Transportation Infrastructure Funding: Efficiency is necessary but not sufficient

| July 26, 2013

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It’s a case of on the one hand/on the other hand.

New Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx is saying that his department is “working to improve the efficiency and performance of our existing transportation system” and is “doing so in an era when we must work harder than ever to stretch our transportation dollar.”

He goes on to point out that being more efficient is saving the taxpayer big bucks.

It’s true. It is.

FHWA and DOT folks have been focusing on and strongly promoting efficiencies for some years now. And it’s working. So why worry about “the other hand?”

In a word: politics.

Secretary Foxx did not suggest that efficiency was the answer to having enough funding for our transportation infrastructure. He merely said that efficiencies were saving taxpayers money while delivery some really valuable work.

True that. But he is obviously aware that for a reauthorization bill next September someone will have to find about $19 billion a year in new funds just to keep our transportation infrastructure in the state it is now. MAP-21 didn’t do a very good job of that. It made up a shortfall with smoke, mirrors and some wonderfully imaginative bookkeeping. Can’t do it again in 2014.

My fear is that efficiency is the last refuge of the politician. It will surely not be long before we hear that the $19 billion, or a good chunk of it, can be found in “efficiencies” and “savings” and “less waste” and so on. We heard some of it in the SAFETEA-LU extensions that preceded MAP-21.

Foxx isn’t doing that, but over on The Hill we have politicians who refused last time around to consider anything that could be called a tax, a fee, a surcharge, a lien or–pick your word, but don’t pick ‘user fee’ because it upsets the argument–could in some way damage their reelection credentials. Much of it came from behind a wall of budget balancing and deficit reduction posturing. With more of the same on the horizon, will we get bogged down in trying to find the money in “efficiencies?”

True, efficiencies do save money, big time, and deliver good work as Foxx points out. It’s good for taxpayers, but for our transportation infrastructure it’s not enough. Not even close.

Keep those efficiencies coming, but there are two jobs here and the other one is to find a new core source of funding for the Highway Trust Fund as the gas tax continues to provide less and less of what’s needed.

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