Friday's panel at the Bipartisan Policy Center. From left: Moderator Jeffrey Shane; Doug Foy, former head of Massachusetts' Office of Commonwealth Development; Janet Kavinoky of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Ryan Holeywell of Governing Magazine; Pete Ruane of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association; and David Traynham of The Boeing Company. Photo: Tanya Snyder
If I’ve learned one thing from all the meetings about transportation I’ve covered, it’s this: There is no progress without a solution on funding.
Every conversation about infrastructure turns on the question of how to pay for it. As the power of the gas tax declines, can it be restored or replaced? Does the political will exist?
Friday’s post-election debrief at the Bipartisan Policy Center was no exception. Judging by the first half of the forum, you’d think that the entire transportation program hangs in the balance of that one open question. And it might.
So let’s start with that:
Will the 113th Congress solve the funding crisis?
Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation opened the session by saying it’s easy to be optimistic about the future when the recent past has been so dismal. All participants agreed that U.S. DOT needs to focus on finding a sustainable funding source for transportation. Last year, the House proposed a 33 percent cut to keep spending in line with transportation revenues; Pete Ruane, president and CEO of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said the potential cut could be as high as 57 percent in 2014 if Congress doesn’t create new revenue sources.
David Traynham, a policy analyst at Boeing, said the new Transportation Secretary (if there is one) should make that his or her “signature issue,” the way distracted driving is Ray LaHood’s signature issue.
Though many people believe that an eventual switch to a mileage-based funding system is inevitable (though still politically toxic), the gas tax is still the most obvious solution – a “no-brainer,” according to Jeff Shane, former undersecretary of transportation under President Bush. But no matter what happens with the gas tax, said Doug Foy, who ran Mitt Romney’s Office for Commonwealth Development in Massachusetts, the country needs to relax its prohibitions on tolling. Under current law, only new lanes can be tolled, and only in a handful of places. That’s a big problem to Foy and others who believe that maintaining existing infrastructure is a far more pressing mandate than building new capacity.
“Take a state like Rhode Island,” Foy said. “I-95 is falling into ruin. It is literally coming apart at the seams… Rhode Island can’t afford to rebuild that road in place, let alone make it any bigger. If that road is not tolled, it will not be rebuilt.” He said federal support is far too low to take it on.