Donald Fry: Experts examine congressional inaction on transportation funding

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By: Donald C. Fry 

Virtually everybody on Capitol Hill acknowledges the critical importance of the nation’s transportation infrastructure to our economy and quality of life.

So, why is it that, for almost a decade, Congress has failed to enact long-term transportation funding authorization and continues to “kick the can down the road” with a series of short-term funding extensions, leaving a deteriorating  system of highways, bridges, transit and other infrastructure in limbo?

A congressman, a former U.S. transportation secretary and four transportation policy experts tackled this question Thursday at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s 2014 Transportation Summit in Baltimore. They also discussed options and prospects for dissolving Congressional gridlock on transportation funding and whether it could happen anytime soon.

Conference speakers made compelling cases for more focused congressional attention to addressing what all termed a dire underfunding of transportation infrastructure.

Maryland Congressman John Delaney, D-6th, estimated that the nation’s transportation resources are “underinvested” by at least $3 trillion.

The U.S. has a $30 billion per year backlog of unfunded highway and bridge projects alone, reported Beth Osborne, a vice president for Transportation for America and former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“Our transportation system is broken,” said former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Raymond H. LaHood. “We need to fix up our roads. We need to build bridges and replace bridges, we need to take care of a 100-year-old transit system and this is the only way that cities in America will make progress.”

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of Global Gateway Alliance, noted that Amtrak passengers in the east must endure daily delays caused by a “choke point” in New York City where all rail must go through a more than 100-year-old tunnel that only has two tracks – one each way.

Meanwhile, America’s aviation control centers operate on a “radar system from the 1940s,” Sigmund said. “That’s not a GPS system, that’s a radar system.” Better GPS can be found in pocket IPhones “than on 99 percent of the flights that you’ll be on,” he said.

Transportation consultant Alan Pisarski noted that, because states have been smartly applying limited highway funding to “where the problems are,” the quality of roads and bridges has actually improved since 2000.  But “longer-term, we’re in much more serious trouble,” he said, noting that interstate highway re-construction alone could cost $1 trillion, not to mention the need for national rail transit reconstruction in major cities across the country.

Why is transportation infrastructure in this state of crisis?

Everyone on the dais pointed to acute political intransigence on Capitol Hill, coupled with a notable lack of consensus on options in lieu of increasing the federal gas tax, which is difficult for virtually everyone in Congress to support these days.

Emily Goff, a policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation cites a “lack of purpose” for the federal transportation funding program and “too much ill-targeted” spending as contributing to deteriorating support among voters. She urges a new focus, prioritization of resources, removal of regulatory barriers, and elimination of opportunities to create a “slush fund” for “ill-conceived” priorities.

Delaney said he thinks “it’s going to take a long time for Congress to figure out” a new innovative approach to increasing federal transportation funding. He is sponsoring bi-partisan legislation to create a $750 billion infrastructure bank that would be funded privately by companies seeking an incentive to repatriate overseas corporate investments.  Companies who buy low-interest government bonds to finance the fund would be allowed to repatriate an amount of overseas funds at an effective reduced tax rate, depending on the amount of infrastructure bank bonds purchased.

Such an infrastructure bank could cover the federal transportation shortfall for five years while Congress works to develop a long-term solution for ramping up federal funding for transportation, Delaney contends.

What’s needed are innovative approaches driven by competition, not whether each politician “gets a piece of the pie,” said Osborne.

To get a “real” transportation funding bill passed, Americans must elect to Congress “people who are not just going to say no,” said Sigmund, adding that public-private partnerships must be cultivated, with the private sector showing that “it can be good public stewards” of transportation infrastructure.

Congress must “re-establish respect” for the federal transportation program, said Pisarski.

To restore strong funding for transportation infrastructure, members of Congress need to “get in a room, figure out how to make it happen, make a compromise and get it done,” LaHood said. “Compromise is not a bad word.”

The overarching message of experts in the room was crystal clear.

Whichever solution lawmakers on Capitol Hill opt to pursue, two key prerequisites to progress on funding our nation’s transportation infrastructure must be cultivated within Congress. The first is a national transportation plan around which a consensus can be built. The second is a strong backbone to put aside partisanship and to compromise for the good of the country.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.

Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.

Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.

Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.

Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.