Without Help From Washington, Governors Chart Own Path on Infrastructure

A long-awaited transportation bill advanced in Congress this week. The National Governors Association isn't waiting on its passage to make road funding and safety its top priorities.
by | July 31, 2019 AT 4:59 PM
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is the new chair of the National Governors Association. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

SPEED READ:

  • A U.S. Senate committee unanimously advanced a $287 billion transportation bill on Tuesday.
  • Awaiting final federal action, 13 states raised gas taxes this year.
  • The National Governors Association is making infrastructure funding and road safety its top priorities.
 

Congress this week took a small step toward providing new funding for the nation's infrastructure needs, but state leaders remain nervous about how much help they'll actually get from Washington.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to advance a  $287 billion bill that would replace the current five-year surface transportation program, which is set to expire in September 2020. The bipartisan bill would increase spending by 27 percent over current levels.

President Trump signaled his support for the legislation, tweeting Tuesday morning that it would have a “big impact on our highways and roads all across” the country.

State leaders cheered the development.

“On behalf of the nation’s governors, we applaud the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for taking this first step," the National Governors Association (NGA) said in a statement. "The bill’s emphasis on formula funding, safety and resiliency comes at a critical time for states."

But committee passage does not guarantee a new law. The last major transportation bill, enacted in 2015, had been delayed for years, with Congress passing multiple short-term extensions. Even then, Congress did not increase the federal gas tax, leading to concerns the federal highway trust fund could run dry.

Thirteen states have raised gas taxes this year, desperate for more money to build and repair roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

“There’s kind of a consensus among all 50 governors, everybody on both sides of the aisle, that this is probably the most important thing that we’re all dealing with,” Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan told Governing at NGA's Salt Lake City meeting last week. “We have to deal with a lot of issues, but it’s one that governors have sort of led on and Washington has failed.”

For that reason, Hogan has made infrastructure the central focus of his tenure as the new chair of the NGA. Over the next year, he will lead discussions at multiple summits on how not only to finance and build roads and reduce congestion but safeguard critical infrastructure, such as utilities, from cyberattacks.

At the Salt Lake meeting, governors made it clear that they’re also concerned with making roads safer. Since 2000, more than 600,000 Americans have died in car crashes.

“If a plane crashed on the other side of the world, it’s front page news,” said North Dakota GOP Gov. Doug Burgum. “We’re killing a plane’s worth every day, and it’s been happening for decades.”

 

Cutting Red Tape

Hogan touts his own record on infrastructure in Maryland -- new lanes on state highways, construction of a light rail line linking two counties outside D.C., and a $600 million investment in Baltimore’s airport. He's been criticized at home, however, for not making transit more of a priority.

Some of Hogan's biggest projects are public-private partnerships (P3s), which he touts as a smart way for governors to increase investments in infrastructure. The P3 model was applauded by a panel that Hogan convened in Salt Lake that featured executives from construction, labor and industry.

“We need to prioritize projects like airport and roads that can be tolled, that can generate revenue,” said Bill Calhoun, vice chair of the Clark Construction Group, a national firm based in Bethesda, Md.

In addition to tolls, the major concern expressed by the private-sector players was the permitting process. It can take years to build anything, leading Tom Farrell, the president of Dominion Energy, to suggest that states find ways to speed the process up, perhaps by performing their reviews concurrently with federal agencies.

“To make us world class, whether it’s roads, bridges or ports, we need to not cut corners with the regulatory process, but speed it up,” Farrell said. “It’s already happening, [but] only very large companies with the patience and expertise will do this.”

 

Seeking Safety

Every year, more than 40,000 Americans are killed in traffic accidents, with 4 million more injured.

“I’ve been governor a little more than six months, and I’ve already attended two funerals of state troopers who were killed when they were struck by vehicles,” said Democratic Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado.

During an NGA panel on traffic safety, several governors were visibly moved by testimony from Helen Witty, the president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who became an activist after her 16-year-old daughter was struck and killed while roller blading.

“A teenager impaired on alcohol and marijuana ended our dream,” Witty said. “Our daughter saw a car spinning on that bike path, and there was nothing she could do but die.”

In response to the legalization of recreational marijuana in states and the opioid epidemic, the U.S. Department of Transportation, which formerly only allowed states to enter information about three types of drugs in their toxicology reports, now captures data from all drugs.

Collecting data, however, is one thing. Enforcement is another.

“The ability for officers to detect impairment [from marijuana] is uneven,” said Grant Baldwin, director of unintentional injury prevention at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Unlike alcohol, where there’s an efficient roadside test, unfortunately that doesn’t exist for marijuana.”

 

Sticking to the Basics

One of the most widely cited statistics in auto safety comes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which estimates that 94 percent of accidents are caused by human error.

Naturally, that leaves governors intrigued by the promise of autonomous vehicles.

Burgum, the North Dakota governor, decried the fact that a single pedestrian fatality in Arizona last year ended Uber’s experiment with autonomous vehicles in that state. More than 20 Waymo self-driving vans have been vandalized in the state.

“If autonomous vehicles only killed half as many people as humans, we should all be cheering,” Burgum said, “because that’s 20,000 lives saved.”

With autonomous vehicles still years away from taking over the roadways, safety officials are focused on the basics: lowering speed limits, preventing impaired driving and getting people to use seatbelts and car seats.

Even though 90 percent of Americans routinely buckle up, that still means 27.5 million people don’t, noted Baldwin. Half the people who die in car accidents, he said, are not restrained.

The federal Transportation Department offers grants to states that pass laws to improve safety, such as lowering the legal alcohol limit. But some governors noted with frustration that getting legislatures to agree to safety measures can be a tough sell. If anything, the trend in recent years has been for states to raise speed limits.

The CDC estimates that if every state lowered the blood alcohol content limit to .05, as Utah did last year, it would save 600 to 1,200 lives per year while preventing 50,000 injuries. Back in 1983, Utah led the nation in shifting from a 0.10 to .08 BAC limit.

“We reduced to .05 but not without controversy,” said Utah GOP Gov. Gary Herbert. “At least our DUIs are down right now.”