States Ponder the Future as Transportation Infrastructure Needs Mount

A few items from the last few weeks provide a look at what states are learning about their future infrastructure needs, the harsh fiscal realities they face and how transportation priorities may need to change in the years ahead: The condition of roads in Texas is costing individual motorists as much as $2,000 a year, a new report says. Massachusetts transportation officials say they won’t build any more superhighways and are calling on people to travel by means other than the solo car trip. After the failure of this summer’s transportation sales tax referendum in Georgia, a think tank offers ideas for Plan B. Pennsylvania awaits word from its governor on how to move forward to address that state’s transportation needs. Minnesota officials expect the state’s roads to be in decline over the next two decades as transportation revenues remain flat. Connecticut gets an assessment of how its infrastructure capital program stacks up against other states. And Tennessee re-evaluates its lengthy transportation wish list.

  • Texas: A new report from the national transportation research group TRIP examines “The Cost of Meeting the State’s Need for Safe and Efficient Mobility.” Among the report’s findings: the condition of the state’s transportation system costs Texans a total of $23.2 billion annually in the form of traffic-related crashes, additional vehicle operating costs and congestion-related delays. And barring an infusion of transportation funding, things are expected to get worse. The average congestion-related delay per commuter in the Lone Star State’s urban and metropolitan areas will double over the next 15 years, the report said. Moreover, Texas relies on the efficiency of its transportation system to maintain the health of its economy. As I blogged earlier this year, Texas ranked number one this year on CNBC’s annual Best for Business list and one reason given is the state is now considered to have the nation’s best infrastructure. The state may have some challenges ahead if it wants to maintain that advantage, the TRIP report would seem to indicate. Attendees at the CSG National Conference in Austin this fall will have a chance to hear firsthand how Texas transportation officials plan to meet those challenges. Among the speakers at our Transportation Policy Task Force session will be Texas Department of Transportation Chief Financial Officer James Bass. You can learn more about the session here and register for the meeting here. Also, look for my interview with Bass in the October 25th edition of the Capitol Ideas E-Newsletter.
  • Massachusetts: “I have news for you,” Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Richard Davey told reporters at a news conference this week in Springfield. “We will build no more superhighways in this state. There is no room.” Davey was announcing a “mode shift” goal as part of his department’s GreenDOT policy. The goal is to triple the number of Bay State residents traveling by foot, bicycle or public transit by the year 2030. Davey believes reducing the number of solo drivers and getting them to travel by these other means is essential to keeping the state road network usable as well as to keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and saving money. Davey used the occasion to tout the potential of the $78 million rehab of Springfield’s Union Station into a multimodal hub to encourage transit use. He said the state is also investing in sidewalks and rails-to-trails projects to encourage more biking and walking. The (Springfield) Republican newspaper and Streetsblog Capitol Hill both have more on the story.
  • Georgia: The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a free market-oriented think tank, recently offered a plan to fund some of those transportation projects now on the backburner as a result of this summer’s rejection by voters of a one cent sales tax in nine of the state’s 12 regions. The plan uses cost-benefit data to cherry pick $2.2 billion of projects from regional project lists around the state that were at the center of the July 31st referendum vote. The foundation suggests that the projects can be built without creating a new tax or raising existing taxes. Their plan recommends tolls, but only on roads where there is new capacity (estimated revenues: $40 million annually starting in 2018 or $240 million phased in over 10 years). It calls for converting the state’s current gas tax (which presently includes both a fixed-price excise tax and a fluctuating sales tax now at 3 percent tied to fuel prices) into a pure excise tax, which could create more revenue predictability (estimated revenues: $60 million annually or $600 million over 10 years). And it recommends redirecting $150 million in gas tax revenues that now go to the state’s general fund back to transportation. But the group also argues that local jurisdictions should be able to split local education sales tax revenues into pots for education and transportation.  
  • Pennsylvania: The latest update of Pennsylvania’s 12-year transportation plan calls for 40 percent less spending than the plan adopted four years ago, which has state transportation officials worried about losing ground after recent progress in reducing the number of structurally deficient bridges and in other areas, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported recently. Although a commission appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett made recommendations last year (see our Capitol Research brief on “Transportation Funding Commissions” from earlier this year) for generating up to $2.5 billion in new annual transportation revenue through increased vehicle fees and lifting a cap on the tax paid by fuel wholesalers, Corbett has yet to embrace the recommendations or offer his own plan to address the state’s transportation needs. The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News editorialized last month that “patience is running out” on the governor to address the transportation issue. Corbett did sign legislation this year to allow the state to enter into public-private partnerships for transportation projects, for which state officials have high hopes, The Post-Gazette reported last month. But the commonwealth’s transportation problems are mounting. State Auditor General Jack Wagner has warned that the Pennsylvania Turnpike is drowning in debt and could face bankruptcy within two years. The CEO of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission reportedly resigned abruptly this week citing concerns about his long-term health.
  • Minnesota: Transportation officials in Minnesota are projecting that while revenue for the state’s roads will remain flat over the next 20 years, inflation will not, and that likely means drivers can look forward to two decades of a transportation system in decline. The state department of transportation is hosting a series of once-every-four-years stakeholder engagement meetings to get feedback from communities on how best to invest available revenues, Detroit Lakes Online reported. Attendees at the public meeting in Detroit Lakes this week were presented with three different investment scenarios to weigh in on: one that focuses on maintaining existing infrastructure while reducing investment in mobility and added capacity, non-motorized transportation options and local priorities; one that would keep priorities where they are now and address the highest priority needs but at the expense of pavement condition on low-volume roads and investment in growing infrastructure needs; and a third approach that would focus investment on interstates, mobility, local priorities and non-motorized transportation options, but which could result in a significant deterioration in the condition of non-interstate highway infrastructure. Transportation officials say they will be taking citizen’s feedback on these options into consideration when deciding how to prioritize their investment plans. You can find more about the state’s highway investment plan and public engagement process here.
  • Connecticut: A report prepared for the Connecticut Department of Transportation aims to benchmark the state’s performance in capital programming against other state DOTs. The study identified three “best practice states” (Missouri, Vermont and Washington) for their strengths in linking planning and programming, asset management, and performance measurement. Three other “benchmark states” (Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey) were identified due to their similarities with Connecticut with regards to funding sources, transportation infrastructure, demographics and climate. According to the report: “All of the states surveyed are currently looking for ways to utilize their limited funding resources more efficiently. Most states are approaching this challenge by looking for new revenue sources, as well as implementing innovative contracting techniques to promote more efficient use of existing funds. Some of the proposed revenue sources include raising the gas tax, implementing a mileage tax, and adding more toll roads.” The study offers three recommendations for Connecticut’s capital program based on the state survey findings: Establishing performance measures to track project deliverability and innovative contracting methods; under-programming (under-committing) the capital project plan while maintaining a bin of fully-designed, non-programmed projects; and developing and maintaining a “Transportation Investment Dashboard” to monitor Connecticut’s transportation investment performance as compared to that of selected states.
  • Tennessee: The Tennessee Department of Transportation partnered with Smart Growth America on a report released in August that identifies ways the department can use its limited resources more effectively to create better outcomes. Among the report’s findings: TDOT has nine times more projects in its work plan than it has funding for. The department is in the process of developing more rigorous metrics for the measurement of broad project benefits and better prioritization of projects. The report recommends the department audit the existing work program to eliminate projects that are no longer needed and right-size projects that can be improved. It also says more consistency is needed in the department’s application of Context Sensitive Solutions approaches throughout the planning and design process in order to maximize flexibility and tailor solutions to local needs. TDOT has said it will use the report as a guide for its future programs and activities. There is more about the plan on Streetsblog Capitol Hill.