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Commission calls for new transportation program, funding mechanisms


Yesterday, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission unveiled “Transportation for Tomorrow,” a report that provides recommendations for Congress to address the country’s deteriorating transportation infrastructure, the future of the motor fuel tax and growing congestion.

The 12-member commission — which was established under SAFETEA-LU to review surface transportation needs, the role of the government and how the transportation system should be financed in the future — spent the last 22 months developing the recommendations, holding hearings and listening to briefings from transportation experts.

Their conclusion: The surface transportation system is at a crossroads, and there’s a crisis looming, said Commission Vice Chair Jack Schenendorf, of council for Covington & Burling, at a Jan. 15 press conference.

“The transportation systems are aging, we need a tremendous amount of investment to maintain them and they are bursting at the seams,” he said. “We are not going to be able to handle the additional 120 million people forecasted over the next 50 years, nor the enormous increase in freight.”

So, the commission has recommended developing a new national transportation plan based on 10 performance-oriented, modally neutral programs designed to focus on projects that are of national interest. Programs include bringing existing infrastructure to a state of good repair, reducing congestion and creating a world-class intercity passenger-rail program in 13 to 15 corridors that are 300 to 500 miles long.

“Just in the short time this commission’s been in effect, the landscape has changed dramatically, and we need to move to mass transit,” said commissioner and Wisconsin Secretary of Transportation Frank Busalacchi. “More and more people in this country want intercity passenger rail.”

Another program would be designed to address freight capacity needs.

“There’s a 70 percent growth in tonnage estimated, and there are not a lot of alternatives to move it by truck and rail,” said Commissioner Patrick Quinn, co-chairman of U.S. Xpress Enterprises Inc. “We have to have the ability to move goods and services both in conjunction with rail and in short movements on highways.”

The commission also called for a more streamlined process for launching transportation projects.

“We can’t afford to have projects sticking around in planning phases for 10, 12, 14 years,” said Schenendorf.

A streamlined process would help reduce project costs, but $225 to $340 billion would have to be spent annually in order to maintain and improve the surface transportation system, the commission estimates.

“We’re currently spending less than 40 percent of that,” said Schenendorf. “It’s an enormous gap and it’s been going on for decades and it’s the reason we’re deteriorating and running out of capacity.”

To raise additional revenue for the program, the commission recommended transitioning away from the current gas tax to a vehicle miles traveled tax by 2025. To generate additional revenue the interim, the commission proposed raising the motor fuel tax by five to eight cents annually for the next five years. The commission also recommended implementing a freight fee and ticket tax for transit users, and contributing a portion of the customs fee to the trust fund. The commission also expects state and local governments to increase their contribution for transportation projects, and encourages the development of public-private partnerships and increased tolling.

For the most part, the transit and freight-rail communities laud the report’s recommendations.

“In calling for an expanded role for public transportation, the majority report addresses the need to provide Americans with transportation choices,” said American Public Transportation Association President William Millar in a prepared statement. “It reinforces the important role the federal government historically has had, and should have, in funding public transportation.”

The report also “very clearly sets out the need for a robust freight-rail industry, and recognizes the opportunity for freight railroads to play a major role in alleviating traffic congestion, increasing highway safety, reducing pollution and saving energy,” said Association of American Railroads President and Chief Executive Officer Edward Hamberger.

But some congressmen and even a few commissioners voiced opposition to the report — in particular, to the recommended funding mechanisms. Commission Chairman and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, as well as commissioners Maria Cino, former deputy secretary of transportation, and Rick Geddes, director of Undergraduate Studies for Cornell University’s Department of Policy Analysis and Management, formed a separate minority report.

The minority commissioners say they won’t endorse the group’s call for “substantial gas tax hikes, a new federal bureaucracy to centralize transportation decision making, new limitations on states’ abilities to attract private sector investments and a federal tax on all public transportation and intercity passenger-rail tickets.”

“A better way forward is to provide incentives to states willing to pursue more efficient approaches and to invest federal funds more effectively to give commuters real relief from gridlock,” Peters said in a statement.

Angela Cotey

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 1/16/2008