Those attending the NCSL Base Camp session “Transportation: Predictions for 2021” made it clear from the start what was on their minds: money. Specifically, where can we get more of it to pay for roadway and transit improvements?
Asked at the beginning of the session, “What is your top concern for surface transportation heading into 2021?” 62% chose the response “How do we pay for transportation infrastructure projects?”
Chugging along in a distant second place with just 16% was “The gas tax and COVID-19.”
Promising there would be “no softballs,” moderator and Politico transportation reporter Tanya Snyder then turned to panelists Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, and Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, with a question about federalism.
“What should be the federal role in transportation?” she asked. “What is the right way for power and money and decision-making to flow between states and cities and Washington?”
Osborne, whose group has until recently advocated for increased federal funding, and Poole, a libertarian, responded in basic agreement: We need to rethink the current system.
“I’ve been watching and taking part in reauthorizations for 30-some years,” Poole said, “and every time I get more frustrated because the federal government tries to do more and more things and get involved down to the level of sidewalks, which is destructive of the consensus that we need for transportation policy … One of the symptoms of the federal government trying to do everything is that there’s not been public support for increasing the basic [transportation] funding source, the fuel taxes.”
Looking ahead, he sees the federal role changing. “Some of the changes that are going on,” he said, “including autonomous vehicles and the eventual change from per-gallon fuel taxes to per-mile charges—once the states take the lead on that, which I think is going to happen, it somewhat calls into question today’s need for the states to get a large fraction of their funding directly from Congress.”
Among the problems with the current system is that “it’s purposeless except to send money around,” Osborne said.
“It’s available for almost anything with no direction or outcome in mind and as a result we’ve become so obsessed with the money we’ve forgotten to talk about what we’re going to deliver for the taxpayer.”
She referred to the question asked at the start of the session and observed that policymakers too often focus on money, while constituents just want results. “Whereas we all look at the poll and are concerned about how we’re going to pay for it, our constituents are concerned about what it is,” she said. “The investment should be looking at operating and maintaining our existing system to its greatest efficiencies and making it work better, making it kill fewer people, making it provide good access for people in and out of a car to jobs and the things they need so that our society functions.”
COVID-19 and What’s in Store for the Year Ahead
The panelists agreed that it’s too early to know what post-pandemic transportation might look like. But they framed the developing changes—the rise of telecommuting, the potentially reduced need for office space—as opportunities for lawmakers to help make the system work better.
“COVID has forced us to recognize that there are more than two trips—to work and back—that matter,” Osborne said, noting that commuting represents fewer than 20% of all trips. “Maybe we can finally do what we should have done 40 years ago and pay attention to the other 80% of trips, which are now 90% of trips, and design a transit and highway system for the way most people travel most of the time.”
Poole listed a few ideas for lawmakers to consider as the pandemic unfolds:
- Putting a temporary moratorium on major new expansion projects.
- Focusing available spending on improving existing infrastructure, including reconstruction and repair projects.
- Developing ways to quantify the effects of potentially long-term telecommuting.
- Focusing more on the transportation needs of lower-income people.
- Looking for increased private-sector investment in new technologies, especially those that can be used to quantify changing travel behavior.
Kevin Frazzini is an editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.
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