Transportation Policy Academy 2016: Alison Black, American Road & Transportation Builders Association

Alison Premo Black, Ph.D., is senior vice president for policy and chief economist at the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) in Washington, D.C. In addition, she serves as deputy managing director of the Contractors Division and manages the Transportation Investment Advocacy Center. She was among the presenters at a policy roundtable CSG hosted on May 19 as part of the 6th Annual CSG Transportation Leaders Policy Academy in Washington. She spoke about the resources ARTBA offers to transportation advocates, the level of state transportation funding activity in recent years, the gas tax as a revenue source and Congress’ continuing quest for a long-term solution to maintain the federal Highway Trust  Fund.

On how people can use ARTBA resources…

“The idea behind the (Transportation Investment Advocacy Center), the (Transportation Investment Advocates Council and the website is that any advocate who’s interested in increasing transportation revenues of any sort can go here, find out what’s been going on, see what has worked in other areas and not have to reinvent the wheel.”

On the role of federal funds in transportation investment…

“About half of all the actual construction activity for highways and bridges for state programs is the federal funds. …The market impact of the federal investment is pretty much just holding things steady, holding the market flat. So that means real growth is not going to be coming from the federal program. This has been true over the last 15 years or so. Certainly the best thing about the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act (approved by Congress last year) is the five-year stability. That absolutely should help the market. But there’s not a real investment on the federal side like there was back with TEA-21 (Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, approved by Congress in 1998) and with some previous bills, which really did provide the growth and that’s unfortunate because … that federal investment has to be spent on capital outlays so we know it has a positive market impact. So this is where what’s going on with the state and local governments becomes so important because that’s going to be where the real growth is for expanding transportation networks and making those key investments.”

On the level of state transportation funding activity in recent years…

“We’ve had 17 gas tax increases just over the last three years. Historically we see anywhere from three to five in a two to three year period usually surrounding a federal (transportation) bill. So the fact that we’ve seen this much activity really points to the fact that I think states are facing the same thing the federal government is: decreasing purchasing power. Their economies are recovering since the recession in 2008.”

On highway spending levels…

“Our real highway spending levels have really been around $58 to $60 billion over the last 15 years. We have not seen any real significant growth in highway investment. A lot of spending has been going towards bridge work. You’ve also had material prices, a number of things going into that. But that’s an unsustainable level of investment when you think about growing economies, the demands on our system.”

On how states are following up on a year (2015) that saw the introduction of 179 bills related to transportation funding…

“We haven’t seen as many bills (in 2016). My sense is that … well, first of all, we have seen a lot of activity in the last few years so I wouldn’t expect that to be replicated. But there are also shorter (legislative) sessions, which I think has an impact. Or is there a little bit of politics in there as well? That people don’t want to take this on before the November elections and during a primary season? … It’s my feeling that it’s probably a combination of those things. But not as many bills obviously that have been introduced but still a fair number—89. We probably might see a few more (this year). Certainly in New Jersey, things are really coming to a head there in the next four to six weeks.”

On the gas tax as a revenue source…

“Revenues coming in to the Highway Trust Fund … are fairly steady over time. They’re declining by about 1 percent a year over the next 20 years. People are still driving, the economy is recovering, (vehicle miles traveled) is going up, but you do have more fuel efficient cars so those two factors are working at cross-purposes. But the gas tax (is) absolutely a solid funding source over the next 10 to 15 years. It just needs to be raised to keep in line with inflation.”

On how Congress must still find a long-term solution to maintain the solvency and viability of the federal Highway Trust Fund…

“As you’re thinking about the state piece, that federal piece is going to come and rear its ugly head again in a couple of years and we’re trying to work right now to get any sort of Highway Trust Fund fix through tax legislation or anything over the next few years because we’re going to come to a situation again where that $70 billion that was plugged in (to the FAST Act) to fill that hole is running out and we’re going to have this instability with the federal program again, which really wreaks havoc with state (departments of transportations).”

Further Reading