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Transportation action plan proposes sweeping changes

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By Dean Smallwood

Crumbling surface transportation infrastructure, the future of the fuel tax, congestion and the smooth flow of freight are among the issues addressed in "Transportation for Tomorrow," a new action plan released today, Jan. 15, by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.

“We have reached a milestone with the release of this report,” said committee member Jack Schenendorf, vice chair of counsel for Covington and Burling, referring to today's announcement as the “end of a long journey” and “a gift to America.”

The plan is intended to be a blueprint for modernizing America's surface transportation system, including highways, freight and passenger rail, transit and trucking. The commission's detailed Report to Congress on the condition and operations of America's surface transportation system recommended substantial changes to longstanding policies, programs and funding mechanisms.

The recommendations were agreed to by nine of the commission's 12 members. The commission concluded that America is “at a crossroads,” said Schenendorf. There's “a looming crisis coming,” he said, adding that America must follow through with the commission's recommendations to “compete in the global marketplace.”

"This system is aging,” Schenendorf said. America's highways require “a tremendous amount of investment simply to maintain them. We are not going to be able to handle the increase in population over the next 50 years, nor the enormous amount of freight. Our economy will suffer, our quality of life will suffer.”

Schenendorf cited four essential elements of the commission's plan:

(1) A significant increase in investment: "We need to spend $225 to 340 billion per year. We are currently spending 40 percent of that."

(2) The federal government needs to be a full partner. "This job is too big for states and the private sector to do by themselves."

(3) The federal program needs to be completely overhauled. "We do not recommend the current system be reauthorized. We need a 'new beginning.' " This element involves three steps:
  • The existing transportation program "has no real sense of mission or purpose anymore" and needs to be replaced with 10 new ones that are performance-driven and outcome-oriented. Those programs include repairing existing infrastructure, reducing congestion, providing freight capacity, adding access to rural areas, reducing highway fatalities 20 percent by 2025, adding more inner-city rail in major rail corridors, and implementing an environmental stewardship program.
  • Significant reform of project delivery duration, to have construction work finished in a reasonable amount of time. "We need to shave 10 years off project delivery time, from 14 years to four years."
  • A "BRAC-type" commission that would oversee approval, funding and implementation of all programs and projects, removing them from the political arena.

    (4) Revenue. Short term, the “current trust-fund shortfall must be fixed.” Long term, America must "transition away from the gas tax to a 'vehicle miles traveled' tax.” Schenendorf said the commission estimates it’ll take until 2025 to make that transition, and that in the interim, an increase in the motor fuels tax is mandated, about 5 to 8 percent each year over five years, for a total of 25 cents to 40 cents.

    "That’s 41 to 66 cents a day to the average American motorist," he said. "It’s a small price to pay for the benefits these programs would deliver." Schenendorf said if the program is put to the American people with a clearly stated mission, they'll support it "just as they supported President Eisenhower when he quadrupled the gas tax to pay for the interstate system." Schenendorf said the commission also recommends freight fees, customs fees, a ticket tax applied to inner-city transit, "a range of financing options."

    "We’re also expecting the states to pitch in," he said. "We are recommending that tolling be allowed for adding capacity to the interstate and to add congestion pricing. We need more public-private partnerships, we need their capital, we need a way to evaluate that those are appropriate for the national interstate system.”

    Committee member Patrick E. Quinn, co-chairman of U.S. Xpress Enterprises, described the movement of freight as "the lifeline of our nation’s economy," but said that his industry is facing a future filled "with delays, with bottlenecks.” The plan includes the necessity for moving larger, heavier vehicles in separate, dedicated lanes. “That was a pretty easy thing for us to agree on, but it’s a lot of money,” Quinn said. “Imports are increasing, and we have to figure out how to move that freight from the ports."

    Regarding trucking's opinion on a higher fuel tax, “We have to have the roads to move goods and services, and we have to pay for those roads," Quinn said. "When the question is asked the right way, and America understands, they’ll understand. The cost of not doing anything is not acceptable. We have to do it."

    Chaired by Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, the bipartisan 12-member commission also included Frank Busalacchi, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation; Rick Geddes, associate professor of the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University; Steve Heminger, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission; Frank McArdle, senior adviser of the General Contractors Association of New York; Steve Odland, chairman and chief executive officer of Office Depot; Matt Rose, chairman and CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway; Tom Skancke, CEO of the Skancke Co.; Paul Weyrich, chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation; and Maria Cino, former deputy Secretary of Transportation.


    Dissention and approval

    Peters, Cino and Geddes did not sign the commission's final report. Peters said she was troubled by the commission’s call for a gas tax increase over the next five years, rising to up to 91 cents in 20 years when indexed for inflation. She said recent studies, including one from the Government Accountability Office last summer, have concluded gas taxes don’t work to reduce traffic congestion.

    “Raising gas taxes won’t improve traffic congestion, it will only perpetuate our ineffective reliance on fossil-based fuels to fund infrastructure and send more of Americans’ hard-earned money to Washington to be squandered on earmarks and special interest programs,” Peters said. “A better way forward is to provide incentives to states willing to pursue more efficient approaches and to invest federal funds more effectively to give commuters real relief from gridlock.”

    The three dissenters instead released their approach for addressing the nation’s transportation challenges. The “Chairman’s Statement” notes that transportation planners have a range of options available to them to reduce traffic congestion, finance new projects and maintain existing transportation systems. For example, the statement notes that many states already are using technology such as congestion pricing and high-speed open road tolling to raise revenue and reduce traffic tie-ups. And it says that there are billions of dollars in private capital available to transportation officials that could be tapped to finance new projects.

    “There is nothing to indicate that Washington would do a better job spending billions more of the taxpayers’ money than it has so far,” Peters said. “The answer isn’t more taxes and added layers of bureaucracy, it is having the courage to say the current system is broken and it is time to find a better way to invest in, manage and operate our transportation system.”

    Weyrich, chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation, voted in support of the recommendations. “There was not a single member that got everything he wanted in this report,” said Weyrich, attributing it to a bipartisan effort. Of the nine commission members voicing support, four were appointed by Democrats and five by Republican officeholders, Schenendorf noted.

    The American Trucking Associations said it commended the commission's efforts. "The trucking industry is acutely aware of the magnitude of the problems facing the nation in maintaining the world’s pre-eminent transportation and infrastructure network," said Bill Graves, ATA president and chief executive officer. "Fixing our infrastructure problems is, without question, a significant financial undertaking. Current revenue streams are failing to keep pace with infrastructure needs. The commission report illustrates that any increased investment must be coupled with systematic reforms, which would be essential to any long-term solution."

    AAA said it "looks forward to thoroughly reviewing the commission’s report. We have been saying for some time now that America needs a new vision for how the nation’s transportation system is planned, funded and implemented. The commission is making a strong recommendation for change, and we applaud its effort. We believe the commission’s report will be a positive contribution to the ongoing debate about the future of the nation’s transportation system."

    Congress created the commission in 2005. Its report meets the charge given under Section 1909 of the Safe Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act – A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). The commission held hearings in 10 cities across the nation as part of its initial fact-finding program, including Atlanta; Chicago; Dallas; Las Vegas, Nev.; Los Angeles; Memphis, Tenn.; Minneapolis-St. Paul; New York City; Portland, Ore.; and Washington, D.C.

    The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing on the report Thursday, Jan. 17, at 11 a.m. ET. The Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works has a tentative hearing scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 23.

    “A failure to act would be catastrophic,” Schenendorf said. “We saw what happened with Katrina, when the national government doesn’t invest in its infrastructures. We need all of these solutions -- we can’t solve it without doing it."

    The commission's full report can be found at its website,
    http://transportationfortomorrow.org.