An Incomplete Agenda for the Nation’s Transportation System

Transportation Policy Consultant, Former Deputy Administrator of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation, Eno Board of Advisors

With the start of a new Congress and the second term of President Obama’s administration, anticipation runs high that a new page may be turned in the recent history of the nation’s infrastructure challenge. In his first full enunciation of his goals as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, Representative Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), wrote in the January 3, 2013, Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call, to set forth his perspective on the importance of transportation as a people mover, a business facilitator, and binder of national unity.

Like many of the transportation faithful, Chairman Shuster tipped his hat to President Eisenhower, Adam Smith and the Articles of Confederation, as well as the Constitution, for recognizing the important role the Federal government has in ensuring the permanence and future development of the nation’s transportation system.

Chairman Shuster’s agenda for the 113th Congress includes passage of the reauthorization of the federal passenger and freight rail safety program, oversight over the implementation of the just passed, short-term surface transportation act, MAP-21, and preparation for passage of MAP-21’s successor in 2014.

The chairman seems to understand the vital role a modern, well-maintained transport plays in a vibrant, competitive economy when he wrote:

“Our national surface transportation networks are the foundation on which our economy and our way of life are built. Without significant improvements to this network, and additional reforms to federal programs, transportation will become increasingly inefficient and unreliable, will be a drag on our economy, and will hurt the ability of our businesses to remain competitive an in the global economy.” 

But the chairman also revealed that his agenda is missing a vital element:

“Key to that effort will be paying for the investments responsibly. With the Highway Trust Fund facing its own version of a fiscal cliff in the coming years, we must find a way to pay for transportation improvements without borrowing from our children. We cannot borrow our way to a better future…”

Sadly, Chairman Shuster – like many who chant the small government mantra – has lumped investments in the future with expenditures for the moment, offering no credible financing and funding strategy to make his agenda reality. As a result, he has confined himself to a narrow perspective that does not recognize that users – present and future – should share in this investment just as future users of earlier infrastructure shared in paying for and maintaining it over its useful life.

In a recent op/ed in the Washington Post (“America’s Many Deficits,” January 25, 2013), former Treasury Secretary and presidential economic advisor, Lawrence Summers, captured the essence of the battle between austerity and investment in infrastructure when he wrote:

“As important as avoiding the repression of budget deficits is ensuring that the focus on the budget deficit does not come at the expense of other equally real deficits… No one who travels abroad from the United States can doubt that this country has an enormous infrastructure deficit.” 

Summers went on to point out that the recent cost of borrowing is at near-zero interest rates, and need not increase debt ratios if [the investment in infrastructure] contributes to economic growth and in turn generates more tax revenue.

What will it take to breakthrough this morass?

Commenting on an article in the January 2013 edition of Eno Brief, a reader (Scott) observed:

“We must somehow communicate to the congressional leadership and the American public what a lack of investment in the transportation infrastructure of the country will mean for the future well-being of our citizens. Right now this communication is being carried by transportation advocates and is not resonating with the American people or our elected leadership. I do not pretend to know how to ‘get the message across.’

“So, with this backdrop, it is probable that a transformational transportation authorization bill will not be forthcoming and that a fix for the highway trust fund and significant dedicated resources for new initiatives (high-speed rail, livability, large intermodal projects) is not likely.

“For many of these new initiatives to become reality and before the Congress needs to come up with significant appropriations for these mega-projects, we need to do the work to determine which of these projects are truly of national significance and can be justified through rigorous analysis; economic, environmental and energy. To be honest with ourselves, this has not been done. Various advocacy groups are pushing grand plans before thorough ‘professional’ analysis is done. So, instead of banging on the Congress for new modal specific capital funding, i.e. highways, transit, passenger rail, air; we need to push on Congress to provide a national transportation policy framework, the role that the federal, state and local governments and the private sector plays in this policy, and the mechanisms and resources to plan, analyze and fund a national transportation system (something like the EU’s TEN-T initiative or Great Britain’s Eddington Plan). Creating the organization in USDOT or as an independent organization to develop and propose this National system would be a start and transformational in and of itself.” 

Clearly, this reader has captured a very significant element that lies at the heart of this infrastructure battle, i.e. the conflict between the recognition of need and the political will to honestly and fully address it. The reader also acknowledges that transportation advocates, despite their earnest and significant efforts, have been unsuccessful in breaking through this conflict.

The reader goes on to suggest that for many of the needed transportation initiatives to become reality and for Congress to fund them, the nation needs a comprehensive transportation plan that prioritizes the needs on the basis of national significance, and economic and environmental benefit.

To its credit, MAP-21 does set a framework through which some of this analysis can begin, but it is unlikely that in the less-than two years remaining before MAP-21 expires this analysis can be completed.

Additionally, in the absence of federal or congressional action, many states are taking steps to address their transportation infrastructure needs. But like the movement at the federal level, these steps are not long-range in nature and thus insufficient to produce sustainable long-term infrastructure transformation.

For its part, the Administration, while offering an even more aggressive agenda than that proposed by Chairman Shuster, has offered no specifics on a strategy for either financing or funding urgently needed transportation infrastructure repairs and/or improvements. Thus, the Administration’s professed “pro-transportation” rhetoric rings as hollow as Chairman Shuster’s.

To complete a transportation agenda – either Chairman Shuster’s or the President’s – the following will have to happen:

  1. Political cover will need to be provided Congress so that it can make the paradigm shift that recognizes the difference between long-term investment and short-term spending;
  2. Congress and the Administration must establish the mechanisms to allow for long-term investment in the nation’s transportation infrastructure; and
  3. The Administration and Congress along with transportation stakeholders must come together on a long-range transportation infrastructure plan, not just a strategy for passing the next transportation authorization.

With these elements in place, Chairman Shuster and President Obama can and will complete what each offer as an ambitious, but incomplete transportation agenda.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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