Where Do We Go From Here?

Posted by Ken Orski on Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Innovation NewsBriefs
Vol. 23, No. 32

At a post-election analysis of federal transportation policy convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Eno Center for Transportation on November 30, a panel of transportation insiders touched upon a variety of familiar questions. Is an increase in the gasoline tax truly off the table? Should it be? Or should we start thinking of paying for the use of roads like we pay for other utilities? What is the future, if any, of the vehicle-mile-travel (VMT) fee? Are we going to see increased attention and flexibility given to tolling? Will the transportation community pay more than lip service to performance measurement and monitoring as mandated by the new transportation law, MAP-21?  Is TIFIA and “innovative financing” a substitute for federal funding?  Have we seen the end of “executive earmarks” such as the TIGER program? To what extent can states and local government replace federal transportation assistance? Are we going to see the federal government “gradually disqualifying itself from an assertive federal role?” (more simply put, “are we going to see devolution?”).

From the audience came a timely  question: What will the fiscal impact of hurricane Sandy be? Estimates for disaster relief stemming from Sandy range from $70 to $100 billion, the questioner stated.  Where will the money come from? Will the Sandy disaster relief preempt the nation’s wider needs for infrastructure repair and expansion? Wouldn’t the President’s new $50 billion infrastructure proposal (like its predecessor, already declared dead-on-arrival by House Republicans) risk being totally swallowed up by demands for Sandy relief?

One cannot blame the transportation community for speculating and being concerned about the future of the federal transportation program. But with so many fundamental issues on the congressional agenda,  and with the deadline for renewing the federal transportation program a comfortable two years away,  transportation policy is not likely to  receive much attention in the next Congress. The panelist seemed to agree.  “Does anyone really imagine the next bill will sail through right on time, with no need for extensions? When was the last time that happened?”  one panelist pointedly remarked.

Even if Congress does find the time to renew the program by October 2014, few observers expect the next bill to be a massive multi-year surface transportation measure funded with hundreds of billions of dollars. More likely, Congress is going  to institutionalize the practice of passing short-term bills. Two-year bills, such as MAP-21, could continue to be funded out of the Highway Trust Fund with only modest support from the general fund–especially if states are willing to step in with increased contributions of their own. A six-year bill, on the other hand,  would require an injection of nearly $90 billion in general revenue— and this just to maintain current (FY 2013) spending levels.

As one panelist observed, “there is an enormous disconnect between us and the American public” when it comes to assessing the urgency and magnitude of federal response. Informal conversations on the sidelines of the conference with members of the audience  tended to confirm his skepticism.”The state DOTs seem to have plenty of funds… I see orange construction barrels everywhere I go,” one participant told us. Another participant observed,  “Talking about a gas tax increase when Obama has pledged not to increase taxes on the middle class is heights of wishful thinking.” A third one commented,  “It’s the Washington insiders talking to themselves… if there is an ‘infrastructure crisis’ it’s the best hidden crisis I have ever seen.”

With perceptions such as these common among the public at large, a constructive topic for the next panel discussion could be “A reality check: Is the sky truly falling?”    

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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