Living In Denial About Transportation Funding


The reaction of various advocacy groups to President Obama’s recent call for a $50 billion stimulus spending plan for transportation infrastructure was predictable. They applauded the President’s initiative and thought that Congress should promptly approve the spending request. The benefits of investing in infrastructure are undisputable and the need for funds is urgent and compelling, they (or their press releases) proclaimed.

But convincing the next Congress of the need to act, whether to fund the infrastructure "down payment" of $50 billion or to authorize a proposed $500 billion multi-year surface transportation program, will not be easy. Most congressional lawmakers do not perceive infrastructure as an urgent priority. They see no signs of a popular outcry about the stalled transportation reauthorization, nor do they perceive a groundswell of grassroots support for massive transportation investments.

Indeed, what the lawmakers see is just the opposite. They witness New Jersey voters strongly approving Governor Chris Christie’s decision to cancel work on the long-planned rail tunnel under the Hudson River because, says the Governor, "the state simply doesn’t have the money" to pay for overruns in the potential $9-14 billion project. Mr. Christie, no doubt, has in mind the experience of Boston’s Big Dig which was projected in 1982 to cost $2.8 billion and ended up costing $15 billion.

The lawmakers also see Republican candidates for governor in California (Meg Whitman), Florida (Rick Scott), Ohio (John Kasich) and Wisconsin (Scott Walker) pledging to cancel high-speed rail projects in their states if elected — and running ahead of their Democratic opponents who unanimously support President Obama’s $8 billion high-speed rail initiative. They see the public greeting with a yawn a bold and visionary Amtrak proposal to link Boston and Washington with a dedicated high-speed rail line. They read in a much noticed Sunday Times Magazine article "Education of a President," (October 12) that the President himself thinks "there’s no such thing as ‘shovel-ready projects’ when it comes to public works." And they hear an Administration unable to explain how the $50 billion infrastructure initiative will be paid for. When asked, a top administration official could only lamely reply "Stay tuned, we’ll let you know."

More evidence of public reluctance to spend on infrastructure comes from the findings of a new October 2010 survey by the Pew Center on the States and the Public Institute of California titled "Facing the Facts: Public Attitudes and Fiscal Realities in Five Stressed States." By a large margin, respondents in five states (California, Arizona, Florida, Illinois and New York) showed a strong unwillingness to support additional transportation funding and offered to put transportation on the chopping block when asked which of their state's biggest expenses they would least protect from budget cuts.

It may be impolitic to suggest it, but dire warnings about the sorry state of the nation’s infrastructure seem to come largely from organized interests — stakeholders and advocacy groups. That is not to say that the nation’s transportation infrastructure has not been neglected or that America does not need better roads and transit systems. But rightly or wrongly, congressional lawmakers often discount cries about "crumbling infrastructure" as self-serving demands for more government money, often for projects that yield small economic return.

Moreover, many lawmakers come from rural districts that experience little traffic congestion, whose roads are well maintained and which never hope to benefit from high-speed rail service. Their reluctance to spend more money on public works also has been fueled by what they see as disappointing results from the stimulus initiative. As Rep. John Mica (R-FL), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and potential future T&I Committee chairman in the 112th Congress likes to point out, more than 60 percent of the stimulus infrastructure dollars still remain unspent, while unemployment in the construction industries remains high. All this adds weight to the legislative reluctance to tackle an ambitious infrastructure spending bill any time soon.

As one of our colleagues, a sincere and lifelong transportation advocate, put it, "the transportation community is mostly talking to itself and living in denial about the changing political mood." That mood—in the nation at large as well as in the next Congress— is unmistakably becoming more conservative and skeptical of big government. An overwhelming 70 percent of Americans think the government does not spend taxpayers’ money wisely, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. Newly elected members of Congress will be marching to the drum of fiscal discipline and looking for ways to curb out-of-control spending, a GOP aide told us. Congress will be closely questioning costly new federal initiatives no matter how well intentioned, he added. The expansive federal-aid surface transportation program as we have known it in the past may no longer be thought politically acceptable or fiscally affordable.

And who knows, the new mood of fiscal restraint may even infect the White House. As one senior White House adviser, quoted in the Sunday Times Magazine story, put it, "there's going to be very little incentive for big things over the next two years unless there's some sort of crisis." And we doubt that by this he meant "infrastructure crisis."

Ken Orski has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years.

Photo by woodleywonderworks

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Whenever there is a planning

Whenever there is a planning for infrastructure, then its quite normal to get controversy over it. But for the development of any nation such steps are needed to be taken. Thanks for giving a detail on his topic. Quite beneficial for a political science student like me.
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To makes our nation more

To makes our nation more strong and powerful we have to develop the infrastructure of road with master planning, make easy and reduce the traffic problem is very important for us.I am impressed at you beautiful suggestion and plan.Thanks fro well information.

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Transportation plan.

Transportation is the back bone of economic development. The road map of America is definitely well planed and acceptable all of view. The authority plan for spending in infrastructure and transportation development. Of course the noble thought is well for our nation.

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And if there is interest in transportation

If there is interest in any transportation projects by the general public it would be the construction and reconstruction of roads. Not high speed rail, light rail or any mass transit in general. Most of the public never uses any of those things but nearly 100% use roads.

The usual suspects are clamoring for the increase of bus service in my area. Never mind that the present systems are mismanaged, broken into FOUR different systems, rarely used by anybody, and doesn't really go anywhere where "tax paying" citizens would want to go.

Hudson River Tunnel

The problem with New Jersey and the tunnel, is it is a large cost, and benefits only a small part of the states population in particular the richer part. (NYC pay is higher that Jersey pay). If one lives in Camden or Princeton or Glassboro, going to NYC is not very important and why should they pay. There is actually a vehicle for paying for it, raise the tolls on the tunnels and bridges from NJ to NYC. Then you can also raise the train fares as well. Say the round trip car toll went from $8 to $20 or maybe even $40. That puts the costs on those who would benefit. After all the bridges and tunnels did not cost the state of NJ since they were built by the Port Authority. (You could also raise the transit fees at the airports as well)

Geographic linkage between capitalised benefits, and "who pays"

One type of analysis that is going around on some forums, involves the property value gains that result from projects like the NJ-NY Rail Tunnel.

Why shouldn't a project that will cost $14 billion, but that will bring property value gains of $30 billion to easily identifiable parts of Manhattan and $15 billion to easily identifiable parts of New Jersey, be paid for by means of a special levy on properties in those areas that stand to gain?

And why shouldn't ALL transport projects be paid for this way? The numbers actually make good sense. Also, why should so much "gain" always be provided to property owners through cost impositions on "travellers" whose gains are quantifiably nowhere near as great?

It seems that there is a tragically forgotten branch of economics that deals with all this. It seems self evident to me, the more I find out about it. Sure, people get "access" and mobility, but the benefits "capitalise" surprisingly unequally in favour of "destination property owners", considering who is expected to do most of the paying.

Property taxes actually should be the main source of revenue for transport projects - and the more geographically targeted, the better.

My point was to catch those who would benefit

Either way solves the problem I have of making the person from Camden or Trenton pay for the Hudson River Tunnel that is no benefit for them. However given that real estate interests control almost all local governments being the source of campaign contributions, your suggestion would unfortunately never fly. Developers have the local big bucks.