Funding ideas: loads wanted

Act now, and you can have input now into the congestion and pavement conditions your drivers will encounter a decade from now.

Act now, and you can have input now into the congestion and pavement conditions your drivers will encounter a decade from now. But hurry — this offer expires soon!

Lest you think the copywriter for a cheesy late-night commercial has captured the word processor of the sober-sounding economist who usually occupies this space, let me assure you we're the same person, but with multiple personae. And I/we need your help.

One of the roles I have recently been handed is member of a “Blue Ribbon Panel of Experts” advising the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. The group is currently visiting transport facilities and agencies and holding hearings around the country, with the aim of sending Congress a final report by the end of 2007.

The deadline seems early enough to allow Congress ample time to enact a replacement for the current surface transportation spending and funding law, known SAFETEA-LU, which expires at the end of September 2009.

SAFETEA-LU managed to increase federal funding for highways without raising Highway Trust Fund tax rates. Instead, it credited the trust fund, rather than the general fund, with a larger share of existing taxes and spent down the balance in the trust fund. But the funding level is far short of what DOT said was needed to maintain current highway conditions, let alone improve them enough to relieve congestion.

Worse, the funding that was scraped together can't be sustained beyond the September 2009 expiration date of SAFETEA-LU. In fact, the Bush administration estimated last summer that the highway portion of the trust fund, which is segregated from the transit account, would run out of money before then. If that happens, federal highway aid will have to be trimmed starting in October 2008, unless Congress and the President agree on a new revenue source or allow the highway account to borrow.

Here's where you come in, and why your help is needed now. The commission wants the panel, which will hold its first meeting this month, to funnel it ideas for future highway funding.

Another reason to speak up now is that states are going ahead with their own initiatives. Governors or other officials of New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Ohio have expressed interest in selling or leasing their toll roads. Their interest was sparked by the recent long-term leases of the Chicago Skyway and Indiana Toll Road. Both transactions brought in much more money than anticipated. The Indiana money is now being used to accelerate and expand highway improvements statewide.

Some trucking executives fear that private operation of turnpikes will mean toll increases. But others may find private operators more innovative and responsive to customer needs, or may consider the improvements elsewhere a worthy tradeoff. What's your view?

The bottom line: I can't vouch for who else will listen to your ideas, but I promise I will. True, I was nominated for the panel by my current employer, the Associated General Contractors of America. AGC is a trade association that represents highway (and other) contractors, whose views on highway funding levels and sources don't always coincide with those of trucking companies. But my appointment also reflects the nearly 13 years I spent with ATA, and other involvement throughout my career in transportation policy.

So, load me up with your ideas. You'll get a fair hearing.

TAGS: News
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