» After losing bid to install tolls along Interstate 80, state looks to other solutions to impending transportation funding gap. An opportunity to rethink the state role in transport.
Today, Pennsylvania state legislators will meet to fill a massive $472 million gap in the transportation budget — almost ten percent of the overall $6.1 billion in road and transit spending planned for this year. Governor Ed Rendell called the session after his plan to toll Interstate 80 fell apart due to a federal law that makes it illegal to use revenues gained from a Washington-funded road on something else. The I-80 tolls would have generated up to $950 million in annual revenue once the infrastructure was put into place by 2011 as originally planned.
The need to assemble a special legislative session comes at a terrible time for the state. Pennsylvania’s road and transit systems need $3 billion more a year, a 50% increase, just to remain in a state of good repair — and that estimate includes only $500 million for transit, arguably not enough. Meanwhile, the state’s ambitions for improved intercity rail services and better local transit in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh need billions more to be implemented.
Pennsylvania has a number of potential funding options from which to choose: Easiest would be raising its already relatively high 32.3¢/gallon fuel tax. A 10¢/gallon increase would raise an estimated $620 million a year. But other possibilities include tolling state-funded roads, encouraging public-private partnerships, establishing local option sales taxes (currently mostly forbidden in the state), and introducing a vehicle-miles traveled fee (VMT). Wanting to avoid hurting too much of an already weak economy, the state is likely to select some combination of these options.
With inadequate federal aid, Pennsylvania’s situation is likely to become more and more familiar for states throughout the country, all of which are having trouble maintaining planned expenditures because of a decline in tax revenues. But the need to raise revenues locally opens up a number of opportunities that are denied by relying on Washington to fund transportation.
Conservatives frequently make the argument that federal fuel taxes should simply be reassigned to states based on the source of those funds because locals “know better” than Washington when it comes to choosing how to spend the money.
I’m no proponent of lessened federal involvement in choosing how those funds are spent; immediately reapportioning national funds to the states would inevitably mean fewer funds for transit just about everywhere because most state legislatures are dominated by rural factions. And state DOTs are too frequently highway-oriented to take seriously their claims that they would treat all modes equally.
Yet with a need to find increasing revenues to maintain roads and transit in usable condition, states may have no choice but to increase their local funding commitment above and beyond the federal contribution. Pennsylvania’s special session demonstrates that there is a desire on the part of states to make that happen — they’re not going to simply let their infrastructure resources fall apart.
This requires states and their leaders to take a bigger political role in setting transportation priorities. If states raise their own revenues, they will be able to choose how funds are spent, and it’s up to the legislatures and governors to make those decisions. The specter of even more power for state DOTs should encourage advocates of transportation alternatives to push for increased spending on transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian resources at the state capital, not just in Washington.
This is not an impossible dream; since the Bush Administration, the federal DOT has altered its vision of transportation priorities dramatically — it’s quite clear that the Obama Administration is making a point to emphasize livable communities and alternative forms of transport, a complete turnaround from former Secretary Mary Peters’ road obsession. This kind of change did not come randomly but after years of lobbying from advocates and the resulting decision of the mainline Democratic Party to place itself on the side of those who want alternatives to private automobiles. We need to see similar transformations at the state level, and when we do, there will be nothing to fear from getting the states more involved in raising revenue and spending on transportation.
A funding crisis may thus encourage everyone to think differently about the role states play in choosing what to fund. There is no requirement that states prioritize highway spending. But cities and metropolitan regions need to demonstrate their importance in every state’s economy and show how alternative transportation is an important player in ensuring the viability of those places.
The dream of some livable city advocates that states be “abolished” is immature and completely unrealistic. State DOTs will continue to play the predominant role in determining how transportation spending is distributed in the United States, so we might as well work to get them on our side.
Image above: Pennsylvania’s Interstate 80, from Flickr user dougtone (cc)