Staying focused

KirkBy Kirk Landers

America’s national non-debate over highway policy got a new infusion of fantasy in April.

The first and most disillusioning one came from the Obama administration. It was a too-familiar chorus on the fantastic potential for public-private funding ventures to solve our transportation crisis.

This, of course, is a red herring – the same one that was floated just a few years ago by the Bush Administration. Then as now, we had an administration that didn’t want to raise the federal fuel tax but wanted to seem like it was doing something about the infrastructure crisis.

What’s disillusioning is that the tactic worked almost as well in 2010 as it did back in 2005. Serious journalists, even some in the construction press, actually ran stories on the great potential of innovative financing in solving our problems. We were told that the great potential of innovative financing goes well beyond toll roads (which are proving to be bitterly unpopular with motorists almost everywhere) to the veritable miracle of bond issues.

Self delusion, rationalization, weak-willed politicians, and an absence of leadership – these are the sources of our highway and bridge ills today.

In case you missed the coverage, let me explain the miracle of bond issues: you get to spend money today and pay it back in the future.

Now, there’s a new concept in American governance. Why didn’t anyone else think of spend now/pay later?

Tollways, infrastructure banks, bond issues and other so-called innovative financing concepts are viable tools in the infrastructure management arsenal, but they can’t solve the crisis caused by our unwillingness to pay for what we need.

Another delusionary concept for solving our underfunding crisis was floated in April by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), which postulates that our whole problem stems from misguided priorities by state departments of transportation. According to PIRG, the state DOTs are focused on creating new highways rather than maintaining existing roads and bridges.

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We can solve all our problems by getting the DOTs to concentrate our resources on maintaining what we have, says PIRG, rather than building all these new roads and expanding old ones.

Now this is truly depressing. When Washington pols start talking innovative financing, it’s just politics. But this comes from a group that purports to research things for the good of the public. I’m sure they are sincere and intelligent, but whatever caused them to think we are investing aggressively in capacity expansion of our highways?

In the past 25 years, the number of lane miles in America has increased about 7 percent. That is not a vigorous increase in capacity by any measure. And during that same period, vehicle miles travelled by U.S. motorists increased by more than 70 percent.

Capacity expansion is not the source of our problems. Self delusion, rationalization, weak-willed politicians, and an absence of leadership – these are the sources of our highway and bridge ills today.

We need to increase the federal fuel tax by at least a dime a gallon, and 25 cents a gallon would be reasonable. Write it down – and don’t stop pushing your elected officials to get it done! EW