Sometime in the next few days, Congress will resolve the current debate over federal-aid-for-surface-transportation legislation — nearly two years late and far too many dollars short.
Critics argue that we cannot afford to spend more and increase the deficit by committing additional general funds to augment the declining Federal Highway Trust Fund. New Treasury estimates of gas-tax receipts for 2005 are 6.5 percent lower than projections of six months ago. In the face of high fuel costs, transportation users are justifiably reticent to boost the fuel-tax pennies that feed the trust fund.
It is undeniable that over the long run, our surface-transportation system needs more federal investment. According to The Road Information Program (TRIP), the federal investment provided in this bill will fall almost $10 billion short of what’s needed each year to just maintain current system capacity — not accounting for inflation or growth in demand.
This shortfall is the fundamental problem that has stalled timely congressional action and spawned a free-for-all to lay claim to federal money. The states have lobbied heavily to boost their rate of return of federal-motor-fuel-tax payments. With as much as 92 percent of the funds in the legislation being returned to the states from whence they came, some policy advocates are beginning to wonder if we should call it quits with respect to the federal program and turn the responsibility and funding back to the states.
We disagree. To maintain a leading position in the global marketplace, our responsibility to present and future generations requires that we bolster our national surface transportation systemcommitment.This pledge, in turn, requires foresight and leadership from Congress, which will not seem far-fetched using history as our guide.
Our federal-aid transportation program was established to build a national system founded on three cornerstones: a unified vision, a national plan and cooperative financing. In the 1950s, everyone responded to the call to build an efficient interconnected network using money from one part of the country to build roads and infrastructure in an entirely different part. The reason: a national system was essential for our interstate commerce and defense.
Since then, in good part because of the success of the system, our needs have skyrocketed. At the end of the 1990s, U.S. freight carriers moved more than 15 billion tons of goods worth more than $9 trillion. By 2020, the volume of freight moved by our transportation network will increase to 25 billion tons, worth about $30 trillion. From 1981 to 2002, foreign trade more than doubled and now accounts for one-third of our GDP. This is expected to double again by the end of the next decade.
Advancing the nation’s vital security is in direct correlation with improving our transportation system. We must support national-security and drug-control strategies by ensuring that the transportation system is secure and available for defense mobility and that our borders are safe from illegal intrusion. Our nation’s highways and railroads play a critical role in moving military equipment and personnel during peacetime and wartime.
Will state and local officials voluntarily cooperate to build and maintain the transportation projects that enhance our commerce and spur the engine of economic growth? As much as they may understand the need, local politics suggest it is doubtful long-term projects will take a priority place in local agendas dominated by unfilled potholes or commuter mandates. According to the Federal Highway Administration, connectors that make intermodal transportation safe and efficient are 50 percent less well maintained than roads on the National Highway System.
Once states take back 92 percent of available funding, the remaining 8 percent is not enough to pay the cost of the federal agencies, carry out research and fund new initiatives, much less expand goods-movement capacity and defense-related needs. This situation will only worsen in coming reauthorization debates as needs grow in the face of inadequate trust fund revenue.
We must fundamentally rethink where our nation’s surface-transportation program is heading. Congress is aware. Two tiny provisions tucked away in this legislation will set this process in motion. The first is the establishment of a twelve-member commission on the future of our surface-transportation system. The second is a commission to examine and recommend financing alternatives.
While it is not the nature of government to move quickly, these commissions have an arduous task and heavy responsibility. Time is working against us. But, if they succeed, we just might once again find a national transportation vision realized by a spirit of cooperation. It shouldn’t be too much to hope.
Samuel K. Skinner is currently counsel to Greenberg Traurig, LLP and former Chairman & CEO of USF Corporation. Rodney E. Slater is currently a partner at Patton Boggs, LLP. Both are former U.S. secretaries of transportation, Mr. Skinner in the Bush I administration and Mr. Slater in the Clinton administration.