Every transportation dollar counts

| 5/9/2008

Some federal budget and transportation officials say every dollar paid for transportation must be accounted for. They also say the public deserves a quality return on the taxes and user fees paid into the system for infrastructure.

Officials testifying before a joint committee hearing of U.S. House budget and transportation leaders said population growth, increasing traffic counts and congestion are outgrowing the nation’s infrastructure of highways, rail, transit and water systems.

Patricia Dalton, managing director of the physical infrastructure team for the Government Accountability Office, was one of two federal officials testifying at the hearing Thursday, May 8, before the House Budget Committee on Financing Infrastructure Investment and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Dalton said the nation’s 4 million miles of roads, 600,000 bridges and 117,000 miles of rail are under strain, and the government has to rethink the way it invests in infrastructure.

“Given these types of challenges and the federal government’s fiscal outlook, it is clear that the federal government cannot continue with business as usual,” Dalton stated. “Rather, a fundamental re-examination of government programs, policies, and activities is needed.”

“Prudent use of taxpayer dollars is always important,” she said.

The math regarding needs and current spending is basic, suggested Peter Orszag, director of the Congressional Budget Office, when he testified during the hearing.

Orszag said that just to maintain the current level of performance for highways – without upgrading the system or adding capacity – the federal government would need to commit at least $79 billion per year, which is $12 billion more than is currently spent.

“Estimates from the Federal Highway Administration and other sources indicate that additional spending of up to tens of billions of dollars each year on transportation infrastructure projects could be justified,” Orszag said.

Substantially more dollars would be needed for adding capacity to the infrastructure, he said.

Some experts, including members of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, believe investment in transportation should be in the neighborhood of $225 billion per year, including money for new and upgraded capacity.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, D-SC, chaired the hearing. He said public infrastructure, including highways, rail, transit and water systems, is the lifeline of the economy.

“Despite their vital importance, infrastructure investments have not kept pace with repair, maintenance and the need for expansion or replacement,” Spratt said.

Discussions about funding are taking on a whole new importance as members of the U.S. House and Senate have begun preparing to write legislation that will become the next generation of transportation funding policy.

That legislation is due from Congress in 2009, when the current funding legislation known as SAFETEA-LU is scheduled to expire. SAFETEA-LU is the Safe, Accountable, Fair, Efficient Transportation Equity Act – A Legacy for Users, was signed into law two years after its 2003 deadline.

Read more about the funding authorization process in upcoming issues of Land Line.

– By David Tanner, staff writer