We Need an Ambitious Transpo Bill. So How Are We Going to Pay for It?

Unknown.pngDOT Secretary Ray LaHood testifying in the Senate yesterday.

Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing
about the future of national surface transportation. This much isn’t in
doubt: Current policies need a major overhaul. What to change and,
especially, how to pay for it are very much in question.

Several
panelists spoke about the need to reform the nation’s transportation
priorities and set firm goals, like reducing car dependence and traffic
deaths. Shifting away from policies that emphasize highway capacity and
reward gas consumption didn’t sit that well with senators from states
like South Dakota and Texas, but there was a broad sense that the next
surface transportation bill must reverse years of underinvestment in
the nation’s infrastructure. Nevertheless, Secretary of Transportation
Ray LaHood reiterated the Obama administration’s opposition to a
promising funding solution — raising the gas tax — and obeyed the directive from up top to never again mention a tax on vehicle miles (VMT).

At
around the same time, a very different story was unfolding in the
House, where James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the Transportation and
Infrastructure Committee, pushed for his preferred funding solution, a
VMT tax. Asserting that the technology to implement this solution is
already available, he asked his committee to rapidly advance the timetable:
"Why do we need a pilot program? Why don’t we just phase it in?" Since
Oberstar has taken a leading role in shaping the next transportation
bill, this may mean that a VMT tax will be included in the first draft.

Back at the Senate hearing, several panelists called attention to the
impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund, which uses money raised
by the gas tax to pay for transit and roads projects. Steve Heminger,
director of the San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission,
estimated that the U.S. needs to invest at least $225 billion annually
in its transportation infrastructure. We’re only spending about 40
percent of that today, and the downward trend in driving means the fund
is drying up. Few options will suffice to raise the needed revenue, he
said, other than increasing the gas tax or imposing a VMT fee.

LaHood skirted the funding issue and focused on rethinking existing
transportation priorities. "Our initial focus will be on expanding the
transportation choices available to American families," he said. LaHood
repeatedly described his intention to help communities become more
transit-friendly, walkable
and bikeable. He cited the administration’s desire to get Americans out
of their cars, but never made the link that higher gas prices create
powerful incentives to reduce car dependence. His prepared testimony instead asked for "innovative" ideas from Congress to address
the transportation funding dilemma, leaving aside any specifics.

  • Marcotico

    This is starting to remind me of my favorite article from planning school, Brian Taylor’s “When finance drives planning” or something like that. In it he details how the Highway Program didn’t start out as bad as it ended up. In its original design it was intended to help farmers get their products to cities, and for inter city trade to be facilitated. But along the way the State DOT’s gained all the power over the money, and drove the agenda to Urban Highways. The original idea was never to have highways crisscrossing major cities, but city planners, and the street engineers got overrun by the state planners and engineers. The feds would pay 80-90% of your cost to build a 10 fwy from downtown to Santa Monica, but only 20% to build a high capacity Boulevard.

    We need to decouple urban transportation programs from non-urban programs, so that city dwellers, and rural dwellers don’t have to fight over everything. Maybe this will leave the suburbs to pick which side of the fence they want to be on.

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