches. Some states already have a track record in winning support for things like local bond issues and dedicated taxes when they are tied to specific projects.
Moving Toward Data-Driven Decision-Making in Transportation
Many believe the U.S. should develop programs to ensure it is investing in the most “shovel-worthy” projects, those with the potential for long-term job creation and economic development. That will require new levels of accountability and transparency, as well as 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. States are likely to continue pursuing creative public-private partnerships in transportation to take advantage of private sector innovations and efficiencies.
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 by helping to 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.