Fix the Federal Partnership, or Cities Will Bear the Burden of an Uncertain Transportation Future

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Congressman Earl Blumenauer explains that the world of transportation is undertaking a radical change that makes vanishing fuel tax revenue the tip of the iceberg.

"Congress and the next administration need to provide real resources paired with serious reform, maintaining what we have while encouraging emerging technologies and innovation for the future, and building the infrastructure to support it." (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Congressman Earl Blumenauer.

It’s easy to “support” infrastructure.

Roads, transit, water and sewer systems, affordable housing, the electrical grid — these are the fabric and foundation of every community. Infrastructure investment creates jobs, drives tourism and development, and makes our towns safe, healthy places to live. It’s easy for public officials to talk about the importance of infrastructure, but empty declarations of support have gotten us where we are today: falling apart and falling behind.

Federal funding for infrastructure has fallen dramatically over the last several decades, and Congress has been almost entirely unable to raise investment above current levels that are anemic and insufficient. Local governments have been left holding the check, as costs mount and solutions become more expensive. From deficient and dangerous transit systems to falling down bridges and lead-leaching water pipes, “crumbling infrastructure” has, sadly, become a worn-out media trope instead of a rallying cry. This distracts us from the real challenges of a changing world.

The gas tax has been frozen for 23 years while inflation and fuel efficiency has increased, and travel trends and technology have dramatically changed. Congressional response has been insufficient with episodic funding and restricted reform. It’s time to seize new opportunities to bring us together, expand the policy platform, and learn from success stories.

Local communities are too often left with the worst of both worlds from Washington: inadequate resources coupled with overlapping programs and priorities, often duplicative review processes, and micromanagement that stifles the kind of creativity and innovation that is needed to help solve our infrastructure crisis.

The next administration should not just deal with the resource issue, but readjust and realign the operation of the Department of Transportation with the infrastructure needs that communities have and want. We cannot miss this narrow window of opportunity. Last year, Congress enacted a five-year surface transportation reauthorization with a few modest reform elements, a little additional revenue, but – most importantly – the stability to contemplate what comes next. It is critical that we use this stability to plot our next policy and resource steps, because the world of transportation is undertaking a radical change that makes vanishing fuel tax revenue the tip of the iceberg. The first step is to aggressively implement pilot projects to replace a fuel tax with a road use charge. This approach has been tested in Oregon, and other states like California are exploring the alternative as well.

We are racing towards a future of driverless cars. Experiments in the United States, Europe, and Singapore, are showing that this is not science fiction. During the next two transportation reauthorization bills we’ll be operating in a whole new world. Not only is technology evolving around driving, but so are attitudes. People are driving less, especially Millennials and aging Baby Boomers, and are opting to ride bicycles, take public transit, hail a ride with a mobile app, use car share or bikeshare, or otherwise travel using some combination of these options.

Autonomous technology and changing attitudes toward driving have the potential of benefitting many people in this brave new future, saving thousands of lives and taking back unused space currently devoted to parking and single occupant commuters. For most of the last century, our communities were designed for automobiles. Driverless cars and these new applications will change the face of our cities. At the same time, these changes will be extraordinarily disruptive, bringing a painful transition sooner than we are prepared to manage. We also have an economy built around cars, not just millions of drivers and car salespersons, but jobs in auto body repair, insurance, and traffic safety that will be affected. This new approach to transportation will mean less road tax revenue and fewer registration fees, parking revenues, tolls; traffic fines will be almost eliminated.

This new transportation world means dramatic changes to the landscape - what people do for a living, and how we pay for infrastructure. Infrastructure challenges will only worsen as systems age and populations grow, making it harder to capitalize on coming changes. From driverless cars to lead pipes, Congress and the next administration need to provide real resources paired with serious reform, maintaining what we have while encouraging emerging technologies and innovation for the future, and building the infrastructure to support it.

With the right federal partnership, we’ll be able to take advantage of opportunities to live better and more economically, strengthen the environment, with a higher quality of life. Preparing for this richer future is our infrastructure mission.

 

About the Author: Through his years as a local official in the Oregon Legislature, Multnomah County Commission, and on Portland’s City Council, Congressman Earl Blumenauer developed a national reputation for his advocacy of public transportation, land use planning, protection of the environment, and school funding.
 
Elected to the House of Representatives in 1996, Blumenauer has become the leading Congressional advocate for rebuilding and renewing America – from repairing the nation’s roads and bridges, to modernizing our water and electrical infrastructure. He has championed tax relief for small businesses and contractors, strengthened access to infrastructure financing tools, and led efforts to support federal investments in renewable energy. Blumenauer was a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee until 2006. Now part of the powerful Committee on Ways and Means, Blumenauer advocates for rebuilding and renewing America by expanding long-term investments to modernize America’s infrastructure systems, reduce the federal deficit, and drive job creation.
 
Since 1996, he has also traveled to more than 200 communities across the country, working with governments, citizens, and civic organizations to strengthen sustainable economic development growth, provide transportation options, and improve energy efficiency.

Earl Blumenauer
Congressman
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