NLC President Ralph Becker Advocates for Federal Transportation Funding

Mayor Becker Testimony
Mayor Becker Testimony
NLC President Ralph Becker provides testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

NLC President Ralph Becker, mayor, Salt Lake City, Utah provided the following testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on March 17, 2015.

Good morning, Chairman Shuster, Ranking Member DeFazio and Members of the Committee. I am Ralph Becker, Mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah and President of the National League of Cities (NLC). 

NLC is the nation’s largest membership and advocacy organization for city officials, serving as a resource for 19,000 cities, towns, and villages across the country and representing more than 218 million Americans.

Political & Local Context

As Mayor of Salt Lake City and President of NLC, I’ve seen what can be achieved when partisanship takes a back seat to policy. 

Last week, I was honored to welcome the President to our annual Congressional Cities Conference, where he made clear his commitment to our infrastructure needs.

And, of course, we are grateful to have one of our own, former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, as Secretary of Transportation.

The visibility of the dialogue between leaders on this Committee and Secretary Foxx at the U.S. Department of Transportation is encouraging.

We are hopeful that Congress and the Administration can work productively together to craft a legislative solution that avoids the chaos and crisis we would endure if surface transportation programs are permitted to expire.

Among local officials, no federal priority rates as consistently high as transportation infrastructure.

That’s because for cities, every transportation project is a partnership — with other local and regional authorities, with the state, with the federal government, and with the private sector.

That is certainly the case for our transportation initiatives in Salt Lake City.

For example, few would have predicted a generation ago that Salt Lake City would become one of the light-rail capitals in the nation, or that we would bring streetcars back to our city.

But our TRAX light rail system, our Sugar House Streetcar and our bikeshare program reflect some of the changes our nation is experiencing in metropolitan areas all across the country.

By necessity, locals are stretching the value of every dollar to invest in small- and large-scale projects of practical design.

We are making existing corridors more efficient and multimodal; and doing so in ways that increase capacity at less cost to the taxpayer.

These locally-driven solutions are offering more travel options to the public, helping shippers and businesses keep goods and products moving, and delivering a bigger boost to investors, developers and our economies overall.

Unfortunately, uncertainty at the federal level is driving up the cost of financing projects. 

And many states are compounding the problem by limiting the authority of municipal governments to raise new revenue through taxation.

Since 1978, 30 states have enacted formal limitations on taxes, budgets, or outlays on local governments.

Transit Needs Are Changing    

As you know, when the Federal Highway Act was signed into law in 1956, it was federally planned and coordinated, but it responded to urgent local demands calling for cities and towns to be better connected.  Today, this vision needs an update.

Technological advances and demographic shifts are challenging the assumptions on which our current system is based. 

Smartphones have enabled users to access transit information in real-time, raising expectations for reliable and on-demand service.

Electric cars are becoming more viable and less expensive.  And autonomous vehicles — driverless cars— are being developed as we speak, as the Chairman well knows! 

Our transportation systems will need to adapt to these developments.

Demand for public transit and active transportation is also rising at a rate that is way beyond current capacity.  Transit agencies have reported growth in ridership in 12 of the last 15 quarters.

Currently there are 99 transit expansion projects and 23 major system renovations underway throughout the country, in addition to almost 100 other projects in the pipeline. 

Young people aged 16-34 drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than in 2001.

In that same age group, only 67 percent of Americans have driver’s licenses.   And according to the 2009 National Travel Survey, one in 12 U.S. households is completely car free.

From 2000-2012, the number of people who primarily bike to work increased 60 percent nationwide. In larger urban areas, the number of bike commuters more than doubled.

Bikeshare systems have become commonplace, with 49 American cities, including Salt Lake City,  implementing new systems and many more in the planning phases.

Investments Must Reflect New Reality

I know that the safe and efficient movement of commercial goods is also high on the agenda for the next authorization. 

Every link in the movement of goods – from ports, agricultural centers, and manufacturing plants to their destination – should be strong. But our first and last miles are falling behind. 

The federal government is devoting significant investment to the modernization of U.S. ports to accommodate super-max containerships and ensure America's global economic leadership.

Investments in the roads between our ports and highways should be made in conjunction with ports modernization, but unfortunately these municipally owned stretches of road are among our most neglected.

None of this is to express preference for any particular mode. In Salt Lake City, for example, we need all our modes functioning at a high-performance level, and I know that is the case in all of our cities across the country.

But it is to say that we now have more choices than ever before.

And in Salt Lake City, where 55 percent of air pollution is from mobile sources, we’ll need all the choices we can get. So however the future of transportation unfolds, we know the Committee will need to balance investments with maintenance. 

Local governments own and operate 78 percent of the nation’s road miles, 43 percent of the nation’s federal-aid highway miles, and 50 percent of the nation’s bridge inventory.

However, over the past 20 years, roughly 80 percent of all funding has consistently been reserved for the highway system. 

And although the remaining 20 percent is theoretically devoted to transit and other alternative transportation programs, it is not easy to steer funding that passes through state departments of transportation away from auto-oriented projects.   

Congress ought to fix this imbalance.  The next transportation bill should directly allocate greater funding to local governments and provide more flexibility for local decision makers to choose the best mix of transportation options to fit regional needs.

Cities at the Center of Transportation Policy

NLC is working in partnership with all the other major local government organizations to build support for a much needed course correction – not a radical departure from the current authorization.

My written testimony includes 4 specific proposals supported by NLC, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties, the National Association of Regional Councils, the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, and the National Association of Development Organizations. 

Our proposals would enact a reorientation of federal surface transportation policy toward cities and metropolitan areas – where the changes in the transportation market are happening. 

And they would strengthen the partnership among all stakeholders to improve the quality of project selection, the practicality of design, and the value of every dollar spent.

Closing Remarks

On behalf of the National League of Cities, I would like to offer the ongoing assistance of the elected and appointed leaders who are our members and our staff as you pursue the long-term, well-funded transportation reauthorization we all seek, and for which we all strive.

Let us know how we can help. Thank you.

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