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A Pragmatic Federal Budget Fix: User-Financed Transportation | Commentary

The recent Skagit River Bridge collapse shone a national spotlight on America’s infrastructure funding crisis, precisely at a time when Washington welcomes a new Transportation Secretary and Congress begins serious discussions around how to fund our nation’s transportation infrastructure. With the 2014 surface transportation reauthorization on the horizon, Congress has a serious choice to make: Do we stick with the same funding strategy that now provides dwindling revenues or do we explore alternative funding options like tolling?

Unfortunately, our infrastructure funding woes have been years in the making, and a ballooning federal budget deficit will force Congress to make tough choices about the reinvestment needed to update our aging roads, bridges and tunnels. The federal gas tax — the primary source of federal funding for state road construction — has lost much of its buying power since it was last raised more than 20 years ago. With the Highway Trust Fund quickly becoming insolvent, now is the time for both parties to embrace new funding options to help clear a crippling highway funding deficit that cost commuters $121 billion in lost time and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted gasoline in 2011, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report.

The glimmer of hope is a set of solutions that are obvious, practical and nonpartisan. They make sense in any budget cycle. A toolbox of user-financing options, from tolling to mileage-based user fees, would deliver billions of new dollars to a highway network in desperate need of maintenance, repair and reconstruction. Funds that would trigger significant local job creation across the nation.

Congress can advance a safer, more reliable highway system without mandating a new funding system for all roads. What state and local governments need is the flexibility to consult their constituents and choose the funding options that best match their needs and circumstances.

At a transportation finance summit earlier this year, former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker pointed to three key ingredients of an effective strategy:

· A Plan: No one can reach a destination without a forward-looking plan to get there. If funding flexibility gives states more options to fund the infrastructure they need, the federal government can still define the outcomes it wants the system to achieve.

· A Budget: With several competing budgets on the table for debate, we can expect the federal government to operate under another continuing resolution in 2013. This is yet another reason to explore alternative funding strategies to help clear the funding backlog on our roads.

· Performance Measures: A clear set of outcome-based performance measures would give states a common benchmark to track how they’re doing with infrastructure renewal, and how their efforts stack up against our international partners and competitors

There is sound precedent for greater state flexibility in choosing the road funding and financing strategies that work most effectively for them.

In nearly three dozen states, tolled highways deliver safe, reliable mobility to tens of millions of drivers. Tolling is a proven solution that generates more than $12 billion in annual revenue, in red states and blue. But here’s the problem: In many states, interstate highways are in the greatest need of major overhaul, but federal law prohibits tolling on existing interstates.

Our highway system is incredibly diverse, and it would be unnecessary and wrong for Congress to mandate tolling or any other funding solution for every road in every state and community. But a more flexible, permissive approach to tolling would unleash billions of dollars in badly needed investment to rebuild our interstate highways, one of the most vital engines of American mobility and economic growth.

The American people are ready for this kind of bold, pragmatic initiative. Whether it’s the state of our country’s finances or the opportunities ahead for our transportation systems, citizens favor smart, practical reforms that move America forward. And road operators have known for years that customers willingly accept tolls when they see the money they pay support improvements to the roads they drive.

There are two compelling reasons to embrace this kind of flexibility right away. The first is the nearly $2.5 trillion that will be needed to rebuild the interstate system over the next 50 years. The second, as Walker notes, is a reality of Washington: Historically, major reform almost always has taken place in odd-numbered years, before the parties have become immersed in the next election cycle.

Now is the time to begin funding and rebuilding America’s highway network. Deliberations on the shape of the federal budget provide a moment of opportunity for Congress to consider greater flexibility for states to use alternative funding and financing strategies that include tolling.

Patrick Jones is executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

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