Setting the Stage for Federal Funding Reform

With just 18 months to go before the federal surface transportation program (SAFETEA-LU) expires, industry associations are picking up steam in their efforts to ensure adequate federal investment in the U.S. transportation network.

Aiding these efforts is the attention being called to the country's infrastructure woes by candidates during this presidential election year. While such attention has come at a steep price (consider the bridge collapse in Minnesota), it gives focus to an issue that is crucial to the U.S. economy. And regardless which candidate ends up in office, the momentum being built now should have lasting effects as Congress begins the SAFETEA-LU reauthorization debate in the months ahead.

To ensure it does, organizations such as the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), Associated General Contractors of America, Association of Equipment Manufacturers and others are stepping up the pressure to change the way federal transportation funding is handled.

Fortunately, a blueprint for reform was put in place earlier this year with the release of "Transportation for Tomorrow", a report generated by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, which was created under SAFETEA-LU. The report outlines the nation's surface transportation challenges, and assesses the nation's unmet annual surface transportation needs as ranging from $255 to $340 billion. (A full copy of the report is available at www.transportationfortomorrow.org.)

Recommendations presented by the Commission include:

  • increasing the federal motor fuels user fee annually by $.05 to $.08/gal. over the next five years;
  • transitioning to a vehicle miles tax financing mechanism by 2025;
  • endorsing the use of financing alternatives, including tolling, public-private partnerships and freight-based user fees;
  • encouraging states to increase their surface transportation investment levels.

Also suggested were methods to significantly streamline the lengthy project delivery requirements currently in place. Following issuance of the report, one commission member pointed out the average delivery time for a highway project is a minimum of 14 years from permitting to final completion. He added that some agencies have become reluctant to even accept federal funding because of the red tape and delays that come with it.

Other proposals for transportation funding reform are also receiving some overdue but much-deserved attention. One example is a bipartison bill introduced last summer proposing creation of a National Infrastructure Bank to evaluate and finance projects of "substantial regional and national significance." Another is ARTBA's proposal for a Critical Commerce Corridors (3C) Program to finance the transportation system capacity needed for safe, cost-effective freight transport.

Clearly, the wheels are in motion to promulgate significant federal transportation funding reform, with many legislators jumping on the bandwagon. Of course, only time will tell if all the talk develops into real action, or simply fades away as election year political rhetoric.

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