Division & Agreement on Federal Transportation Plan

Policymakers in Washington are saying all the right things about a federal transportation reauthorization bill.

They hope to finally tackle new legislation reauthorizing federal surface transportation programs in the next few months after a year and a half of delays and a series of temporary extensions to the previous bill, known as SAFETEA-LU. They are optimistic despite no agreement on a plan to fund those programs and widespread acknowledgment that any program based on existing revenues is unlikely to move the nation’s transportation system forward in a meaningful way.

Two analysts from opposite sides of the political spectrum say a delay in reauthorization, perhaps until after the 2012 election, may not be such a bad thing. They will participate in a webinar as part of The Council of State Governments’ Growth and Prosperity Virtual Summit of the States next month.

“Any authorization now is going to be at current (revenue) levels ... because there’s no way they can build a political consensus that puts any new money in the system,” said Donna Cooper, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington, D.C., think tank. “Available revenues don’t even allow us to maintain existing infrastructure. We will go backwards with (only available) revenues. What I hope happens (pre-2012 election) is that we begin to coalesce around certain principles.”

Cooper said those principles should include reinforcing the concept of a “user pays” system—creating a more direct connection between the demands citizens place upon the transportation system and what they pay to maintain it. She also believes the agreed-upon user pays revenue mechanism should be indexed to inflation with increases insulated from political considerations and based more on economics. The current primary source of transportation funding—the federal gas tax—is not indexed to inflation and has remained unchanged at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993.

Ronald Utt agrees that a delay in authorization could be productive. Utt is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in the nation’s capital.

He wrote in a recent essay that the next two years could be used “… to reconsider the goals and purpose of a federal transportation program and devise a system that shifts greater responsibility to the states and encourages the states to focus on modes and projects that provide cost-effective mobility.”

Where Utt and Cooper might disagree is on the definition of “cost-effective mobility.”

Utt’s essay calls for significant cuts in Amtrak’s budget, the termination of the Obama administration’s high-speed rail program and the “freeing” of the federal program from existing mandates that fund transit and other programs.

Cooper, however, contends the federal program cannot be simply a roads program.

“If we’re really serious about addressing congestion, then we have to begin to make a shift in the degree to which the bulk of the funds are in roads,” she said. “We can invest three times the rate we’re investing now (in roads) and still not have an impact on congestion. The only way we’re going to have an impact on congestion—which is where most Americans are concerned—is by moving more people onto rail and transit.”

Cooper would like to see states have greater flexibility to shift highway funds to transit in order to reduce congestion. Utt would like to see states have greater flexibility as well, but he suspects they might want to go a different direction.

Utt wrote that “... allowing states the freedom to better prioritize their needs and ignore wasteful mandates would help offset the diminished level of funding …” states would likely see over the next two years without a new authorization.

While there may be a political divide over spending priorities, there may be areas where Republicans and Democrats can agree as well. Cooper said she expects the next authorization will give states more options to toll existing highways, something supported by many Republicans and pushed for by the man she once worked for, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat. Coming hand in hand with tolling would be greater use of public-private partnerships to help fund transportation.

“The more we can get somebody else to put up the capital and then the users to pay it off over time, the better off we are because the roads that don’t have enough users to pay for (their) maintenance (through tolls) are then able to use (available federal revenues) to meet their needs,” Cooper said.

Federal Transportation Reauthorization will be the subject of a live webinar as part of CSG’s Growth and Prosperity Virtual Summit of the States 2.0. The free webinar will take place Monday, April 11, at 3 p.m. EDT. In addition to Cooper and Utt, the 90-minute session will include remarks by Jack Basso of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

CSG Resources