A Bipartisan Bluprint?
A Virginia think tank report may shape our next SAFETEA-LU.
By John Latta
I f there is to be a new surface transportation bill sometime in 2011, or even if it comes months, or years, later, it is probable that a new report entitled Well Within Reach, America’s New Transportation Agenda may provide its blueprint
The Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia hosted a policy conference to encourage discussions and formulate a comprehensive set of proposals for the reauthorization of America’s transportation programs. It was co-chaired by Norman Mineta and Samuel Skinner, both former secretaries of transportation.
The conference drew upon the collective experiences of more than 80 transportation experts, as well as previous studies of the issue undertaken by the Brookings Institution, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and two national commissions established under SAFETEA-LU. The conference’s intent was to build upon existing scholarship and canvas the various opinions to identify the best and most practical solutions to be incorporated in SAFETEA-LU legislation.
The director of the Miller Center, former Virginia Governor Gerald L. Baliles, who came up with the idea for the conference, said of its recommendations that, “They were formulated with the guiding principle that they can be adopted without a complete overhaul of the traditional structure of the legislation in mind. They are predicated on the conviction that, unless federal transportation law and policy address the country’s current needs in a more relevant, more effective, and sustainable way, deficiencies in our transportation system will seriously compromise both the near-term prospects for economic recovery and our long-term economic productivity.”
The report notes that the emphasis throughout the conference was on long-term, sustainable changes instead of short-term “stop-gap” measures. Participants wanted to avoid the fragmentation that so often exacerbates our transportation challenges — thus, their recommendations extend across different transportation modes and issues.
The report’s recommendations will not surprise many people, they are well-thumbed ideas. But they are presented broadly, from a largely apolitical, bipartisan expert pool without being vague, and pragmatic without being overly specific. There is room for interpretation and compromise, and they can be done. There is a clear need for a blueprint for bipartisanship in developing, and passing, a new transportation bill and the care with which these recommendations have been crafted and delivered, and the neutral gravitas of the men and women who did the work, suggest it may fill the need.v
The recommendations (using the report’s own titles) are:
1) Stop the Bleeding
Congress, says the report, must address the immediate crisis in transportation funding. This comes dangerously close to stating the obvious.
All parties concede that without a higher gas tax, there will simply not be enough money in any version of the HTF to expand, repair, rebuild and maintain a bold new highway system. There may be enough money to choose one of those options (except expansion). Which perhaps is what led the Miller reporters to make this significant observation: “The suggestion that there be a moratorium on new transportation construction in favor of first maintaining our existing infrastructure can no longer be dismissed. The logic is simple: if available resources are inadequate to maintain the systems we’ve already built, then we certainly should not be developing more systems that we cannot sustain. In other words, our national dollars should be directed first to protecting and maintaining past investments.”
2) Beyond the Gas Tax
The report backs the idea that users should pay for the transportation system, a principle enshrined in the HTF when it was set up and backed by virtually all stakeholders pushing for a new surface transportation bill. Conceding that a gas tax hike alone would be inadequate in the long term, the report calls on Congress to “adopt legislation laying out a clear plan for transitioning, over the next decade, from the per-gallon fuel tax to a highway-use fee based on vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) … A fee of just one penny per mile would equal the revenue currently collected by the fuel tax; a fee of two cents per mile would generate the revenue necessary to support an appropriate level of investment over the long term.”
The Miller plan also addresses the need to balance privacy issues with another necessity — the need to know a lot about where a vehicle goes, and when, so that it pays more in rush hours on busy thoroughfares than it does on Sunday morning out in empty country.
3) Jobs for the Future, Not Just Today
Here the Miller report quietly suggests some fundamental change to the old way of funding transportation infrastructure. “Future Stimulus spending should be directed to those transportation projects that will deliver the greatest returns in terms of future U.S. competitiveness, economic growth and jobs. Building a foundation for sustained prosperity and long-term job creation is more important than boosting short-term employment in road construction.”