Five imperatives for transportation infrastructure funding

In early 2018 the Trump administration will turn its attention to our deteriorating and outmoded infrastructure. It is about time. The federal gas tax has not been increased since 1993. The Highway Trust Fund that distributes gas tax dollars to states is facing insolvency even after a $70 billion transfer from general revenues in 2016.

According to the Committee for Responsible Federal Budgets, “CBO projects those funds to run out by 2021. By 2022, spending will total $58 billion while revenue will total $40 billion … Over the next decade, spending will exceed revenue and reserves by $139 billion.”

{mosads}The infrastructure debate should be about more than money, if the president and Congress seek a real solution to a problem that threatens the underpinnings of our economy and quality of life for most Americans. Transportation, in all of its modes, is the artery of commerce and touches every citizen in some way, every day.


Here are five suggestions:

Craft the next vision:  

The last great vision for transportation was that of President Dwight D. Eisenhower whose legislation began the national system of interstate highways. His vision was not just to accelerate commerce but also to improve our quality of life. In 1951, the gas tax was raised to two cents to pay for the Korean War. In 1956, Americans accepted a 50 percent increase to fund Eisenhower’s vision for a national highway system. In 1959, another penny was added. In less than a decade, the federal gas tax was increased by 100 percent with popular support.

Reassess the mission:  

As stated in 2015, “The mission of the Department (of Transportation) is to: Serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.”  

The problem is that new technologies are changing the way we travel. The mission needs to focus more on how current resources and assets can be transformed to meet the rapidly evolving needs of people and industry in the 21st century regarding mobility.

Focus on efficiency:   

McKinsey & Company found that “delivering infrastructure more efficiently can reduce its whole cost by 15 percent. All told, efficiency gains in approval, engineering, procurement, and construction can generate savings of as much as 25 percent on new projects, without compromising the quality of outcomes.”    

The “orange barrels” at construction sites, which to those who build projects means progress is underway, are mostly viewed by drivers as a harbinger of long-term detours and delays. The question going forward with resources tight is, can we afford to wait 15 years for a bridge?

More flexibility:   

Tolling interstates is not available to most states because of federal regulations. Tolling is fair and, with new technologies, can be very efficient. It is relatively easy to retrofit a highway with gantry to collect tolls electronically.  

Tolling is the next logical user fee as the federal gas tax reaches the limits of its ability to generate revenue. It should be an option in any funding formula.

Improve communications:  

Infrastructure is all about engineering. To appreciate this point, just read most reports that are generated by transportation agencies. Communicating with and engaging the public long has been overlooked as a legitimate cost of doing business in building transportation infrastructure.  Yet, with smartphones, it is now possible to keep people up to date on progress and even to ask for the public’s input at key phases of a project. For example, would the public rather have a highway closed for six months to rebuild, or closed for six years to be done in phases?

The neglect of our infrastructure can be placed, in some measure, to the lack of a compelling vision for its future. Looking for more private investments (President Trump’s focus) or raising the gas tax to generate a trillion new dollars are both lacking because neither is positioned to generate broad-based public support.

President Eisenhower knew that gaining support for a 100 percent increase in the gas tax started with giving the people a compelling vision of the returns they would realize from their investment. Policymakers today should relearn this lesson.

Dennis M. Powell is an issues management strategist who works nationally with organizations to secure transportation infrastructure funding. He was chief strategist in the passage of Act 89, providing $2.4 billion in additional funding annually for all modes of transportation in Pennsylvania. He is president of Massey Powell, an issues management strategy consultancy based in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.

Tags Donald Trump Highway Trust Fund Interstate Highway System Tax

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