Task Force Tackles Uncertainty in Long-Term Transportation Funding

Federal transportation reauthorization legislation—typically a long-term, multi-year process—will cover only two years and provide a fraction of the money needed to maintain current transportation needs.

Bert Sandman, executive director of Transportation California, provided some sobering and stark news about the state’s plight. Over the next 10 years, California’s unfunded transportation liabilities will be nearly $300 billion—almost half of what our nation spends on defense in a single year and triple the current amount of the entire reauthorization bill’s price tag of $109 billion.

“Today’s speakers made a clear and compelling case that if we do nothing, infrastructure repairs will be more costly and that deterioration is happening much faster than we realize,” Utah Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, co-chair of CSG’s Transportation Policy Task Force, noted during Friday’s meeting.

Presenters provided contextual background on the history of transportation policy and insight into how past decisions and the political difficulties in financing projects—namely taxes—have created today’s conundrum. The formula for federal gas tax revenues never indexed fees to inflation. Consequently, revenues are not meeting current infrastructure needs.

Raising those taxes, however, is politically unpalatable and pursuing bonds can potentially stress a state’s borrowing capacity, said Brian Taylor, director of UCLA’s Institute for Transportation Studies.

Transportation California believes public-private partnerships can make up shortfalls in federal revenue. The group also believes raising vehicle license fees for new car purchases would be a less regressive way to increase revenue, Taylor said.

California also is pursuing the single largest infrastructure project in the country with its development of high-speed rail that potentially would create thousands of jobs and ease pressure on the state’s notoriously congested roads.

In the end, panelists observed that states must make hard choices because the current funding model simply does not work.

“The challenges are clear and well understood, but will solutions find an ear from a visionary leader and turn them into a reality?” said Minnesota Rep. Alice Hausman, co-chair of the task force.