Financial District

| November 1, 2010

No more money

New report says public in no mood to increase transportation funding (in fact they’d be happy to see cuts)

By John Latta

A new report has put into even higher relief the central problem behind the stall in reauthorization and the gloomy outlook for a substantial, and essential, increase in funding for transportation and other infrastructure projects.

Facing Facts: Public Attitudes and Fiscal Realities in Five Stressed States [see Box], a look at public attitude towards their state’s budget problems and what they think their elected representatives should do about them, makes it clear that the public is not ready to back more funding for highways and bridges. In fact, if budget axes must fall, the public appears very ready to offer up transportation programs to the axmen.

And in the aftermath of the mid-term elections, with new faces, ideas, and in some cases majorities in place from the U.S. Senate and House to Governors’ mansions and state houses, finding legislative support for transportation fundraising may be harder given this public opinion.

Veteran transportation industry observer Ken Orski says the survey is simply “more evidence of public reluctance to spend in infrastructure.”

The American Road and Transportation Builders’ Association (ARTBA) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) have applauded President Obama’s recent call for more infrastructure investment. It is, they say, essential.

But one core problem, according to Orski, may be that “dire warnings about the sorry state of the nation’s infrastructure seem to come largely from organized interests — stakeholders and advocacy groups.” The new report certainly indicates the public is not as concerned as those stakeholders and advocacy groups. And as Orski points out, “rightly or wrongly, congressional lawmakers often discount cries about ‘crumbling infrastructure’ as self-serving demands for more government money, often for projects that yield small economic return.”

Washington lobbyists are aware of the disconnect. For example ARTBA’s CEO Pete Ruane has been one of the most outspoken proponents of having highway and bridge construction company executives trigger debates about infrastructure between politicians, community leaders and local news media.

The comprehensive 92-page report (together, the five states surveyed comprise almost a third of the U.S. population and almost a third of the nation’s economic output expect) uncovers a surprising consistency is responses across all five states and actually does find that taxpayers “are willing to increase their own taxes to pay for the things they consider most important.”

The residents surveyed want to preserve funding for K-12 education and, to a lesser extent, health and human services, such as Medicaid, “and a majority in each state is willing to pay more if necessary to do that.” But most residents in these five states are skeptical about paying more taxes to preserve funding for transportation. In fact, they seem to be ready to let transportation cuts help pay for what they consider “most important.” For example, in the survey, 52 percent of Arizona respondents named transportation as the area of state spending they least want to protect from budget cuts.

The people surveyed, says the report, “are tired of lawmakers passing the costs down to future generations: They would rather keep cutting and taxing than see short-term deficits papered over with borrowing. Finally, they are widely distrustful of state government and believe it could operate more effectively. They want fiscal reforms — and a better return on their tax dollars — now.”

But at time when expert opinion is that investment in infrastructure is too low (for example the report notes that The National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission estimated last year that the amount raised by all levels of government for capital investment is only about a third of the $200 billion necessary each year to maintain and improve the nation’s highways and transit systems) and more funding is vital for the long term economic health of the country, non experts don’t see it that way.

“With remarkable similarity in each of the five states surveyed, supermajorities of roughly 75 percent turn thumbs down to paying additional taxes to fund transportation. In fact, asked which of their state’s biggest expenses they would least protect from budget cuts, far more respondents in each state — from 46 percent in New York to 55 percent in Illinois — offered to put transportation on the chopping block ahead of higher education, Medicaid and K-12 education.”

But the survey also offers a clue about the source of this attitude, and one which is a problem industry stakeholders and advocacy groups are struggling with. In Arizona, New York and Illinois, approximately 20 percent of the survey respondents named transportation as the state’s biggest expense. But it’s not even close. In Arizona, transportation makes up seven percent of the overall budget, in New York six percent and in Illinois eight percent. The same disparity between perception and reality was found in the other two states as well.

Misconceptions are, then, a major problem to convincing the public of the need to invest in highways and bridges. You may remember that earlier this year another survey found that a vast number of Americans believe their federal gas tax goes up every year. Of course, it doesn’t.

AASHTO’s Horsley says that it’s “the rare state that has the courage even to try [to pass higher taxes or fees for transportation] because it isn’t polling well with the voters, but some legislators recognize they have to do something.” v

The Survey

Facing Facts: Public Attitudes and Fiscal Realities in Five Stressed States describes how residents of five of the nation’s most fiscally challenged states – Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois and New York – view their state’s budget problems and potential solutions. The Pew Center on the States and the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) partnered to gather those perspectives through a first-of-its-kind survey. The results reveal the issues on which lawmakers and the public are, and are not, aligned. It provides insight into what these residents expect moving forward – on the size and scope of state government, what services it should deliver and who ultimately should pay the bill.

Find the full report at www.ppic.org.

 

Need a vehicle?

Take ours

New York City tries “car sharing” to cut costs

New York City is aiming to drastically cut the cost of its vehicle fleet by letting city employees share vehicles when they head out on official business – and then let members of the public borrow them after-hours including weekends.

The move follows a review of successful municipal car share systems in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.

Sharing vehicles reflects the fact that the “one car one driver” model is broken, says the CEO of the company providing the shared vehicles. The share model works for both government agencies and private companies, he said.

Under the one-year New York City pilot program, 300 employees will share 25 vehicles, most of which are hybrids, through a contract with car share company Zipcar. The pilot program could save more than $500,000 over four years in reduced costs for vehicle acquisitions, fuel and maintenance.

The car share vehicles are reserved through a computer reservation system. The pilot program will be evaluated to determine the effect on agency operations, vehicle miles traveled, cost and the effect on parking in Lower Manhattan. If successful, the car share system could be expanded or implemented by other agencies.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ordered New York City agencies to reduce non-emergency, light-duty vehicles by at least 10 percent last year, which resulted in the sale of 750 city vehicles.

“Earlier this year, we announced a large-scale effort to make city government smaller, smarter and more sustainable – both environmentally and fiscally,” said Bloomberg. “An important component of that effort is looking at city-owned cars. A car share program could help reduce the number of cars we use, cut our costs, free up parking on our streets and reduce the congestion on our streets and the pollution in our air. It’s another example of how we are constantly working on new ways to deliver better services at a lower cost to the taxpayer and to the environment.”

“Car share is an innovative way to do more with less and address the city’s environmental and fleet-reduction goals,” said Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. “This strategy helps meet those goals while opening up curbside parking, and by letting the public use the same cars that we use, it helps stimulate the Lower Manhattan car share market.”

“It is becoming more evident that the ‘one car, one driver’ model is broken. Individuals, businesses and municipalities are pursuing transportation options, such as Zipcar, that will reduce the need for cars in the city and alleviate traffic, parking and pollution concerns,” said Mark Norman, president and chief operating officer of Zipcar.

Under the pilot program, car-share vehicles – owned and maintained by Zipcar – will be stored at several private garages in Lower Manhattan, reducing the number of city vehicles using on-street parking. After 6:00 p.m. on weekdays and throughout weekend hours, the vehicles used by the Department of Transportation will be made available for public use by Zipcar, providing more New Yorkers the opportunity to benefit from car sharing. The Zipcars will be available to the city employees in the pilot project from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, though only five to 10 of the cars will be available during morning and evening rush hours, to encourage employees to drive at times when the roads are less congested.

The vehicles used in the pilot are 23 hybrid vehicles and two mid-sized vans and will be used by Department of Transportation personnel to carry out a variety of responsibilities related to the planning, operation, maintenance and repair of the city’s streets, sidewalks, bridges and other infrastructure, as well as to attend meetings not accessible by public transportation. The Zipcar program is similar to rental cars, though vehicles can be reserved on an hourly basis instead of by the day. Registered Zipcar members make reservations via an on-line registration system for a set period and can select vehicles from any car share location with an available vehicle.

Employees participating in the pilot will make a vehicle reservation online, then retrieve the vehicle from the garage using a credit card-sized Zipcard, which they will swipe against the vehicle’s windshield transponder to open the door and unlock the engine.

Last year, Mayor Bloomberg ordered all city agencies to reduce the number of light-duty, non-emergency city vehicles by at least 10 percent, which resulted in the sale of more than 750 vehicles generating more than $1 million in revenue from auto sales and an estimated annual savings of $2 million. v

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