Is the future of transportation local?

In the past, Congress passed multi-year reauthorizations or simply raised the gasoline tax to keep up with traffic congestion. But as new transportation demands have arisen, Congress has failed to reform revenue streams to keep pace.

In the words of former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, the federal government no longer has “the stomach” to go beyond an annual funding bill.

The current system, he says, focuses more on “squeaky wheels” than larger problems. He references the FAA sequestration fight as an example. Only when home districts started complaining did Congress act.

This is untenable in the long-term.

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The “squeaky wheel” approach skews the system. By placing the focus on solely the loudest, most immediate needs, larger problems go ignored. The institution of an overarching long-term strategy is bypassed.  

Mineta’s remarks came as part of a recent event hosted by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center at the National Press Club in Washington. Six former transportation secretaries came together to discuss, among other things, highway financing.

As a solution, Mineta and many of his peers propose that state and local offices must initiate a “bottom-up” approach.

Without a larger reform bill, local government must get involved as a matter of necessity. The lack of consistent financing has created a vacuum. And regional governments are the most realistic candidates to fill it.

Those present referenced the innovative practices, strong oversight, smarter budgetary methods, and less dysfunctional legislatures as strengths of local government.

Mary Peters, Transportation Secretary under George W. Bush, claims that money might “bubble up” in a similar way to welfare. Because local governments have a “more narrow focus on revenue streams” they are in a strong position to provide answers.

One of President Clinton’s transportation secretaries, Rodney E. Slater, cites the role of state and local government as the “laboratory for democracy.” In his view, it is the states that can provide fresh ideas at a time when innovative thinking is in short supply.

Andrew Card, a former Transportation Secretary and White House Chief of Staff under George W. Bush, says it is also an issue of “bookkeeping.”

Because states are able to amortize their funding figures, the resulting budgets are more realistic. Essentially, in an era of fiscal constraint, it helps to have accurate data. Good bookkeeping in turn leads to credible proposals that restore the faith of Congress when deciding who gets appropriations.

But Mineta’s point in the end is likely the most convincing.

We have entered the post-Highway Trust Fund era. Resources are drying up. And Congress is showing little intent of raising the gasoline tax anytime soon. Thus, the need for partial state financing is perhaps an unavoidable reality.

This puts stress on state coffers. However, it simultaneously presents a major opportunity.

If state and local governments are all competing for the same piece of a shrinking pie, then the strongest, most credible bidders will have the chance to get momentum behind an expansive portfolio of transportation projects.

Many states are doing just that.

Brookings coined the term “can-do states” for this group of forward thinkers. So far, the two prevailing ideas are an increased tax on gasoline as well as the expanded use of public-private partnerships to fund major projects.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx knows local government well. He used to be Mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. He will likely be looking for a few flagship projects to put his stamp on events early in his tenure. 

Which states lead the vanguard remains to be seen.

Lucadamo is a graduate researcher at the University of Virginia's Miller Center.