All talk, no action

I blew it. I thought this would be the year that states got serious about putting more money into highway and bridge construction and reconstruction. After Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana showed he could pay for a decade's worth of highway work statewide and get improvements to the aging toll road by leasing it out for 75 years, other governors seemed interested in following his lead. In particular,

I blew it. I thought this would be the year that states got serious about putting more money into highway and bridge construction and reconstruction. After Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana showed he could pay for a decade's worth of highway work statewide and get improvements to the aging toll road by leasing it out for 75 years, other governors seemed interested in following his lead.

In particular, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with extremely lucrative roads to sell and towering needs for roadwork, looked to be prime candidates for privatization. But by the time the legislators turned out the lights in Trenton and Harrisburg, little had changed. The turnpikes were still under public agencies and the potholes and congestion were still spreading.

Other states dallied with fuel tax increases. But the legislators didn't complete action (North Carolina) or they ran into insurmountable opposition from the governor (Minnesota). Virginia legislators deadlocked for two months before reaching agreement among themselves and Gov. Tim Kaine on a scaled-back plan allowing the Tidewater and northern Virginia areas to raise more funds for roads.

A few states are moving ahead with public-private partnerships to build new capacity. Texas, already in the midst of building long stretches of new privately financed highways, declared a two-year moratorium on new franchises, but then allowed local governmental agencies to form new toll authorities. Virginia is moving toward allowing private interests to add toll lanes on the Interstates around Washington.

What role is Washington playing in all this? A mixed one. The Dept. of Transportation is pushing hard for private involvement. But the chairmen of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its Highways and Transit Subcommittee have repeatedly warned states against “excessively” long concessions to private operators and other aspects of privatization.

Congress has created not just the old Washington standby, the bipartisan commission, but two of them. The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission is due to wrap up its work by the end of 2007. Meanwhile, the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission has just begun working toward an April 2009 deadline.

Normally, Congress would be inclined to sit back and await these reports. But two developments may force quicker action. First, in July, the Bush administration projected that the highway account in the federal Highway Trust Fund would be $4-billion short in fiscal 2009. Such a shortfall could lower federal aid by nearly 40%, crippling many state transportation plans.

The second development was the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minnesota. Gov. Tim Pawlenty had vetoed a 7.5¢/gal. gas tax increase in May. Two days after the bridge collapse he was acknowledging the likelihood of a gas tax as part of a package to pay for infrastructure repairs. That package is likely to be taken up by a special legislative session in September.

Other states may also act this fall. New Mexico's surface transportation task force and Missouri's joint legislative committee on transportation are racing to come up with acceptable financing formulas before their states run out of money — or into disasters.

The bottom line: Trucking associations have been leery, if not downright hostile, toward both tax increases and privatization. They appeared to have carried the day with legislatures this spring. But maybe the combination of tax shortfalls and falling bridges will breathe new life into funding plans.

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