I know this is not a transportation blog, but the bad place we find ourself in transportation wise in Massachusetts just keeps dominating the news cycle, and is so important to us in so many different ways that I just have to keep posting on it. Today the Washington Post details the situation facing the incoming Secretary of Transportation, and some of the very difficult problems facing that person and President-elect Obama. From the Post:
The next transportation secretary will walk into an agency that oversees an outdated air traffic control system; congested roads, rails and skies; crumbling highways and bridges; and a financing system teetering on collapse. Transportation experts, both parties in Congress and the current White House agree that the traditional ways of easing congestion and funding transportation are not working and that a fundamental overhaul is needed.
A key problem is the Highway Trust Fund, which generates about $50 billion annually for road, bridge and transit projects. The vast majority of this money — about 82 percent — goes to roads and bridges, while 15 percent goes to transit and 3 percent toward highway safety.
The fund dates from 1956 and relies on the federal gasoline tax, which has not been increased by Congress in 15 years. The tax is not indexed to inflation, so it remains steady at 18.4 cents per gallon, despite the rise in gas prices.
Sounds like Massachusetts! As we talk about teetering towards an insolvent system in Massachusetts the federal government faces its own transport finance quandry.
In the past fiscal year, the fund was taking in less revenue than it was paying out to states. It was headed for insolvency in September when Congress stepped in with an $8 billion emergency transfer from the general fund. Without that, hundreds of transportation projects underway across the country would have slowed or stopped.
Some think that the infusion is not enough to keep the highway fund afloat.
“It won’t get us through the year,” said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The funding debate has a familiar ring to it.
Meanwhile, the costs of maintaining the country’s transportation network and expanding it to accommodate growth are soaring. Transportation spending at federal, state and local levels totals about $90 billion annually. But the nation needs to spend about $225 annually for 50 years to create a highway and transit system that can sustain economic growth, according to the nonpartisan National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, chartered by Congress.
The commission recommended gradually increasing the federal gas tax to 40 cents a gallon, a move that the Bush administration and many in Congress have opposed. President-elect Barack Obama has not said whether he favors raising the tax.
Other ideas to raise revenue include expanding toll roads, increasing public-private partnerships and using congestion pricing, a system in which motorists or transit passengers pay more during peak travel periods. Another idea, which is being tried in Oregon, is to charge motorists a tax based not on the gas they buy but on the number of miles they drive.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg rolled out a congestion pricing plan some months ago, but it was derailed in the New York State legislature. And public-private partnerships, talked about recently in the Massachusetts Senate, are on the menu of President Bush. But the approach has critics.
Under Bush, the department has been shrinking the federal role in road building and public transportation and opening the sector to private investors who assume the risks of building the projects in exchange for profits from tolls and fees.
Congressional Democrats and some Republicans, along with transit advocates, have accused the department of rationing good road transportation to those who can afford fees, tolls and taxes. In some cases, the public-private partnerships have lacked adequate protection of the public interest, according to reports by the GAO.
The new Secretary will also have to deal with Amtrak, bleeding money and with little political consensus on where it should be heading, as well as the need to upgrade our air traffic control system, a huge expense. The battle over who pays for our system, and what kind of system we should have, is just begining, and will have huge ramifications for us as a nation. Read the Washington Post story here.