From top to bottom, transportation officials in Arizona and across the country are eagerly and somewhat nervously looking to the federal government to drive change in the funding for transportation in the next 20 years.
At the Rural Transportation Summit in Casa Grande on Jan. 17, top level officials discussed the reauthorization of the federal SAFETEA-LU program, which frames the funding and structure of transportation and transit projects in the U.S. Arizona Department of Transportation Director and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials past president Victor Mendez, Psomas Engineering representative Matt Clark and National Association of Regional Councils Executive Director Fred Abousleman gave a panel discussion of the impact of reauthorization and a recent announcement by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission this month that could change the landscape of transportation in this country.
That NSTPRSC report, entitled “Transportation for Tomorrow,” made a number of recommendations according to Mendez, including an increasingly strengthened federal role in transportation, a multi-modal approach and a greater emphasis on public transportation.
“The U.S. now has incredible economic potential and significant transportation needs,” the Jan. 15 TFT report reads. “We need to invest at least $225 billion annually from all sources for the next 50 years to upgrade our existing system to a state of good repair and create a more advanced surface transportation system to sustain and ensure strong economic growth for our families. We are spending less than 40 percent of this amount today.”
Mendez and Abousleman both said an increase in the federal fuel tax would be needed, but not likely to be implemented with the unpopularity of such a move seen as a death knell by politicians – especially with rising fuel prices. Beyond that Mendez said, much discussion at the federal level has been held on redoing the funding mechanism for transportation completely in the next decade.
“The outlook is the trust fund will only provide maintenance unless we do a critical fix and even that (maintenance) is at a minimum,” Abousleman said. “Every component of our nation’s transportation infrastructure is at a breaking point. Staggering needs and costs are being faced by our country right now.”
Abousleman cited a Urban Land Institute report that said the U.S. compared to Europe and Asia had under-invested in its transportation infrastructure by $1 trillion during the past 40 years. He cited recent hurricane and wildfire disasters, as well as the cost of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as key elements for why transportation continues to be under-funded, as the federal government has raided those funds for other projects.
“We are under-investing in transportation,” Mendez said. “Legislators don’t want to raise the gas tax 25 to 40 cents or propose toll roads, but then nobody comes up with a viable solution.”
While Abousleman was happy with about half of the TFT report, he was deeply critical of the lack of a financing solution beyond a stepped up fuel tax that stands little chance of approval. Clark backed this up, saying the funding for federal highways would be cut significantly by 2009 without new revenues.
“The commission did not come up with a sustainable long-term funding source. That’s the greatest punt I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Now is the time for us to get Congress to accept that we are at a crossroads and we can’t keep passing this to the next Congress.”