From Dave Van Hattum, Policy and Advocacy Program Manager
As with most federal programs, future funding of transportation faces great uncertainty. The latest indications are that the House and Senate have agreed on a six-month, stop gap extension of the federal transportation bill that includes the necessary extension of the federal gas tax. Unlike previous years, however, funding levels will be determined by the federal appropriations process and could lead to significant cuts in funding ($3.1 billion per year or nearly an 8% cut). Also, the federal Budget Super Committee is charged with cutting $1.5 trillion in spending with a report due by the end of November, and transportation is by no means immune to further cuts.
Many analysts (ASCE, Reuters, Hamilton Project, Brookings) confirm that the U.S. is falling behind in transportation infrastructure investment. This is not surprising, given that the federal gas tax (18.3 cents per gallon) has not been increased since 1993, making its current inflation-adjusted buying power only 11 cents gallon (a 39% decrease). Simply maintaining the current gas tax is not enough, however, given the backlog of repair needs and decreasing revenues from the tax due to declining rates of driving (typical in a down economy) and more fuel efficient vehicles (a good thing, but …).
A new federal transportation bill, which now appears to be a year off at the earliest, presents the opportunity to invest in our nation’s roads, bridges, transit systems, and non-motorized options. But strong advocacy for transportation projects is paramount. Transportation investment creates jobs, contributes to long-term economic growth, and, with better performance metrics*, will spur local economic vitality and improved quality of life. We need a federal transportation bill that identifies additional funding independent of general revenues and that clearly demonstrates quantifiable benefits.
Transportation for America, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the GAO, and the Brookings Institution all have put forward thoughtful proposals to increase the return on investment from federally-supported transportation projects.
The Twin Cities has begun a critical transition to a 21-st century transportation system, one that is in sync with changing demographic patterns and the need to hold down fuel costs as a hedge against rising gas prices. New and planned transitways, better bicycle and walking accommodations, complete streets, and transit-oriented-development all contribute to this new transportation system. Twin Cities’ residents broadly support this approach, as seen both in polling and in daily travel choices – both transit ridership and bicycling are up substantially. Continued federal support for these local investments, however, is critical. Fifty percent of the capital costs of future LRT lines is expected to come from the federal New Starts program, but this program would be seriously constrained if federal transportation spending is reduced. Similarly, bicycle and pedestrian projects typically rely on the federal Transportation Enhancements program, which could be a casualty of budget cuts.
China plans to invest $1.27 trillion by 2015 on LRT and subways, plus, another $300 billion on intercity high speed rail this decade. The U.S. has a more mature transportation system than China, so commensurate investment is not needed. Increased investments through a new federal transportation bill, however, are critical to our nation’s economic future and to getting people safely and efficiently where they need to go.
*follow this link to new EPA report, “Guide to Sustainable Transportation Measures.”