Congestion Threatens to Strangle America’s Cities

Posted February 20, 2004 at 10:09am

Transportation congestion is threatening the livability of our great cities. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, traffic congestion in 2001 cost $69.5 billion (including 3.5 billion hours of delays and 5.7 billion gallons of excess fuel consumption) in 75 large metropolitan areas alone. This congestion costs each resident in those 75 cities $520 per year. Families are losing what precious little time they have together because of time spent in traffic on the way to and

from work, picking up the kids at day care or running the endless errands that seem a part of life in today’s society.

If we hope to stem the enormous economic and societal costs of congestion, we must significantly increase investment in our nation’s transportation infrastructure. The bipartisan leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has introduced H.R. 3550, the Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, which significantly increases infrastructure investment, squeezes additional capacity from the existing highway and transit systems, and expands transportation choices. Based on the Department of Transportation’s estimates of infrastructure needs, the bill provides $375 billion over the next six years (a 72 percent increase from our current level of investment) to maintain and begin to improve our highway and transit systems.

To help states and cities develop congestion solutions, the bill requires that at least $3 billion in apportioned formula grants be expended on intelligent transportation systems in the next six years. ITS technologies, such as freeway management systems, provide increased system efficiency, safety improvements, and time and cost savings. We also make a critical commitment to transit investment, almost doubling guaranteed funding to $69 billion in the next six years.

This bill does more than relieve congestion and get you home from work faster. It pays economic dividends in the form of jobs and lower consumer prices. H.R. 3550 will create and sustain 1.7 million new construction jobs throughout the nation, including 445,000 jobs this year alone. These good, family-wage construction jobs — the jobs that enable families to buy homes, send the kids to college and cover health care expenses — will have an enormous positive impact on the economy.

This investment in our transportation infrastructure is also critical for maintaining America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace. By eliminating major highway choke points where freight is stuck in traffic jams, we can reduce the cost of shipping goods and pass those savings on to consumers.

How do we pay for this level of investment? First, we propose to make better use of existing resources by cracking down on gas tax evasion, drawing down the current $16.7 billion balance in the highway trust fund, and directing that all interest earned on any highway trust fund balance be used only for transportation purposes.

Second, we propose to change the way that we support the use of ethanol. By converting the ethanol incentive from a tax exemption to a tax credit, we can provide the same economic incentive for production and use of ethanol fuels, while ensuring that these incentives do not come at the expense of revenue for the highway trust fund. Our proposal also requires that all taxes currently collected on gasohol be deposited in the highway trust fund.

Finally, we believe that we need to restore the purchasing power of the federal excise tax levied on gasoline. The excise tax was enacted as a means to pay for the maintenance and construction of surface transportation projects. The federal fuel tax is a true user fee. Its revenues go directly to the highway trust fund and are used only for transportation investments. It was last increased a decade ago, but it has not been adjusted for inflation. As a result, we are trying to meet our 2003 transportation needs with 1993 dollars. Restoring this lost purchasing power would increase the current gas tax by just 5.45 cents, and cost the average motorist less than $36 per year.

Still, opposition to this approach is stiff, and we will likely pass a transportation bill that costs less and does less. Although politically more palatable, a bill that spends less than the amount needed during the next six years will not keep pace with our nation’s needs. We will just fall further and further behind.

Of the transportation bills now under consideration in Congress, H.R. 3550 is the only one that will improve safety, reduce congestion and build a transportation system that will take us through the 21st century. We should not let one nickel stand between falling farther behind and providing the funds needed to make real improvements to our overburdened transportation systems.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) is the committee’s ranking member.