Center Maryland: Experts examine congressional inaction on transportation funding

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on September 26.

By Donald C. Fry

Virtually everybody on Capitol Hill acknowledges the critical importance of the nation’s transportation infrastructure to our economy and quality of life.

So, why is it that, for almost a decade, Congress has failed to enact long-term transportation funding authorization and continues to “kick the can down the road” with a series of short-term funding extensions, leaving a deteriorating  system of highways, bridges, transit and other infrastructure in limbo?

A congressman, a former U.S. transportation secretary and four transportation policy experts tackled this question Thursday at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s 2014 Transportation Summit in Baltimore. They also discussed options and prospects for dissolving Congressional gridlock on transportation funding and whether it could happen anytime soon.

Conference speakers made compelling cases for more focused congressional attention to addressing what all termed a dire underfunding of transportation infrastructure.

Maryland Congressman John Delaney, D-6th, estimated that the nation’s transportation resources are “underinvested” by at least $3 trillion.

The U.S. has a $30 billion per year backlog of unfunded highway and bridge projects alone, reported Beth Osborne, a vice president for Transportation for America and former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“Our transportation system is broken,” said former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Raymond H. LaHood. “We need to fix up our roads. We need to build bridges and replace bridges, we need to take care of a 100-year-old transit system and this is the only way that cities in America will make progress.”

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of Global Gateway Alliance, noted that Amtrak passengers in the east must endure daily delays caused by a “choke point” in New York City where all rail must go through a more than 100-year-old tunnel that only has two tracks – one each way.

Meanwhile, America’s aviation control centers operate on a “radar system from the 1940s,” Sigmund said. “That’s not a GPS system, that’s a radar system.” Better GPS can be found in pocket iPhones “than on 99 percent of the flights that you’ll be on,” he said.

Transportation consultant Alan Pisarski noted that, because states have been smartly applying limited highway funding to “where the problems are,” the quality of roads and bridges has actually improved since 2000. But “longer-term, we’re in much more serious trouble,” he said, noting that interstate highway re-construction alone could cost $1 trillion, not to mention the need for national rail transit reconstruction in major cities across the country.

Why is transportation infrastructure in this state of crisis?

Everyone on the dais pointed to acute political intransigence on Capitol Hill, coupled with a notable lack of consensus on options in lieu of increasing the federal gas tax, which is difficult for virtually everyone in Congress to support these days.

Emily Goff, a policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation cites a “lack of purpose” for the federal transportation funding program and “too much ill-targeted” spending as contributing to deteriorating support among voters. She urges a new focus, prioritization of resources, removal of regulatory barriers, and elimination of opportunities to create a “slush fund” for “ill-conceived” priorities.

Delaney said he thinks “it’s going to take a long time for Congress to figure out” a new innovative approach to increasing federal transportation funding. He is sponsoring bi-partisan legislation to create a $750 billion infrastructure bank that would be funded privately by companies seeking an incentive to repatriate overseas corporate investments. Companies who buy low-interest government bonds to finance the fund would be allowed to repatriate an amount of overseas funds tax-free.

Such an infrastructure bank could cover the federal transportation shortfall for five years while Congress works to develop a long-term solution for ramping up federal funding for transportation, Delaney contends.

What’s needed are innovative approaches driven by competition, not whether each politician “gets a piece of the pie,” Osborne said.

To get a “real” transportation funding bill passed, Americans must elect to Congress “people who are not just going to say no,” said Sigmund, adding that public-private partnerships must be cultivated, with the private sector showing that “it can be good public stewards” of transportation infrastructure.

Congress must “re-establish respect” for the federal transportation program, Pisarski said.

To restore strong funding for transportation infrastructure, members of Congress need to “get in a room, figure out how to make it happen, make a compromise and get it done,” LaHood said. “Compromise is not a bad word.”

The overarching message of experts in the room was crystal clear.

Whichever solution lawmakers on Capitol Hill opt to pursue, two key prerequisites to progress on funding our nation’s transportation infrastructure must be cultivated within Congress. The first is a national transportation plan around which a consensus can be built. The second is a strong backbone to put aside partisanship and to compromise for the good of the country.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.   

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