By Clifford F. Lynch
, a report
recently released by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue
Study Commission, features what appears to be an incomplete jigsaw puzzle on its
cover. If the readers of this report hoped to find the missing pieces in the
text inside, they were most certainly disappointed.
The report was commissioned by Congress in 2005, when it appointed a
12-member bipartisan task force to study the state of ground transportation in
this country. The group was charged with conducting a comprehensive review of
the current condition and future needs of the surface transportation
infrastructure, and developing a plan "to ensure that the surface
transportation system will continue to serve the needs of the United
The commission had no trouble with the first part of its assignment. The
report contained an excellent description of the current infrastructure issues
and those the nation will face in the future if no action is taken.
But it was a different story when it came to the group’s recommendations
for improvement. The commission members themselves were unable to reach
agreement on some of the proposals. Reports like this are almost always
controversial, but this one is particularly conspicuous in its lack of unanimity
among the authors. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, who headed up the
group, and two other members refused to sign the report and did not show up for
What were some of those recommendations? To begin with, the commission
recommended railroad investment tax credits for the addition of much needed
capacity, although it did not specify a percentage. (The rail industry has asked
for a 25-percent tax credit for infrastructure expansions.)
The report also called for greater cooperation between motor carriers and
railroads through the upgrading of intermodal connectors. Obviously, if
significant amounts of freight can be diverted from the highways to the rails,
it will alleviate road congestion and reduce transportation costs.
It further called for an increase in the funding for clean energy and
environmental initiatives. Tax credits would be available for those who
undertake these projects.
There were several other fairly innocuous recommendations, but the one for
which the report will most likely be remembered was the one that called for
annual spending on the infrastructure of $225 billion. (To put this in
perspective, current spending runs at about $90 billion annually.) In order to
pay for this, the commission recommended increased funding from all levels of
government – federal, state, and local, as well as a major investment by
private companies and public/private partnerships. Toll roads and special fees
for using highways during peak periods would also be part of this picture.
Finally, the commission recommended an increase in the federal gas tax of up
to 40 cents per gallon over the next five years.
This appears to be one of the major sticking points for Secretary Peters,
and, I believe, rightly so. Simply raising taxes does nothing to solve the
problem. Attempting to tax people and goods off the highways is not an
acceptable solution – or a politically viable one, for that matter. In today’s
environment, the quickest way to become a one-term congressman would be to vote
for a 40-cent increase in the gas tax.
What we really need and what we did not get is a draft of a true,
comprehensive national transportation policy – which is, perhaps, the biggest
disappointment of all. Without an overarching vision and clearly stated goals,
we can neither formulate strategies nor determine where or how far we have to
go. As the Cheshire cat said to Alice, "If you don’t know where you’re
going, any road will take you there."