Are Governments Neglecting Planes and Trains?

Even though airports and public transportation systems are in need of upgrades, all anyone ever talks about is roads and bridges.

David Kidd
I recently completed a one-week white water rafting trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, an experience that was both exhilarating and terrifying. It wasn’t just the Class IV rapids that held my intense interest, though. It also was my fellow rafters -- 16 of them, almost all of whom knew one another. Unlike most of these expeditions, this one was all amateur, meaning there were no professional guides from some outfitter, just rented rafts, huge coolers, a camp stove and, yes, a port-a-potty. You brought your own tent and sleeping bag. 

I was especially impressed by three fellows -- a lawyer, an astrophysicist (or “chaos scientist,” as he called himself) and a senior pilot with United Airlines. The three were very capable river guides who could maneuver the 16-foot rafts down roaring rapids with great skill; all three were also associated with a consulting firm that contracts with NASA to help develop something I only vaguely knew of called NextGen, a joint multiagency and industry initiative to overhaul the nation’s air traffic control system.

Launched more than a decade ago, the initiative is ambitious, complicated and clearly not progressing as planned, in part because of underfunding and some foot-dragging within the bureaucracy of the Federal Aviation Administration. But when it is finally implemented, we’ll be able to fly more aircraft in congested areas without endless holding patterns. These “smart” aircraft will know where they are in relation to every other plane nearby, relying on sophisticated satellite technology rather than ground-based radar. The new system should also yield significant fuel savings and emissions reductions.

All of this is to say that America’s transportation infrastructure is about a lot more than just roads and bridges, though you would hardly know it from our autocentric political dialogue. About 85 percent of all transportation costs in the U.S. are related to private automobiles, even at a time when the number of miles being driven has begun to decline. So while we harp on tar, much of our rail system is badly in need of an overhaul; many of our ports and harbors, as well as airports, desperately require an upgrade; and public transit maintenance and replacement needs stand at $86 billion and growing (at a rate of $2.5 billion each year, absent a significant infusion of funds). This, while public transit usage is booming with almost 11 billion trips taken last year, the highest since 1956.

Overall, federal investment in infrastructure as a percentage of gross domestic product is now less than 2 percent, the lowest level in almost 75 years and far below that of most other countries.

That’s the backdrop to the typical nuttiness we witnessed in July as Congress took forever to pass yet another -- the 27th -- patch to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent, postponing any real solution until May of next year when it’s a good bet they will do the same thing again.

This has been tough on states and localities and their “Big 7” lobbies in Washington, which have pulled out all the stops to try to get Congress to do what it was elected to do. State and local officials are finding it hard to plan complicated public works projects when they can’t depend on a large part of the funding. In a speech to the National Press Club in late July, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., commiserated, “As a mayor I know how hard it is to get projects going. You can’t plan or organize. So these short-term patches are killing efforts at the state and local level.”

With so many problems, Washington seems incapable of any meaningful long-term solution. The trust fund’s tax on gasoline has not been increased in 21 years and is not adjusted for inflation.

But there is reason for hope, because in the face of this uncertainty at least 28 states have been stepping forward to find their own revenue sources: States have increased their own retail and wholesale fuel taxes, implemented tolling, enacted dedicated sales taxes and put in place countless other schemes. And at his press club speech, Foxx made it clear he hoped states and localities would work with a new Build America Transportation Investment Center being established in his department to assist them in designing partnerships with the private sector using existing federal credit programs.

What we may be seeing are shifts both in responsibility and strategy -- from federal dominance to more state involvement, from reliance on one tax on fuel for cars to a more complex system of taxes and tolls, and from funding projects to financing them through bond issuance and private-sector investment. In the words of transportation expert Ken Orski, “This is not devolution. This is the new reality of states acting responsibly to preserve their transportation assets and modernize their infrastructure in the absence of adequate federal financial assistance and a coherent national transportation investment strategy.” 

Peter Harkness, founder and publisher emeritus of GOVERNING, now serves as a co-writer of the Potomac Chronicle column. He launched GOVERNING in 1987 after serving as editor and deputy publisher of the Congressional Quarterly news service. Peter currently also is a senior policy adviser to the Pew Center on the States.