CSG Publications Highlight Austin Meeting, MAP-21 Project Delivery, Mileage-Based User Fees, Panama Canal Expansion

We have several new transportation-related publications here in the Knowledge Center this month. Here are a few updates and additional resources on the topics they address.


CSG National Conference Preview

  • I have an article in this week’s Capitol Ideas E-Newsletter previewing the next meeting of the CSG Transportation Policy Task Force, which will take place at the CSG National Conference in Austin, Texas on December 1st (register here, see the agenda here). The article includes comments from two of our speakers: Texas Department of Transportation Chief Financial Officer James Bass and Texas A&M Transportation Institute Researcher Richard Baker. The article looks at such issues as how state DOTs view MAP-21, concerns about how sequestration and the impending fiscal cliff could impact transportation, how continuing uncertainty about the future of the federal transportation program may impact the creditworthiness of states, whether mileage-based user fees might ensure a more sustainable future for transportation, and how Texas is employing innovative finance to meet its infrastructure needs. You can also read extended transcripts of my interviews with Bass and Baker here in the Knowledge Center.
  • Speaking of MAP-21, veteran transportation analyst and Innovation Briefs Publisher Ken Orski writes this month about “Transportation Infrastructure in the Post-MAP-21 Era” on the National Journal Transportation Experts Blog. He predicts the era will be marked by more short-term authorizations like the two-year MAP-21 and a shift away from transportation funding toward transportation financing fueled by the expanded TIFIA program and accumulated equity in pension funds and private infrastructure investment funds. Of short-term authorizations, Orski argues “To be sure, some in the stakeholder community will contend that longer-term (i.e. five- or six-year) authorizations are necessary to allow for orderly planning and implementation of capital projects. They will argue that short-term bills will not provide the kind of funding certainty that major public works require. But large capital investments seldom figure on contemporary state DOTs’ and transit authorities’ agendas anymore.”
  • U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said this week that the debate over the next authorization bill will be less about content and more about how to fund it. During remarks at the National Association of City Transportation Officials conference in New York City, the secretary conceded that the two-year MAP-21 doesn’t give state and city officials a big enough window to carry out their transportation visions. “The best thing about MAP-21, it’s only two years,” LaHood told attendees. LaHood expects that debate on the next authorization to begin in earnest in the new year if the President is re-elected. First, Congress will have to use their lame duck session after the election to perhaps tackle a transportation appropriations bill and to try to avert the across-the-board spending cuts that sequestration could bring. Streetsblog Capitol Hill has more about LaHood’s comments at NACTO. Bike Portland had this report on the event, which also included remarks by New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.
  • My E-News article includes a discussion of transportation revenue mechanisms that may be considered in Texas during the legislative session next year. One think tank, the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, says lawmakers should add one more idea to the list: raising the tax on beer to help pay for roads. KXII-TV had this report on the proposal. Texas, which ranks second in the nation in beer consumption, has not raised its tax on beer since 1984.
  • My article includes a mention of a recent report by the national transportation research group TRIP that assesses Texas’ mobility needs and what those needs are costing the state. This week it’s the state of Maine that gets the TRIP treatment. According to the group’s new report, Maine faces a $150 million annual transportation funding shortfall over the next decade. One third of the state’s major roads are deteriorated, nearly a third of bridges need repair or replacement, rural traffic fatality rates are high, and the extra costs that come from driving on deficient roads are being passed on to motorists. TRIP says increased investment in transportation improvements at the local, state and federal levels is needed to improve road and bridge conditions, boost safety and support long-term economic growth in Maine.
  • My article also mentions Texas State Highway 130, the new privately financed and operated tollway between Austin and San Antonio that opened this week to traffic. Cox Newspapers, The Christian Science Monitor, NBC’s Today show and Fox News were among those who reported Wednesday on the road, which has the fastest speed limit in the nation at 85 mph. Despite safety concerns, some believe there could be a ripple effect across the country with toll roads trying faster speed limits as a way of attracting additional revenues.
  • The Washington Post meanwhile has an interesting story this week on a toll road in the DC area—Maryland’s Intercounty Connector—that went a different direction on the speed limit (it’s 55, which some drivers think is too low). Although some in the area have suggested the road is often devoid of traffic, the Maryland Transportation Authority says the toll road is mostly exceeding traffic and revenue projections.  
  • Tollroads News has an update this week on the Texas SH 130 opening as well as the upcoming openings of two other privately financed projects in Virginia—the Jordan Bridge in Chesapeake (10/29) and the 495 Express Lanes on the Capitol Beltway in the DC suburbs (late November). Transurban, the company that financed the Express Lanes project, opened its Alexandria-based command center for that facility last week, WAMU radio reported. Tollroads News also reported this week on the plethora of smaller toll projects in Texas.

Accelerating Highway Project Delivery Under MAP-21

  • The aforementioned new Jordan Bridge was reportedly built using some 800 segments of precast concrete. Prefabricated bridge elements like those used on the Jordan Bridge are one of the strategies noted in my new Capitol Research brief on “Accelerating Highway Project Delivery Under MAP-21.”
  • Secretary LaHood blogs this week about the Federal Highway Administration’s Every Day Counts initiative, which is also highlighted in the brief: “The program has been such a success that even Congress took notice. The transportation bill President Obama signed this summer, MAP-21, includes several Every Day Counts techniques and complements a number of others. Every Day Counts is about a lot more than just completing road and bridge projects more quickly. It’s about changing the culture of the transportation community so that it embraces innovation as the standard way of doing business.”
  • AASHTO’s Transportation TV has a new series called Asset Management Now with Matt Hardy. Hardy, who is the transportation association’s program director for planning and policy, hosts the monthly series which will “highlight ways in which state transportation departments and other agencies are using asset management to stretch dollars and streamline project delivery,” according to a press release.

Future of Mileage-Based User Fees

  • I looked at the future of mileage-based user fees and some of the more recent pilot projects around the country in a recent Capitol Research brief.
  • Washington is another state just beginning to examine the feasibility of a road usage charge system. Washington Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond and some of her colleagues gave a PowerPoint presentation at a recent Washington-Oregon joint transportation committee meeting on a legislatively mandated feasibility assessment being carried out by Cambridge Systematics and others.

Panama Canal Expansion

  • My colleague Sujit CanagaRetna, Senior Fiscal Analyst at the Southern Legislative Conference, looks at “The Panama Canal Expansion and the SLC States” in a new report. Sujit provides an update on the efforts of southern ports in Savannah, Charleston, New Orleans, Brownsville, Miami, Wilmington and Houston to prepare for 2014, when the expansion will be complete and significantly alter trade patterns between Asia and the United States.
  • For a closer look at how some inland river ports are preparing for the expected changes, you can also read a couple of articles I penned this summer for The Lane Report, a Kentucky business magazine. You’ll find them here and here.  
  • U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee announced this week that he’s working with a bipartisan group of senators to introduce legislation to modernize American ports, locks and dams and address major port and waterway infrastructure shortfalls in preparation for the 2014 expansion completion. According to a press release from Alexander’s office, the American Waterworks Act would, among other things, provide full federal funding for maintenance of harbors up to 50 feet deep (currently it’s only up to 45 feet. The Panama Canal will accommodate new ships that require 50-foot deep harbors). It would also speed up construction permit approval and provide states with the ability to appeal slow moving regulatory decision making. It authorizes a 5-year construction program to expand harbors to accommodate the larger ships.
  • Former Pennsylvania Governor and Building America’s Future co-chair Ed Rendell is also among those calling for increased federal funding for ports and waterways. In a speech this week at the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) conference in Mobile, Rendell said $16 billion is needed to cover the infrastructure gap for ports and waterways, Politico reported. AAPA, by the way, has joined forces with the American Road and Transportation Builders Association in signing a memorandum of cooperation to push for increased funding for port and waterway projects. According to an ARTBA news release, the organizations will share best practices, exchange information and jointly lobby Congress on pending legislation impacting ports and waterways. 
  • The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported earlier this month on the operation of Virginia’s state-owned port facilities. Virginia Transportation Secretary (and CSG Transportation Policy Task Force Vice Chair) Sean Connaughton told the Virginia House Appropriations Committee October 15th that the operation of those facilities is “financially unsustainable” under the current setup in which the commonwealth is subsidizing operations by $60 million to $70 million annually. Connaughton also told the committee that a Washington-based investment group that was one of four contenders to operate the port system has dropped out of the competition.