For the first time since George W. Bush sat in the White House, it appears the United States House and Senate have agreed on legislation to fund our nation’s transportation infrastructure for the next five years. Known as the FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation), the House passed it on December 2; a Senate vote is expected in the coming days as the December 4 deadline looms. The $305 billion package provides for highways, bridges, and public transit, but as in past years lawmakers struggled with how to fund it. This time around it appears the funding won’t be raised as much as taken.
As it now stands, an injection of new cash will be drawn from the Federal Reserve’s surplus. The proposal was put forth by Representative Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) after a similar proposal passed the Senate in July.
“While lawmakers worked through dozens of amendments to its version of the bill, behind the scenes House leaders ensured that the most controversial amendments, including several plans to hike the gasoline tax, never got a vote on the floor.”
As we’ve written on this blog in the past, the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents/gallon has not increased in nearly two decades, even though it is the primary funding mechanism for the Highway Trust Fund. If adjusted for inflation, the rate would be closer to 30 cents/gallon in 2015. In conjunction with vast improvements in the vehicle fuel economy (which requires less gallons per mile and therefore less revenue), the Highway Trust Fund has been drying up for years, and our roads and bridges are showing the neglect.
But it’s not that the American public is opposed to an increase in the gas tax. An April 2015 Mineta Transportation Institute survey showed that Americans are willing to pay more as long as they can be assured it becomes a dedicated revenue stream for transportation projects. Only 31% supported an increase, when told the money would go to general transportation improvements, however support grew exponentially when specific projects were identified:
- 71% support for improving transportation maintenance
- 64% support for improving safety
- 52% support for reducing local air pollution
- 65% – a near “supermajority” – support for public transit
Over the years other funding mechanisms, including new tolls, have also been proposed that are supported by the majority of U.S. residents. A 2014 survey by HNTB, Corp. found that 79% of Americans “would support the addition of a toll on a non-tolled surface transportation facility if it resulted in a safer, congestion-free and more reliable trip.” And 83% would support new tolls on currently “free” highways.
Yet, some special interest groups have succeeded in bending legislators’ ears: Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, for example, appears to have successfully thwarted legislative efforts to ease states’ ability to pilot new highway tolls that would fund transportation infrastructure. As it now stands, states will be required to pass legislation prior to entering the federal pilot program, which is currently only open to three states: Missouri, Virginia, and North Carolina.
Infrastructure is on the minds of many Americans — and not just at the federal level. A January 2015 Zogby poll for the U.S. Conference of Mayors found
“65 percent of respondents said that ‘fixing infrastructure, including roads, bridges, water, and sewage systems’ should be a high priority for a city mayor. Only 10 percent of respondents registered infrastructure spending as low priority.”
This month, New York City Mayor de Blasio and a bipartisan coalition of 73 mayors across the country called on the Federal Government to increase contributions to fund their municipal transportation needs.
The lack of Congressional leadership over the years — and ever-tightening belts — has also led many states to take matters into their own hands. According to Transportation for America, 21 states have passed laws since 2012 to make up for the federal lag. A variety of revenue sources have been implemented, including increases in the gas tax, sales tax, and cigarette and tobacco tax; an increase in registration and license fees; an increase in traffic violation fines; corporate advertising in state parks; an increase in tolls; and the issuing of bonds.
In the Northeast, 7 states and the District of Columbia have passed such legislation, while New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have yet to address the growing demand to fix our roads and bridges and aging public transit systems.
And the state of our roads is costing drivers.
In March a leading national transportation think tank, TRIP, released a study that put a $6.3 billion price tag on the failure to keep New York’s roads and bridges in good condition. That’s the cost motorists pay each year in vehicle wear and tear, greater fuel consumption, and accelerated vehicle depreciation by traveling over the state’s substandard roads and bridges. Drivers in New York City foot more than 10% or $663 million of these additional operating expenses. Over 40% of City roads are in poor condition, while just under half of its bridges are functionally obsolete.
Underfunding the system that gets us to and from work, school, entertainment, shopping, family and friends is costing us dearly. What will it take to get our elected officials to understand that we are more than willing to pay for transportation infrastructure if it funds public transit, quality pavement, ease of access, reliable travel time, and clear signage?
The American Society of Civil Engineers has given New York State an overall C- on their 2015 Infrastructure Report Card, with roads ranking the worst (D-), followed by bridges (D+), and public transit (C-). If the FAST Act is signed into law, it is a major step forward in shoring up funding for our nation’s transpo infrastructure. Yet without an increase in the gas tax or other, new, funding mechanisms in place, the Federal Reserve surplus will only last a few years, and we’ll be back at square one — leaving the states, once again, holding an empty bag.
In January 2016, the New York State legislature will convene in Albany, and funding for the State’s roads, bridges, tunnels, and public transit networks will be one of the main issues tackled. The Move New York Fair Plan is the only viable option on the table to fill the State’s $8.3 billion commitment to the MTA’s 5-year capital plan. Upstate legislators, as they should, are calling for parity in infrastructure funding.
Just where all this funding is going to come from has yet to be seen. But living in a democracy has its privileges: your voice and vote counts. Let your Senators know you support the FAST ACT and let your New York City councilmember and state legislators know you support Move NY.