Donald Fry: Why isn’t transportation infrastructure crisis on lawmakers’ radar?

By Donald C. Fry

Maryland and our nation face a transportation infrastructure crisis.

This is not news to anybody in the business or transportation sectors who has watched for more than a decade as elected leaders in Washington and Annapolis allowed funding for needed transportation projects to stagnate, even as funding for other priorities has increased, sometimes exponentially.

In Maryland, billions of dollars in planned highway, transit, port, and airport projects throughout the state languish without funding for construction while elected officials and transportation department leaders appear to remain in denial that a crisis exists.

At the federal level, inaction is ruling the day when it comes to passing overdue legislation to reauthorize six-year funding for the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

Why the apparent widespread malaise among our government’s leaders when it comes to funding such a critical element to our economy and way of life? Why is transportation not on their constituents’ radar?

Recent conversations I’ve had with private-sector leaders in business and transportation shed light on the answer.

First, national transportation funding policy drives local funding, and elected leaders on Capitol Hill appear in no hurry. Apparently not sufficiently embarrassed by the development of next-generation transportation resources such as high-speed bullet trains in other countries, Congress has essentially put transportation funding reauthorization on hold.

Action on a more than $500 billion draft reauthorization package was put off until after the November 2 election and some advocates say that it will be extremely difficult to get anything done in the election aftermath.

Business leaders say that elected officials they talk to in D.C. about the importance of transportation infrastructure “just don’t get it.” Lawmakers point to stimulus money and individual anecdotal examples of funding they have passed and fail to comprehend the systemic transportation infrastructure challenges our nation faces.

Some lawmakers in Washington actually think that the transportation construction sector has prospered under the stimulus when, in fact, it has not, an industry advocate told me.

Some advocates predict that it could be as late as 2013 before a final, long-term transportation reauthorization passes Congress.

Let’s hope not.

In Maryland, the enormity of our transportation needs appears to have overwhelmed government officials, elected and otherwise.

For instance, five years ago Maryland had an estimated $50 billion backlog in planned transportation projects for which no construction funding was allocated. Given the stagnant revenue levels for the state’s Transportation Trust Fund since then, that figure has certainly increased.

But Maryland Department of Transportation officials concede that they have no idea what the size of the transportation funding backlog is today because they haven’t checked.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers’ eyes glaze over when you start to tell them about the $50 billion backlog. It’s hard to relate to the big investments that major transportation projects require.

I know how they must feel. How do you even begin to conceive a plan to close a $50 billion backlog when the annual amount the state currently spends these days on transportation infrastructure ranges no higher than $1.8 billion and the largest portion of that spending goes to system preservation and maintenance, not new projects?

Another factor in Maryland’s collective ambiguity over transportation funding is that different regions in Maryland have different transportation needs. Funding transit in Baltimore or Washington is a very tough sell to lawmakers from Western Maryland or the Eastern Shore.

But one of the biggest factors that drives the apparent ambivalence toward increasing Maryland’s transportation funding is that Marylanders no longer trust the integrity of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund – the pot from which all operations and infrastructure money is drawn.

Over the years, lawmakers have habitually raided the Transportation Fund for non-transportation uses ranging from bank bailouts to closing general fund budget deficits.

More than $775 million has been raided from the fund in last 25 years; of which $127.1 million still remains to be paid back.
Meanwhile, the 23.5-cent per-gallon gasoline tax, which isn’t inflation sensitive, hasn’t been raised in 18 years. So, it’s no wonder that, before the recession, operational revenue for other state uses increased by 58 percent while transportation revenue increased at less than half that rate. Gas tax revenue has actually decreased since FY 2007.

In the prevailing atmosphere of voter disenchantment, elected officials are intent on not increasing taxes for transportation funding. It appears that both they and their constituents fail to see any specific benefit to them.

It’s clear that transportation advocates, myself included, must do a better job of communicating why strengthening transportation funding is critically important – even in this time of economic stress.

The real transportation funding issues are not about costs that we struggle to comprehend or massive construction projects.

They are about mobility, economic growth, and job creation – not just the jobs created by the construction projects themselves, but the jobs that will be created because we have those highways, transit, port and airport facilities serving our neighborhoods and our state.

When we talk about finding ways to strengthen transportation funding, we’re ultimately talking about preserving our quality of life. 

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