States Should Prepare for Transportation Reauthorization

Capitol Ideas Growth and Prosperity Special Edition / April 21, 2011

States should begin now to prepare for whatever Congress decides on a new federal transportation bill.

Donna Cooper, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said doing that homework will give states a head start on addressing changes that come along with reauthorization of the federal Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, known as SAFETEA-LU. Cooper spoke during the “Federal Transportation Reauthorization” session of The Council of State Governments’ Growth and Prosperity Virtual Summit of the States.

She said tolling will be a part of the solution, and states should begin to examine which roads to toll, being careful not to drive more traffic onto untolled roads.

“If you wait until reauthorization happens, you’ll have years of work ahead before you can implement tolling regimes,” Cooper said.

Reauthorization of SAFETEA-LU is long overdue. The legislation governing federal surface transportation programs expired in September 2009. At a time when federal and state revenues are constrained, and infrastructure is aging, the need for a quick consensus is dire.

“The situation is grim and getting grimmer,” said Ronald Utt, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “We’ve had an $11 billion gap between revenue and spending since 2008.”

An increase in the federal gas tax, which has not been raised since 1993, and a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax, known as VMT, are possible solutions, but the Obama administration is opposed to both, Utt said.

He believes a new bill should give more flexibility to states.

“You attempt to have one program for a diverse collection of states, regions and geographies, and though there is some flexibility in how you spend, most are forced into a set of goals and objectives and it’s immaterial whether or not they fit each state,” Utt said.

He believes states should have more opportunities for tolling and public-private partnerships.
Some states aren’t waiting for reauthorization to address pressing transportation needs.
Utt said Virginia, which has the second worst congestion problems in the country, conducted four separate audits to see how the state might solve its problems without having to raise the state gas tax.

“They found $1.5 billion in unused, wasted funds in the system, and $214 million of it was immediately available,” said Utt.

The state devoted the money to 900 projects that were languishing due to lack of funding. Cooper remains optimistic the country can make progress on infrastructure despite the huge deficit. She believes, however, that states will fare better if political discussions on reauthorization wait until after the 2012 presidential election.

“Many believe the funds will actually be less than if discussions were to happen after the election,” she said.

Regardless of how the reauthorization proceeds, Cooper believes the federal investment in transportation should be doubled, and state legislators should be thinking about how to build a case for increased federal resources.

“If you don’t engage Washington, you will see the status quo or even less,” she said.