Beyond Dollars: There’s More Washington Can Do to Promote Transportation Investment | Commentary

Posted July 25, 2014 at 1:30pm

Our nation’s transportation infrastructure is the backbone of a strong U.S. economy. But with a trillion-dollar backlog, America is simply not spending enough to keep its infrastructure in good repair. Investing in transportation is about more than filling potholes and paving roads; investment creates jobs and stimulates economic activity. Across the political spectrum, from the Simpson-Bowles Commission to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the AFL-CIO, there is broad, bipartisan consensus to invest more in transportation.

In spite of this consensus, Congress appears on the verge of passing yet another short term bill that retains the status quo and is funded by financial gimmickry. It begs the question: Why?

Putting aside the usual cynicism about our politics today, what exists is a debate about how best to fund our transportation needs: revenue (generally favored by Democrats) or reform (generally favored by Republicans)? Cut red tape or raise the federal gas tax? Loosen environmental permitting or implement a vehicle-miles-traveled tax? The answer isn’t reform or revenue, it’s reform and revenue.

We’ve got experience with this approach in Massachusetts. Thanks to Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature, Massachusetts enacted comprehensive transportation reform in the wake of a crisis like the one America is facing today. We merged six agencies into one, eliminated outsized pension perks, adopted nationally recognized accelerated constructions programs, implemented technology enhancements that also cut our costs, and embraced transparency and public accountability.

We also learned that reform alone was not enough to stabilize the system we had, never mind the system our citizens demanded. They want trains that support flexible work hours; safe bridges and free flowing traffic; bike paths and dedicated bus lanes that are more environmentally sound. As a result, a transportation finance package was enacted last year that raised our gas tax and increased tolls, fares and fees on a transparent and predictable schedule. Our transportation finances are shored up and we are making investments in projects support job growth and economic development.

Given Massachusetts’ success, Washington should adopt the reform and revenue approach. In that spirit, here are four common-sense suggestions that can help states raise revenues, improve project delivery and reduce construction costs.

Expand “Every Day Counts”: Kudos to the Federal Highway Administration for creating the Every Day Counts initiative, designed to encourage state use of innovative methods, materials and construction techniques that shorten project delivery, reduce costs, improve safety and protect the environment. States are now delivering highway projects faster, cheaper and with little impact to the commuter. This initiative should be scaled across the entire Department of Transportation, including the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Transit Administration and Federal Railroad Administration.

Accelerate federal project review: Project permitting and approval by federal agencies can take years, driving up construction costs, deferring job creation and frustrating the average commuter. In October 2011, President Barack Obama selected 14 infrastructure projects for expedited permitting and environmental review, including the Whittier Bridge project in Massachusetts. We saw firsthand how a sense of urgency can motivate federal regulators and overseers to move projects forward and put more Americans to work. Make this urgency the rule, not the exception.

Ease federal restrictions: There are a number of prohibitions on states’ ability to use federal funds and raise revenue. For example, current law restricts states from offering full traveler amenities along interstate rest areas that can generate revenue. Virginia Department of Transportation awarded a contract in 2011 to a private entity to develop and manage a program to expand traveler services at 42 rest areas and welcome centers. Similar opportunities exist to improve traveler experiences and provide alternative revenue streams to departments of transportation by loosening federal restrictions.

Expand tolling opportunities: In recent years, Congress has allowed states to toll roads in limited circumstances, such as on new highways or high-occupancy toll lanes. Congress should give states maximum flexibility to raise toll revenues from interstate highways that states can then reinvest in their transportation network. The U.S. DOT can also take a leadership role in helping states sign multistate toll enforcement agreements, create shared back office systems for toll collection and encourage multistate tolling compacts that create equitable toll rates on interstates that cross state borders.

Adequate investment in our nation’s infrastructure is vital to safety and to creating the jobs of the future. Without additional revenue, our crumbling infrastructure will create unnecessary self-inflicted headwinds for our economy. While the revenue debate continues in Washington, Congress and policy makers should use every tool at their disposal to allow states to continue to invest in their transportation future.

Richard A. Davey currently serves as secretary and CEO of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.