Congress, local leaders can team up on vital infrastructure investments

Have you heard about the “transportation fiscal cliff?”

Most readers of this special section doubtless are well aware that the gas-tax supported transportation trust fund will run out of money to reimburse states before the end of the fiscal year, leaving next year’s program in doubt. But how many of your local leaders know it, to say nothing of regular voters?

Transportation watchers have seen this coming for some time: Rising construction costs and inflation have eroded the yield of a per-gallon tax, unchanged since 1993. Meanwhile, vehicles are using less fuel and Americans are driving fewer miles per person, further reducing the earning power.

As Congress looks toward the Oct. 1 expiration of the law that guides how we spend the trust fund — known as MAP-21 — they are confronted either with asking taxpayers for more revenue or leaving states and local communities stranded without money for projects in the pipeline.

If we are going to raise the necessary revenue — and we argue emphatically that we should — we have to be able to articulate a clear and compelling case that the investment will lead to improved long-term economic prosperity. At the same time we need to direct more of the funding and latitude to local communities, rewarding the most innovative projects at the level where voters can best be assured of accountability.

For the last nine months or so, we have been traveling the country, listening to the local elected, business and civic leaders who are closest to the needs of everyday working people and business owners, in communities of all sizes. Everywhere we go, these leaders are making the case that our cities, towns and suburbs — the local centers of commerce that form the backbone of America’s economy — are in a serious bind: They need money to fix an aging system while also building the new infrastructure their economies depend on.

They know they must have top-notch transportation networks to compete economically on a global scale and preserve their quality of life. Responding to calls from major employers, chambers of commerce around the country are working to win support for improved networks that include high-capacity public transit networks. Why do they care? Because they can’t recruit and retain workers if their only option is to endure hours of congestion each day. They can’t attract young talent to regions lacking a range of appealing, affordable and convenient transportation options. They can’t get freight where it needs to go on freeways clogged with commuters in ever-lengthening rush hours.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama stressed the need for action to improve the jobs and earning prospects of working Americans. But a transportation program verging on breakdown bodes ill for any such strategy. It won’t do much good, for example, to train a low-wage worker for a job in the suburbs if he or she can’t get to it. Efforts to revive manufacturing will falter if producers can’t move their goods through bottlenecks on overburdened and deteriorating urban highways.

These clearly are issues of national significance and require a strong, forward-looking federal partner. These local communities are stretching themselves to raise their own funds and to innovate, but without a strong federal partner the twin demands of maintaining their existing infrastructure and preparing for the future are beyond their means.

But while the federal program of the interstate era was designed to push states to build a particular part of the network by funding the lion’s share, the program of the modern era needs to reward local communities that innovate and raise a substantial share of funds.

The local leaders who have come forward to join our new alliance have told us they want an end to the era of timidity and shrinking expectations. They are lining up behind Transportation for America’s new revenue proposal that would generate $30 billion a year in additional funding to meet two key goals: Stabilize and fully fund the existing MAP-21 program, while raising additional revenue for locally-driven infrastructure projects that spur economic growth and innovation.

The simplest mechanism to raise the money is to phase in a gas tax increase of 17 cents per gallon. But there are other possibilities, including replacing the existing per-gallon tax with a sales tax of 11 percent; introducing a fee of $4 on each barrel of oil; or adding a sales tax of 5.5 percent to fuel purchases on top of the existing federal per-gallon tax.
The cost to individual commuters? About as much as a cup of coffee and doughnut per week.

The mayors, chamber executives, civic leaders and major employers we have been talking to are ready to make the pitch to their own constituencies and provide backing for members of Congress willing to act on behalf of our current and future prosperity. Because the national economy is only as strong as the local economies that make it up, these leaders understand these needs better than anyone and articulate them clearly. The only question is whether Congress will follow their lead.

Corless is the director of Transportation for America, an alliance of elected, business and civic leaders united to promote transportation investments by the states and federal government.