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Does the Nation Have Money for Its Infrastructure Challenges?

February 7, 2013

By Gary Fineout

In the months following the 2010 elections, three Republican governors scrapped plans for high speed rail lines in their states.

Ohio and Wisconsin rejected their shares of high speed rail funding first, followed by Florida, where the decision by Gov. Rick Scott to reject $2.4 billion for a line linking Tampa to Orlando sparked an outcry from business leaders and politicians from both parties.

Scott, however, refused to budge from his initial position that the high speed rail line could someday cost the state money, even though most of the funding was coming from the federal government. But he also decried the use of federal stimulus dollars to help pay for the project.

The decision by Scott just highlighted the problem that transportation advocates across the nation may have in the immediate future. What was once a conversation about needed transportation infrastructure has transformed into a bigger partisan-tinged debate about deficit spending and what’s needed to help keep alive the recovery.

“Fasten your seatbelts, we are going to hit some turbulence,” remarked James Corless, director of Transportation for America, a broad coalition of groups, including the National Association of REALTORS® and Smart Growth America, that are pushing for a better transportation system.

This debate, however, is coming even though a string of recent reports and studies have painted a dismal picture of the nation’s transportation needs. The American Society of Civil Engineers did an extensive report in 2009 that rated the nation’s infrastructure needs as a D overall, with a C grade given for bridges, a D for transit and a D for roads. That report estimated that the nation needed to spend as much as $930 billion on bridges and roads over a five-year period.

Transportation for America, in March of this year, released its own comprehensive report on bridges that pointed out that 11 percent of the nation’s more than 69,000 bridges have been ranked as “structurally deficient” by the Federal Highway Administration.

Corless tries to be upbeat about the future, saying that what’s happened with high speed rail in the last few months has at least elevated attention to transportation issues.

“I think it’s actually a good thing and a healthy thing to have a national debate about where infrastructure lands and how much a priority it is for the 21st century,” he said.

But he’s quick to add that the debate shouldn’t just be about fixing bridges and repairing existing roads. He said that Americans should also be discussing what else needs to be done to improve its transportation system, including linking airports with high speed rail and local transit service to connect communities and make them more livable.

“People are going to need more options than ever,” Corless said, especially if gas prices continue to rise as they have in the last few months.

But the prospect of long-term commitments by the federal government to transportation improvements appears unlikely. In fact, it’s been nearly two years since the previous federal transportation spending packages expired.

A new six-year transportation plan was recently proposed by President Barack Obama. While the plan calls for spending$556 billion over six years, it is anticipated that transportation revenue over that same period will only be $220 billion. This approximate $336 billion funding gap emphasizes the need to explore and find alternate funding sources. That may prove to be too difficult, and a divided Congress also makes it much harder for all sides to reach an accord.

The battles at the federal level also affect transportation spending in most states since they rely heavily on federal funding to augment state resources. And a key problem for transportation spending has been a decline in gas tax revenue that the states and federal government depend on to pay for such projects.

The National Conference of State Legislatures noted in March, that 21 states cut transportation programs in the 2010 fiscal year and that at least 11 plan to do so in the 2011 fiscal year, including nine that did it in 2010.

The ongoing financial woes have left Gary Toth, the transportation initiatives director for the Project for Public Spaces, with a more pessimistic viewpoint than Corless.

Toth works with a group that tries to emphasize the need to plan transportation improvements to enhance the quality of life and the community instead of trying to solve congestion. And he said that the continual battles at the state and federal level appear unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

“What I see is that leadership isn’t coming from the federal or state level, it’s coming from metropolitan areas,” Toth said.

Toth indicated that while items such as high speed rail might be considered the “sexy” type of alternative transportation right now, there are plenty of examples of other types of innovative thinking going on in places such as Boise, Idaho; Seattle, Wash.; Detroit, Mich.; Denver, Colo.; and Charlotte, N.C.

Charlotte, for example, launched a light rail system in November 2007 that is now nearly 10 miles long. One of the main financial sources for the Charlotte-area mass transit system is a half-cent sales tax that has been approved by voters.

Seattle has emphasized the need for alternatives to driving, connecting public places and helping build neighborhoods. The city has embraced transit-oriented planning, and in 2006, voters passed a referendum that increased funding for transportation as well as money to create safe routes to schools and to plant trees to increase the urban canopy. Money has been used for such things as sidewalks and bike lanes and bridge repairs.

Corless, who hails from California, says what’s happening across the nation when it comes to transportation funding reminds him of what happened in the Bay Area nearly 50 years ago.

Some of the counties surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area decided to withdraw from plans for a mass transit system that would link communities in the region. Three counties, however, stuck with the plan that led to the creation of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).

That system now covers 104 miles and links the cities of San Francisco and Oakland as well as many other communities in the greater Bay area. But the rail system excludes Marin County and those cities north of San Francisco and experts indicate these areas, where the debate continues into present-day politics, are now seeing the error of this decision.

Measures to bring BART to the surrounding cities are as recent as 2006, as many environmentalists, planners and developers cite the heavy congestion on the Golden Gate Bridge and the urban sprawl whittling away at the surrounding agricultural land and open space as the necessity for system expansion.

Governments and citizens alike should take note of the effect of decisions made long ago on future planning.

“That was the wrong decision 50 years ago and they paid the price,” Corless said.

 

Gary Fineout is an award-winning journalist who covered politics and government for nearly 20 years. He previously worked in the Tallahassee bureau of The Miami Herald and his work has also appeared in The New York Times and several other Florida newspapers. He is now an independent journalist.