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US Transportation

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The United States is currently faced with an aging and over worked transportation infrastructure. If the roads, rails, airways, and waterways in the US are not maintained and improved the US economy will suffer dramatically. The hindrance on the movement of people and goods across the country will slow down the US economy and affect the way our country can compete globally.

In 2005 Congress created The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission under Section 1909 of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act -(SAFETEA-LU).  The Commission was created because, as Congress declared, “it is in the national interest to preserve and enhance the surface transportation system to meet the needs of the United States for the 21st century.”

 The Commission itself has 12 members, representing both the government and private sector.  The Commission is working to examine not only the condition and future needs of the nation's surface transportation system, but also short and long-term alternatives to replace or supplement the fuel tax as the principal revenue source to support the Highway Trust Fund over the next 30 years.

The Commission released its final report to Congress on January 15th 2008. Within the report the commission analyzed the current state of the US transportation system and made recommendations on how the US can bring the systems back on track over the next 50 years. The Commissions assessment is accurate and although their recommendations have potential, I believe there are some flaws in parts of their plan.

It has become evident over the past few years that the large increase in people and freight movement is overwhelming our nation’s transportation systems. The transportation system cannot be compared to other programs because it cannot wait till the last minute to address its problems. Transportation projects take years of research and careful planning. It is for these reasons that the Commission was created.

Our nation spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year on highways, bridges, rail lines, buses and railroads, all of which shape our growth and sustain the economy. It is evident that this task of creating a plan for our nations systems is immense and I believe creation of the commission was a step in the right direction. For example, a highway network that was created over 50 years ago during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower is supporting our nation. As a country we cannot possibly believe that the large increase in population and freight over the past half a century can continue to be supported by an antiquated system.

Shortly after its creation, the Commission held field hearings in ten cities: Dallas, Portland (Oregon), Memphis, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, and Chicago. During these hearings, 231 witnesses testified about a wide range of topics covering all surface transportation modes. The hearings often included tours of facilities, or discussion of issues unique to certain parts of the country. Several of these field hearings were cosponsored with major transportation stakeholder groups.

These first steps that the commission took were very positive. It is the local and national businesses that truly understand the shortfalls of the current transportation systems. They use the many different modes available to ship everything from raw materials to finished goods across the country. The Commission understood that in order to develop an all-encompassing solution they needed the input of many different people. As mentioned, they heard testimonies from many in the private sector as well as government and academia experts.

The commission was created to address the consequences if our country does not take the appropriate actions to improve our transportation systems. Listed below are the major issues that will continue to plague our country if we do not implement change.

1.        Our systems will further deteriorate.  We constantly hear in the news about rail accidents and bridge failures.  Our transportation system is aging and requires increased funding to even maintain its current state. As a commuter it is evident by the condition of the roads that under funding is a widespread national problem.

2.        Safety is a large concern when looking at our transportation system. If improvements are not made the number of casualties will continue to increase. Lives loss due to deteriorating systems is completely unacceptable and should be one of the top reasons why we reevaluate our current system needs.

3.        Congestion will continue to affect every mode of surface transportation for ever-lengthening periods each day.  All commuters of the roads, rails, and airways are well aware of the congestion problems. The wasted time and fuel spent in congestion will continue to hinder growth and everyday business. Businesses have spent years improving the supply chain to decrease the time to move freight and may eventually start to lose potential gains due to bottlenecks and chokepoints in the transit system. The Department of Transportation stated that the US economy loses $200 Billion per year.  I, like everyone else, do not like delays when traveling, but imagine how many different delays a freight container sees as it travels across the US. Business profits are tied to the timely delivery of goods and our economy will be stifled if the issues of congestion are not addressed appropriately.

4.        Under investment in all modes will continue.  Our country is under investing in all modes of transportation.  The demand for all modes will certainly continue and we cannot expect to maintain our nations growth if our transportation is not kept up to date.

5.        America could lose its position as an economic world leader. If we cannot reliably move our goods then we will continue to lose business and jobs overseas. Other countries that invest more into transportation, such as China and India, could eventually pass our country as an economic leader.

6.        The delays to make investments continue to waste public and private funds. We here in the Boston area have seen first hand how delays in projects can exponentially increase the overall project cost. If a larger project, such as the Big Dig takes 15 years to plan and evaluate environmental impact, it will never have the ability to successful meet the immediate need to grow. By the time a project is completed its life cycle is dramatically shortened from when it will eventually become out dated.

7.        Transportation policies will remain in conflict with other national policy goals.  Many programs, such as national security, energy, and environmental greatly affect our nations transportation goals. We have seen how dramatic an impact national security has affected movement of freight since 9/11. Certainly security is important but we must evaluate policies and their potential impact on transportation.

8.        Transportation financing will continue to go through the political process.  The political process is important. For example it increases the overall Federal investment in highways and transit.  The Commission states the number of projects has increased so much that we have lost the true costs and benefits of alternative investments.

The commissions report states an investment of at least $225 billion annually is needed over the next half-century, in part to accommodate a projected increase in the U.S. population of 150 million over the same period. This is extremely dramatic when considering our country is spending less than 40 percent of this amount today. Our global competitors are building and rebuilding. China, India, and the developing world are building at a staggering pace. China spends 9% of its GDP on infrastructure; India, 5% and rising. While they started well behind us, they are catching up. The United States has spent less than 2% on average as a percentage of GDP since 1980. (Chamber of Commerce) We cannot expect to remain competitive with that level of investment. Reviewing the lack of investment by our country I agree with the assessment of the Commission that we must greatly increase our level of investment in our surface transportation. As a taxpayer it is not easy to agree with increases in federal spending but a review of where and how we spend the money will prove most worthwhile.

The Commission is recommending a narrowing of 108 federal surface transportation programs into a list of 10 programs. I strongly agree with the commissions attempt to reduce the number of programs to more appropriately fund the necessary system improvements. I would argue that the reduction in programs not only helps streamline the funding but also will make the results more visible to the taxpayers. With many programs it is possible for programs to contradict each other. For example, investment to support one mode of transportation may adversely affect another mode. I believe the Commission is correct to remove the many political processes and special interest groups that are currently involved in the transportation planning and funding process. The new recommended programs are listed below:

∙        Rebuilding America:  A National Asset Management Program

∙        Freight Transportation:  A Program to Enhance U.S. Global Competitiveness

∙        Congestion Relief: A Program for Improved Metropolitan Mobility

∙        Saving Lives: A National Safe Mobility Program

∙        Connecting America:  A National Access Program for Smaller Cities and Rural Areas

∙        Intercity Passenger Rail:  A Program to Serve High-Growth Corridors by Rail

∙        Environmental Stewardship:  Transportation Investment Program to Support a Healthy Environment

∙        Energy Security:  A Program to Accelerate the Development of Environmentally-Friendly Replacement Fuels

∙        Federal Lands:  A Program for Providing Public Access

∙        Research, Development, & Technology:  A Coherent Transportation Research Program for the Nation.

These programs include rebuilding the highways, the freight railroad system, and urban mass transit. The programs will embark on new efforts to relieve traffic congestion in metropolitan areas and improve connections between smaller cities and rural areas. Safety will be a priority while building a fast and reliable intercity passenger rail network. The programs will include protecting the environment as well as the nation's energy security.

The programs are tailored to meet the issues facing our current transportation system. It has become more and more evident that our current system does not offer multiple options and explains why delays are becoming more common. I personally support the building up of the passenger rail to alleviate the high volumes of congestion. If multiple modes of transit are available in a metropolitan area or between metro areas, then the volume of traffic can be more evenly distributed. With alternatives to road transport such as rail, we will also save large amounts on fuel consumption and greenhouse emissions.  

Throughout the report the Commission recommends high federal involvement in financing and project management to resolve current transportation issues. The Commission suggests the federal government should continue to fund 40% of the national infrastructure costs. Moreover, the Commission recommends a $0.25 to $0.40 increase in the federal fuel tax over the next 5 years. I believe it unlikely that the government will increase its financial investment and at the same time reduce its procedural requirements as the commission recommends. The report states on multiple instances how the government process slows and impedes the timelines for projects. Therefore, it does not make logical sense then to give the federal government a larger role in improving our state and local transportation needs.  I believe the federal government should be involved in creating new solutions for national needs, i.e. improving the US highways, safety programs, and interstate freight movements. The federal government should support greater state and local responsibility and accountability. Taxing fuel also seems to contradict other national policies that attempt to reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil. In my opinion it does not seem a very safe plan to finance the improvement of our national transportation through the taxation of a commodity whose consumption we are trying to reduce.

I agree with the Commission’s report cited that direct pricing and private investment should play a role in funding our transportation programs. If state governments are able to cooperate with the private sector this will inevitably open up new creative solutions, allow for larger procurements of funds, and most likely reduce the timeline for most projects. I disagree with the Commission’s suggestion to increase and tighten federal regulations regarding state government abilities to explore innovative ways to collect funding. Again, this contradicts their recommendation for funding to come from many sources other than the federal government.

The Commission stressed the requirement for more efficient investment in and operation of the transportation system. I would support recommendations to improve the targeting of any federal investments. With the current needs being so large it would be a shame to see any funds wasted or used improperly. The Commission is aware of the need to place higher importance on performance and outcomes of funded projects. In any private business the cost vs. benefits are well known for all projects and I definitely believe the same should be true for federally funded transportation projects. If the resources put into a project are larger than the money invested, then the project should be terminated immediately. I agree with the idea proposed by Secretary Mary Peters for the federal program to meaningful reward States that are willing to reform decision-making processes by incorporating economic analysis and focusing on performance.

The Commission recommends that Congress remove certain barriers to tolling and pricing.  I agree that states and local governments should be given the flexibility to toll and/or implement congestion pricing.  Unfortunately funding cannot come from fuel taxes alone. Although tolls and congestion pricing will not be popular from a commuter’s perspective it will increase the revenues for state funded projects. I also believe congestion pricing, for example charging more for those who use roads during rush hour, will aid in many people and businesses looking at alternatives for transportation. Distributing the volume of people and goods across the different modes more evenly will increase the speed in which they arrive at the final destination. The Commission also recognizes the impact congestion pricing may have on trucking and has even recommended changing the Hours of Service rules to give companies more flexibility. If tolling is to be used, new investment in electronic tolling is essential. It would seem very contradictory to add tolls, with the goal of freeing up the flow of people and goods, and instead creating bottlenecks through long lines and delays.

The Surface Transportation Commission was created because governmental officials realized the immense impact our transportation system has on our economic growth and general way of life. Within the commissions report were very solid and sobering assessments on our current system situation and what will happen as the result of inaction. They had many good recommendations on how our country can retain our preeminent transportation network, specifically in how we can streamline federal funding and create new ways to reduce project timelines. I agree with the commissions need for increased funding for large overhauls of the many modes of transit but I do not agree with the funding coming largely from increased fuel taxes. I believe the funding through fuel taxes and increased federal involvement will continue the US transportation along the same path it is currently heading. After reading the report I am not convinced the commission has suggested the drastic enough changes required to rebuild, maintain, and operate our nation’s transportation network.


National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Studywww.transportationfortomorrow.org

Janet F. Kavenoky, Director of Transportation Infrastructure, US Chamber of Commerce Testimony before Senate Transportation committee on February 6th 2008

Transportation For Tomorrow Part I -                        http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2002236587635169482

Transportation For Tomorrow Part II -http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2002236587635169482

The AAshlo Journal – Weekly Transportation Report - http://news.transportation.org/journal.aspx

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