Wishful thinking? Not at all.
There is much to like about the portion of the Obama stimulus package focused on roads, and some of its features should be a part of the federal transportation program which will be drafted (hopefully) this fall.
The extra funding is the main target, of course. The $28 billion or so from the stimulus package plus $41 billion from the Highway Trust Fund adds up to a federal investment much closer to what the country needs to salvage its pavements and modernize traffic movement . . .
Wishful thinking? Not at all. In truth, every group that has studied America’s road and bridge infrastructure needs in the past several years has concluded that we need to approximately double our investment in this infrastructure at every level of government. Conservative, liberal, libertarian—they all come to this conclusion. They differ in how to raise the money, but everyone who has looked at the problem knows we need to invest more. And not for just a year, but year after year for a decade or more.
So, item #1 on the Reauthorization list is kicking the program from $41 billion to $80 billion a year, for at least five years.
Item #2 on the list, also taken from the stimulus package, is a rethinking of the matching funds program. State and local governments are flat broke right now. Many would be unable to use increased federal funds because they couldn’t raise more matching funds at their end. This condition will almost certainly continue through 2011, since government revenues are a trailing indicator of the economy. So it would make sense to liberalize fund access for the first two years of the new federal bill.
Legislators should also incorporate into the highway bill the stimulus package provision that states pay their vendors promptly. A number of states have abused their power over the years by paying service suppliers from contractors to doctors when they feel like it, many months after the bills were due. Prompt payment was part of the stimulus package because we need to get money into circulation. It should stay in the federal highway program for that reason, and because it’s just good business.
Beyond the stimulus package elements, our next transportation act needs to incorporate many of the recommendations of former Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. Chief among them:
o Simplify the number of spending programs within the sector so that states have more flexibility in managing their infrastructure assets.
o Continue to streamline the time and money involved in getting from the point a project is approved to the point when work actually begins.
o Invest seriously in the development of technology and practical methodology to make a vehicle miles traveled tax a viable alternative to the current fuel tax as a foundation for the highway program.
It would be nice if these points were championed by strong, visionary leadership and supported by a selfless, bipartisan congressional body blindly dedicated to doing the right thing.
As unlikely as that scenario is, the next best thing is a leadership and congressional body that is desperately looking for ways to create jobs and show the folks back home they are doing something. That almost surely will be the climate in the capitol this fall, and it could produce the kind of federal highway program we’ve needed for a decade or more, albeit packaged in a list of pork barrel projects of epic proportions.