With the clock winding down on the Bush presidency, the administration has produced a report on the status of the nation’s highway infrastructure in an attempt to influence next year’s highway reauthorization. Unfortunately, the proposal, coming after seven years of inattention, falls short in tackling central issues in the looming highway debate, according to the Associated Equipment Distributions (AED) Washington Insights newsletter which analyzed the 70-page document.
The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) plans for the future of the national highway system, entitled “Refocus. Reform. Renew,” criticizes past policy and planning, while promising a “new, a different, and a better approach.”
The proposal diagnoses five major problems plaguing the current federal surface transportation program:
a loss of a sense of direction,
a dramatic decline in system performance,
wasteful spending and poor investment decisions,
an over-reliance on a funding mechanism — the fuel tax — that is increasingly ineffective, unpopular, and unsustainable,
a looming shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF).
The proposal calls for a more focused federal role in the nation’s surface transportation infrastructure, specifically in high-volume corridors subject to congestion. While maintaining transportation safety as the highest priority, the DOT also seeks to streamline features of current surface transportation policy to spark efficient use of resources and quicker completion of projects.
While advocating increased use of tolls and public-private partnerships to shore up funding resources, the proposal also seeks to curb earmark spending and focus capital on projects with the greatest need. The proposal also supports more flexible state and municipality funding options to finance infrastructure projects.
Given the average 13 years it takes to design and complete highway construction projects, the proposal advocates several streamlining options. The agency seeks to consolidate the over 100 current programs overseeing aspects of federal highway planning and implementation into eight central programs.
The proposal does not include any hard numbers for surface transportation funding, but envisions the largest percentage of capital being expended via the Federal Interest Highway Program (FIH). The FIH would allocate funding based on formulaic models and certain criteria for additional discretionary monies.
While some of the ideas in the DOT plan are laudable (e.g., consolidating programs, reigning in earmarks, and further streamlining the project review process), the authors of the plan fail to address the enormity of the infrastructure crisis America is facing and the fact that the federal government is uniquely positioned to deal with the challenge. Gridlock costs the economy more than $78 billion per year and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently estimated a $1 trillion infrastructure investment gap over the next decade, AED Insights points out. Absent from the Bush DOT plan, however, is any sort of bold plan to dramatically increase (e.g., double or triple) federal highway investment resources.
During the 2009 highway reauthorization, Congress and the next president will be forced to make tough choices about how to pay for a dramatically increased federal investment in infrastructure. By failing to tackle that issue, the Bush administration has effectively ceded the opportunity to have a real impact on next year’s highway debate.
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