No more money
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.
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