“The future productivity and mobility needs of the nation depend on surface transportation. Without a reasonable solution, our long-term economic competitiveness in the world economy is in jeopardy.” –Mortimer Downey, former Deputy Secretary of the Dept. of Transportation (DOT) under President Clinton and now candidate for the DOT’s top job under President-elect Obama.
So the list for the top job at the Department of Transportation (DOT) is now a short one, containing just four names: The above-quoted Mortimer Downey (who served in the DOT twice, under Presidents Carter and Clinton); Jane Garvey, the first woman to head up the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) from 1997 to 2002 and a veteran of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Steve Heminger, executive director of the San Francisco Bay area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission and a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); and the one and only James Oberstar (D-Minn.), powerful chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Those are some pretty big guns if you ask me – each of them intimately familiar with the transportation pitfalls we face today across our nation. The question is, are they up to the task of not only fixing the problems we face today, but also preparing our transportation networks for the challenges of tomorrow?
The biggest near-term yet also long-term challenge is the Highway Trust Fund – the financing vehicle for building roads, bridges and transit networks. As we’ve come to know, it’s woefully inadequate for the job. Created in 1956, the fund relies on gasoline and diesel fuel taxes to generate the monies necessary to repair and expand transportation infrastructure. But the roughly $50 billion it collects every year is nowhere near the $90 billion in annual expenditures necessary just to bring current roads and bridges up to snuff, according to the final report filed by the bipartisan National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission in January this year.
That 12-member commission – chartered by Congress in 2005 and chaired by current DOT secretary Mary Peters – went on to state that significant increased investment in surface transportation would be required to upgrade to an advanced surface transportation system capable of sustaining strong economic growth. THAT recommendation alone came with a $225 billion ANNUAL price tag from all sources (Federal, state, local, and private) for the next FIFTY years. [I don’t want to even begin doing the math on that one.]
This is a challenge Oberstar in particular is well aware of. “The federal government has played a central role in the development of our nation’s infrastructure since the late 1700s. Our forefathers knew that in order for our fledgling nation to prosper, trade, and commerce had to thrive. So, the federal government invested in roads, locks, inland waterways, and harbors,” he said in a speech last year.
“As history has shown, these leaders got it right because not only did our nation’s economy thrive due to their wise investments; it grew into the strongest economy in the world,” he stressed. “Our nation’s intermodal transportation network continues to serve as the backbone of our economic security and competitiveness, as well as our quality of life. It facilitates the movement of people and goods and links our communities to each other and the world. It is the foundation of America’s economy.”
While the U.S. transportation network remains the envy of the world, Oberstar believes we are losing ground. “Without a renewed commitment to providing the vision and leadership to rebuild and expand these systems, this situation will continue to get worse,” he explained.
Yet to fund all this “necessary” investment requires one critical and unavoidable ingredient: MONEY … lots and lots of it. The Commission recommended a slew of new revenue strategies, including increasing the Federal gas tax between 25 and 40 cents per gallon (adding 5 to 8 cents per gallon, per year), with the rate increase indexed and phased in over time.
“The fuel tax was the primary recommended user fee in the near term since it will continue to be a viable revenue source for surface transportation for some time to come,” the Commission noted. “The most promising alternative user fee revenue measure is a vehicle miles traveled fee, provided that substantial privacy and collection cost issues can be addressed. “
Other user-based fees also should help address the investment shortfall, the group said in its final report, such as: more tolls; the deployment of peak-hour “congestion pricing” on Federal-aid highways in major metropolitan areas; a freight fee for freight projects; and ticket taxes for passenger rail improvements. “Tax policy also can provide incentives to expand intermodal networks,” the Commission added. “Governments on all levels should encourage public-private partnerships as a means of attracting additional private investment to the surface transportation system, provided that conditions are included to protect the public interest and the movement of interstate commerce.”
Heminger – head of the MTA since 2001 – signed off on these plans as well as an effort to streamline the way the federal government allocates those tax dollars. “I group our principal findings into the three R’s,” he told the “Rails-to-trails” conservancy earlier this year. “The first is that we need to reform the way we do transportation, from how we select the projects to how we deliver them. Second, we need to restructure the federal program, which now has more than 100 different spending categories. We proposed a dramatic consolidation of those categories into 10 new areas that we think meet the test of national interest. And the third is revenue, where we recommended a significant increase in the federal gas tax.”
He’s also a huge proponent of improving highway safety – and providing more funds to do it. Right now, for example, only 3% of Highway Trust Fund monies go to highway safety initiatives, whereas 82% go to road and bridge repair and construction, with 15% earmarked for transit needs.
“Put bluntly, our track record on highway safety in America is a national tragedy,” he said in Congressional testimony earlier this year. “Every year 40,000 of our fellow citizens die on the nation’s highways – that’s equivalent to a 9/11 every month, month after month, year after year In addition to the horrible human cost, the economic consequences are enormous. According to a study released … by AAA, the annual cost of traffic crashes in lost earnings, medical bills, and other economic impacts is nearly two and a half times the annual cost of traffic congestion in the nation’s urban areas -- $164 billion for traffic crashes vs. $68 billion for congestion.”
He said that though we constantly hear federal officials claim that safety is Job #1, the carnage continues. “With the exception of many rural roads that need to be upgraded, our highways themselves are pretty safe – it’s the drivers who are dangerous,” Heminger stressed. “Driver behavior is where we need to devote much more attention than we have in the past, just as countries very similar to ours – like Great Britain and Australia – have done so and achieved much lower fatality rates than our own.”
Heminger noted that every state should have a primary seat belt law, but only half do. Every state should have a motorcycle helmet law, but only 20 do. Every state should have an ignition interlock law that prevents repeat drunk drivers from starting their car if they’re not sober, but less than a handful do. And once those laws are passed, they need to be vigorously enforced to ensure compliance, he said.
“Our commission report proposes an aggressive but achievable goal of cutting traffic fatalities in half by 2025,” Heminger explained. “We can reach that goal, but only if the combined might and muscle of our federal, state, and local governments are brought to bear. If we do reach that goal, it would mean 20,000 more Americans every year would be able to tell their loved ones about their drive home from work each day.”
Getting our arms around a transportation strategy this big and getting everyone to buy into it is probably the biggest hurdle (DOT Secretary Peters, for one, disagreed with her own group’s call for higher fuel taxes). Jane Garvey knows all about that particular challenge – an issue she touched on in a speech back in 2000 while at the FAA.
“Yes, it still takes too long for things to get done. There is a real art to knowing when we have enough information to move forward,” she said. “In a large organization it’s a struggle sometime to create a sense of urgency — not impulsiveness, but urgency — because the issues are too important not to act. And frankly, at some point after you’ve heard the relevant arguments and considered them carefully — further debate or reflection becomes marginal and delay becomes a de facto decision.”
Doing all of that is no doubt going to be a struggle – and keeping the freight industry’s seat at the table while that struggle occurs is going to be no easy task. Mortimer Downey, for one, recognizes that freight must have a voice in all of this as it’s a vital cog in the economic engine of our country.
“Freight movements, whether by rail, truck, ship or air, are a crucial link in the $7 trillion commodity flow fueling the U.S. economy today,” he told Congress back in May. “The chokepoints that are developing along the nation’s highways only tell a fraction of the story. That strain on capacity is being felt along all of the nation’s major gateways and trade corridors. Congestion on these facilities is not only an environmental disaster; it serves as a trade barrier as well.”
Despite these compelling figures, Downey said we as a nation do not have consensus around a national freight plan or a coherent program to document, anticipate and provide for our economy’s goods movement needs.
“Infrastructure that was adequate in the first half of the twentieth century is still being relied on today, with some facilities utilized well beyond design capacity, while others are no longer as useful in today’s economic patterns,” he stressed. “We must focus on the system as a whole, rather than viewing the nation’s transportation infrastructure as several different systems that occasionally interact. We must see the entire network, interacting and interdependent. Only then can we begin to discuss real solutions to the issues this nation faces.”
Like I said, all four of the potential candidates to be DOT secretary recognize the enormous challenges ahead. We’ll see in the coming days who shall be picked to take them on.