Trains, Planes and Automobiles: America's Transportation Funding Crunch

Some of the nation's leading experts and big thinkers on transportation recently gathered in Washington, D.C. to discuss the crisis presented by our nation's deteriorated infrastructure and the challenge of funding needed repairs and improvements. Everyone agreed that the situation is dire. Roughly one-third of our bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, nearly half of the lane-miles on our highways are in bad condition and almost half of Americans lack access to public transit.

To me, the most enlightening -- albeit depressing -- concerns raised had to do with the difficulties of mobilizing public support for more funding.

Notice that I did not say that the public doesn't understand the importance of a well-maintained, highly functioning transportation sytem. On the contrary, most people agree that the U.S. economy depends on ensuring a safe, efficient and modernized network of roads, bridges, runways, railways, and ports that can smoothly move people and goods where they need to go. They also accept the massive costs required for upkeep, as well as upgrades of our transportation infrastructure. But the users just don't want to pay.

Here's how the Washington Post summed up the situation, as outlined at the conference:

More than 80 transportation experts joined in the conclusion that the federal government needed to spend upward of $60 billion more a year just to maintain the current systems and at least $85 billion more annually on expansion to accommodate a population that has more than doubled since the interstate highway system was begun 60 years ago.

Already sobered by the reality that, at the very best, Congress might vote to keep funding at current levels — roughly $54 billion a year — the career transportation experts received another dose of bad news last week.

Americans don’t trust their leaders — notably Congress — to spend transportation tax dollars wisely and are deaf to appeals for additional spending.

So, despite the fact that there is bi-partisan consensus that our fledgling economy will only get worse unless Congress expends trillions of dollars to fix our nation's infrastructure, the political will to invest in transportation is lacking because most Americans don't trust their elected officials not to waste their tax dollars on pork-barrel projects and boondoggles.

Blame it on the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere", which epitomized the political penchant for using legislative "earmarks" to blow federal money on wasteful transportation projects for the sake of parochial interests. As a consequence, voters can't count on Congress to do the right thing with transportation funding.

In this time of constrained fiscal resources, it seems Congress has learned a lesson by vowing to ban earmarks and to spend wisely. This is especially true with transportation policy, perhaps the last bastion of bi-partisanship left on Capitol Hill these days. But earning the public's trust will take more time -- time that we unfortunately don't have when it comes to doing what needs to be done to tackle our country's transportation problems.

But we must continue to make the case that investing in transportation is a paramount concern and our elected leaders must make it happen. To that end, a bi-partisan coalition dedicated to smart infrastructure investment and reform advocacy has launched an education campaign to spark attention and spur action. Below is the TV ad that Building America's Future is currently airing in key states.    


The ad makes a great point. Consider this analogy: When you buy a house, the cost burden does not end -- it is just beginning. Home ownership entails constant home improvement. The same is true with our roads, bridges, railways, etc. And beyond just keeping existing infrastructure in a state of good repair, there's a need to invest even more money to enhance and expand the system to meet the mobility needs of our growing population and its shifting priorities. That's why, for example, more money should be invested to ease our traffic burden by building more public transit, so people have the freedom to choose to drive less to get around.

On that note, Politico is conducting an interesting poll on what people believe should be the nation's top priorities for transportation policy. It shows that poll respondents favor fixing our current infrastructure and investing in expanding urban transit systems as opposed to spending money to build more roads. Check it out -- and vote.

As Congress turns to action on new transportation legislation next year, NRDC urges policymakers to pursue federal policy and spending that decreases our dependence on oil, creates jobs and promotes greater transportation choices that will improve mobility and access for all, while helping us breathe cleaner air and cut global warming pollution.