Donald Fry: Transportation crisis demands action

By Donald C. Fry

I’ve often said politicians and the general public tend not to focus on transportation infrastructure issues until they become a crisis.

Last week, the issue of transportation percolated to the very top of the nation’s chain of command when President Barack Obama proposed a new $50 billion round of tactical federal spending on transportation infrastructure.

This comes at a time when transportation advocates are pushing Congress to craft a longer-term strategic plan for the nation’s highways, transit, and intercity rail infrastructure by approving a new six-year funding reauthorization sooner rather than later.

Is this a sign that our elected leaders are finally putting transportation on the front burner? Let’s hope so, because both America and Maryland – which continue to grapple with a lingering recession – have been experiencing a transportation funding crisis for some time.

It’s been two-and-a-half years since a federal surface transportation policy and revenue study commission issued a report declaring the nation’s transportation funding to be in crisis. It called for immediate action to strengthen funding for the nation’s highways and to put more emphasis on transit and intercity passenger rail.

Two years before that, the Greater Baltimore Committee noted that Maryland faced a multi-billion-dollar backlog of unfunded transportation projects due to stagnant state revenue sources for funding transportation.
$80B in unfunded projects

Where are we today, when it comes to transportation funding on the national level and in Maryland? We’re still in crisis, only worse. For example, Maryland’s backlog of highway, transit, port, and airport projects that are planned but not funded for construction has grown to an estimated $80 billion.

In Washington, the development of a long-term six-year transportation funding strategy – in the form of congressional transportation reauthorization legislation – is basically on hold.

A draft reauthorization bill approved last year by the House Highways and Transit subcommittee included $337 billion for highway programs, $100 billion for public transit and $50 billion for high-speed rail over six years.

But action on the legislation has been put off by the Obama administration and Congress until after the November election.
Consequently, Congress simply passed several short-term extensions of the now-expired 2005 transportation funding legislation, stalling strategic transportation planning in Maryland and other states until local officials get a specific sense of available long-term federal funding.

Meanwhile, the issue of strengthening transportation funding is gaining visible traction outside of the halls of Congress. Three national voices for moving transportation infrastructure funding to the top of America’s policy agenda will be heard in Baltimore on Wednesday at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s 2010 Transportation Summit.

The summit’s keynote speakers will include Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, an outspoken advocate for stepped-up investment in the nation’s transportation infrastructure; CSX Chairman Michael J. Ward; and Pete Ruane, president of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

Rendell, along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in 2008 founded Building America’s Future, a bipartisan coalition of elected officials dedicated to initiating a new era of investment in the nation’s infrastructure.

U.S. Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary John D. Porcari will also be a keynote speaker. All will discuss Obama’s proposal and deliver updates on the status of federal transportation funding reauthorization.
Long-term commitment needed

To put President Obama’s $50 billion funding proposal into perspective, if every penny of that $50 billion were dedicated to Maryland alone, it would come up billions short of erasing our state’s own backlog of unfunded transportation projects.
That’s not to say that applying $50 billion to infrastructure funding won’t help our nation. It certainly will. In addition to funding needed transportation projects, it will create jobs and stimulate the economy in a direct way.

But we all must begin to recognize what it will take to address the current transportation funding challenges facing our state and the nation.

First, we must understand that transportation is not a Democratic or Republican issue but an economic growth issue. Without efficient mobility of workers, goods and services, our economy can’t grow.

Also, addressing our transportation infrastructure challenges will take a stepped-up, long-term commitment of financial resources beyond tactical fixes. We have to accept that it will require additional revenues – taxes, fees, tolls, or public-private partnerships, to name a few options.

We must come to grips with the fact that raising new revenue for this purpose is not wasteful spending. We can see the final product. It is a critical investment for our economic future.

Obama’s $50 billion infrastructure proposal won’t solve our transportation problems. But it’s a high-profile start. Let’s hope that, among other things, it focuses us all on the seriousness of our infrastructure challenge.

As Maryland and our nation move toward better economic times, we must make sure we recognize the importance of transportation resources to nurturing economic growth. We must also recognize that, when it comes to funding transportation infrastructure, we’ve waited too long already, and we must act now, not later.

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