The infrastructure answer: Fair federal funding with state and local accountability

The infrastructure answer: Fair federal funding with state and local accountability
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In the next week, Congress will take up the omnibus appropriation bill and begin hearings on President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE’s infrastructure proposal. A key element of this legislation involves how infrastructure projects will be approved and funded. Some members have suggested that the proven process for project approval be bypassed and appropriation earmarks be reinstated. Taking such action would be a serious mistake.

America's infrastructure is aging, and the need to repair and replace bridges, highways and rail in all states and territories never has been greater. However, even with new infrastructure legislation, federal funding will not be sufficient to fully subsidize all of our nation's needs. Thus, the executive branch and Congress will have to prioritize projects — fairly and with transparency.

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In the past, political considerations resulted in the funding of earmarked special projects such as the famous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska that made a mockery of the funding process.

 

Congress recognized this when it eliminated earmarking in 2011. As a result, all states and districts can potentially qualify for federal funding based on a true assessment of need. This is designed to bring fairness to the process and give every member of Congress, all of whom have critical infrastructure needs in their states and districts, a way to make sure that funding is available to the most worthy projects first.

But the federal government cannot support local and regional projects without deep involvement and accountability at the local level. Thus, it is essential that strict policies be in place to insure that cost overruns do not occur and threaten other projects that are in the funding queue. The highly publicized cost overruns in the high-speed rail system in California and recent bridge and tunnel projects in other parts of the country are examples of how poorly managed infrastructure projects threaten other projects and create significant strains on available funding.

When local voters are engaged, and public officials know that overruns will be scrutinized in municipal and legislative hearings, accountability is assured. Review and approval of tax increases to fund such projects, for example, is meant to ensure accountability and discipline in funding and project management.

This local engagement comes when state and local entities have made significant financial commitments to the project. Congress recognized this when it passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Act (ISTEA) in 1991 on a bipartisan basis, which included collaborative local, state and federal planning and funding requirements.

The New Jersey New York Gateway project deals with a serious need in the region. It is anticipated that it will be one of the largest single transportation infrastructure projects since the building of the interstate highway system. The Gateway project needs to be planned and built. These projects must, however, go through a rigorous process. The process should include a requirement of significant local funding. To fast-track funding of this project through earmarking legislation would be a colossal and very costly mistake.

Each of us as American taxpayers should encourage Congress to pass a significant infrastructure bill that deals with our infrastructure challenges and makes certain that funds are allocated on a fair and objective basis throughout our country. We must demand that all projects go through this rigorous process before funding is approved.

In turn, local and state officials across the nation should demand a process that makes certain that infrastructure requests are evaluated fairly and without political bias. By creating a fair funding process, and requiring local and state governments to share the burden, more projects can be completed within planned budgets, and more of our infrastructure can be improved across the nation.

Samuel K. Skinner served as Secretary of Transportation in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.