C. F. Lynch & Associates

The Road to Nowhere

By Clifford F. Lynch

DC Velocity, March 2008

Transportation For Tomorrow, 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 States."

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 its release.

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."




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