More than ideas and proposals are needed to truly foster U.S. transportation infrastructure roadmap

Talking with some key Washington-based transportation infrastructure experts not long after this budget proposal was released, it was, and remains, clear, that an effective funding mechanism is key to ensure long-term success for transportation infrastructure in the U.S.

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When the White House issued its fiscal 2020 budget proposal last month, some attention was given to the transportation infrastructure allocations, despite transportation infrastructure being somewhat ostensibly “lost in the shuffle” in political circles inside the Beltway.

As previously reported by LM in our news section, the White House budget said the 2020 proposal fully funds Highway Trust Fund-supported programs at levels that are consistent with the fifth and final year of the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act, which former President Barack Obama signed into law in December 2015.

The five-year, $305 billion FAST Act, at the time of its signing, represented the first law enacted in more than ten years that provides long-term funding certainty for surface transportation, with states and local governments able to move forward with critical transportation projects like new highways and transit times, as well as being assured they will have a long-term Federal partner, too, according to the Department of Transportation.

LM also reported that the 2020 budget proposal includes $200 billion for additional infrastructure investments, with the White House saying it will work with Congress on allocating this funding in order to advance projects that are most beneficial for Americans. Developing and building transportation infrastructure projects through competitive programs to generate large investment returns remains a core focus of the White House’s planning and was made clear in the budget proposal.

And after talking with some key Washington-based transportation infrastructure experts not long after this budget proposal was released, it was, and remains clear, that an effective funding mechanism is key to ensure long-term success for transportation infrastructure in the U.S. It goes without saying this has been overlooked for far too long and has led the nation down the windy path of potholes, road closures, and highway maintenance issues and projects that continue to hinder both consumers and businesses from more easily getting from point A to point B.

Not long after this budget proposal was released, James H. Burnley, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based law firm Venable LLP and former Secretary of Transportation under late President Ronald Reagan, explained that the budget proposal essentially set out the Trump Administration’s opening offer on the federal role in funding infrastructure over the next five years or so. 

“It recognizes that we don’t have unlimited federal resources, and it is premised on the decades old understanding that the states should play a leading role in surface transportation infrastructure planning,” he noted. “Competition among the states for funding for projects is always a good idea.  That’s the way we minimize wasting limited resources on ‘bridges to nowhere.’  The federal role, as the budget proposal recognizes, is to assure that funds are allocated to the projects that best serve the goals of safety and efficiency, while also preserving and augmenting a national surface transportation system.

But, by far the most important issue in the next long-term reauthorization bill, according to Burnley, is what funding mechanisms will be adopted on the federal level. 

“A flat rate fuel tax will not work and will not be equitable in a world in which a significant number of vehicles are powered by something other than gasoline or diesel fuel,” he said. “There is increasing discussion of a VMT, but we are a long way from a consensus.”

He is right about a federal fuel tax increase likely not working, especially when taking into account the current tax has not been increased since 1993. As for VMT, everyone with a stake says much more needs to happen before it even becomes a remote possibility.

Elaine Nessle, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition of America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC) said that while the total amount of money requested in the budget is down compared to previous years, there are requested increases, to the tune of $1 billion for infrastructure-specific efforts like the BUILD grants (formerly TIGER), and $1 billion increase Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) competitive grant program.

On a separate but related note, Nessle noted that going into the next transportation reauthorization bill, CAGTC is requesting for an increase in size of the INFRA program within the FAST Act to $12 billion annually, well above the current level of $900 million per year.

“We arrived at that number by looking at the amount of unique funding requests under the [FAST Act] program that were unmet,” she said. “We recognize it is a significant increase in what is available to the program currently but, for years, policy makers have been talking about how woefully underfunded the overall programs are and I don’t think it does any good to hide the fact that there are $12 billion in requests for that program alone. The need is much greater than the numbers [in the budget proposal]. The other big ask we are making is to remove the cap on non-highway spending under the INFRA program and also under the freight formula program…and also see the amount of funding for the freight formula program increase. We have not attached a dollar amount to what that should be exactly. That number is a little more difficult to get at.”

To say nothing is happening, in terms of procuring badly needed financing for transportation infrastructure is somewhat misleading, but only to a point. What is currently happening is akin to images of a hamster on a wheel running fast but really not achieving much in the way of distance. Maybe that starts to change with the next long-term bill and White House budget. Stay tuned.    

About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman

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