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Advocates of Higher Spending Are Facing a Skeptical Audience

Posted by Ken Orski on Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Innovation NewsBriefs
Vol. 23, No. 17

“It is our belief that once citizens become aware of the significant costs and risks associated with a compromised transportation system operating at less than optimal capacity, they will feel more compelled to demand calls for action that will, in turn, prompt policymakers to act.”

So concludes a new report from the Miller Center, a University of Virginia-based think tank whose 2009 report, Well Within Reach: America’s New Transportation Agenda, attained a celebrity status by being featured in a White House briefing hosted by President Obama. The new report, entitled Are We There Yet? presents the results of discussions held at a November 2011 Miller Center-hosted conference at its Washington DC offices. The gathering was noteworthy for bringing together five former secretaries of transportation— Norman Mineta, Sam Skinner (who served as co-chairmen of the conference), Mary Peters, Rodney Slater and James Burnley. Sixty invited experts participated in the day-long discussions which featured a wide range of points of view.

The report, in the words of Miller Center’s president, former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles, is intended to provide “a road map for effectively capturing the nation’s attention and uniting the American people behind a compelling message about the urgent need for investment, innovation and improvement in our transportation system.” It proposes to do so through a coordinated four-pronged communication campaign that would link local transportation investment opportunities and benefits to national-level policy decisions.

Appeals for Action Fall on Deaf Ears

But the report’s belief in the compelling need to increase federal spending on transportation, nor the sense of frustration about a lack of progress on transportation legislation that was palpable among the conference participants, do not seem to be shared by the public or the politicians.

Infrastructure Investment did not even make the top ten list of public priorities in the latest Pew Research Center survey of domestic concerns cited at the conference. Calls by two congressionally mandated commissions to vastly increase transportation infrastructure spending have gone ignored. So have repeated pleas by advocacy groups such as Building America’s Future, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Transportation for America.

Why do appeals to increase infrastructure spending fail to resonate with the public? One widely held view is that people simply do not trust the federal government to spend their tax dollars wisely. As proof, evidence is cited that a great majority of state and local transportation ballot measures do get passed. They get approved because voters know precisely where their tax money is going. The Miller Center report agrees that focusing on specific local projects has the best potential for garnering support for greater transportation investment. However, whether an emphasis on local transportation issues would translate into expanded support for federal involvement, as the report suggests, is open to question.

Failure of Negative Communication Strategies

Another reason why the public does not share the report’s sense of urgency is that people see no cause for alarm. State DOTs and transit authorities take great pride in maintaining their systems in good condition and, by and large, they succeed. Potholes are rare, transit service is generally reliable, and train wrecks and collapsing bridges, happily, are few and far between. The revenue from the Highway Trust Fund arguably provides sufficient resources to keep the existing transportation system in a state of good repair.

The oft-cited “D” that the American Society of Civil Engineers has given America’s infrastructure (along with an estimate of $2.2 trillion price tag needed to fix it) is taken with a few grains of salt. The engineers’ lobby has a vested interest in increasing infrastructure spending as do the legions of road and transit builders, rail and road equipment manufacturers, construction firms, and their Washington lobbyists that urge Congress to raise spending levels on transportation.

“Should I believe the pundits or my own eyes?” asked Charles Lane, editorial writer for the Washington Post who had traveled thousands of miles across America without seeing any evidence of “crumbling infrastructure.” He wrote about his experience in a Washington Post commentary last year (“The U.S. infrastructure argument that crumbles upon examination,” Washington Post, October 31, 2011)

Lane’s skepticism is shared by many elected representatives in Congress. For the Republican leadership and the rank-and-file the goals of reigning in spending and reducing the deficit, as reflected in the adopted FY 2013 House budget, take precedence over what they feel are often politically inspired and inadequately documented concerns about deteriorating infrastructure. For the congressional conservatives, the better solution lies in narrowing the scope of the federal-aid program and shifting more responsibility for transportation to states and metropolitan areas.

Need for More Specificity

This does not mean that the concerns expressed by the Miller Center report are baseless. Aging infrastructure is a fact of life and the country does need to invest more in expanding the capacity of its transportation infrastructure to accommodate future population growth. But in making a case for higher spending, the transportation community must learn to do a better job of explaining why, how and where they propose to spend those funds. Vague and unsupported claims that the nation’s infrastructure is “falling apart” or that “a third of major roads in the United States are in poor condition” will not be taken seriously and will be dismissed as self-serving claims of special interests. People want to know more precisely where the claimed inadequacies of the transportation system lie, where their tax dollars are going, and what they are getting for their money.

To its credit, the report acknowledges the limited value of negative messages such as focusing on the harmful consequences of failure to deal with “crumbling” infrastructure. It argues instead for setting a more positive tone, a message that would emphasize the themes of economic development, job creation and improving the quality of life. But its plea for action could have been more convincing and helpful had it been more explicit in explaining to skeptical lawmakers precisely what major capital investment needs are not being met and how failure to make those investments is negatively affecting the nation’s economy and competitiveness.  A careful analysis reveals a far more modest “infrastructure deficit” than advocacy groups and lobbyists would like to have us believe according to the findings of a study  recently presented to state legislators by Prof. David Hartgen (“Are Highways Really ‘Crumbling’?– 20-Year Trends in Road Conditions”.)

Can we still afford multi-year authorizations?

“Ultimately, the hope is that a sea change in public awareness and engagement will transform reauthorization of the federal surface transportation program into “must-pass” legislation”

As the above quote suggests, the report assumes that multi-year authorizations of the federal-aid transportation program should continue into the future. True, long term authorizations have been a longstanding feature of the federal -aid transportation program. They have been justified by the need for contract authority, i.e ability for state DOT’s to make binding financial commitments for major multi-year projects in advance of annual appropriations.

But there is a growing sense among the lawmakers on Capitol Hill that Congress may be forced to abandon the practice of multi-year reauthorizations. The prevailing fiscal and political environment makes it difficult if not impossible to raise hundreds of billions of investment dollars in a single legislative package. At current levels of expenditure a five-year authorization would require approximately $260 billion;  highway trust fund revenue and interest over the same time frame is projected to generate $175 billion, leaving an unfunded shortfall of approximately $85 billion. For a six-year bill, the unfunded shortfall would reach $100 billion. Where is that money to come from?

Hence, short-term bills (annual or bi-annual), requiring only relatively modest amounts in offsets or general fund supplements may become instead the accepted practice. The fact that the Senate has barely mustered enough funds for a two-year bill, while the House has been unable to come up with any plausible funding for its five-year bill, suggests that the days of multi-year transportation authorizations may indeed be over.

Preserving, modernizing and expanding our transportation infrastructure is an important national priority and the Miller Center is to be commended for its thoughtful and articulate advocacy of these goals. But, as the report itself acknowledges, the desire for more transportation spending collides with, and must be tempered by, the national imperative to come to grips with the nation’s fiscal problems and the need to reduce the mounting deficit. As Congress weighs the future of the federal-aid transportation program, keeping a balanced perspective should be its guiding priority.

C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, now in its 22nd year of publication.

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