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Commentary: Driving better transportation is a must

Joe Nathanson
Dolan Media Newswires

Baltimore, MD – Congress is wrestling with how and when to reauthorize the nation’s primary money mechanism for building and maintaining roads, bridges, and mass transit lines — the Surface Transportation Act of 2009. It provides money through federal fiscal year 2015. The current authorization ends Sept. 30.

The new six-year reauthorization would have a $500 billion price tag. As the president pushes forward on his agenda for 2009, including major health care reform, energy/climate change legislation, and now, possibly, comprehensive immigration reform, the administration would prefer to pay for transportation with a less ambitious 18-month extension of the existing legislation.

The reauthorization would provide $337 billion for highways, $87 billion for mass transit and $50 billion to invest in high-speed rail, with the remaining allocations in support of safety, air quality and other national priorities.

Within the amount for highways, $50 billion would be directed to a “mode-neutral” competitive grant program for metropolitan areas. Another $25 billion is proposed for a competitive “Projects of National Significance” program, with projects to be selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

On July 1, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a two-page memo outlining the administration’s approach to the proposed 18-month extension, which would run through March 2011. Unanswered by the memo is the key question regarding the extension: Where will the administration find the $20 billion needed for the Highway Trust Fund? The pool of money is projected to be depleted by August and will need an infusion.

Any discussion of an increase in the federal gas tax already has been ruled off the table by the administration. The memo makes a vague reference to revenues accruing from “international tax enforcement” methods, but it is difficult to take that suggestion seriously at this time. In any event, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is calling on Congress to address the shortfall of money before the August recess.

The bottom line is we need to grow up. We will not have significant improvements in urban transportation systems unless we get serious about raising revenue. Otherwise, count on many more hours lost on jammed highways and more millions of gallons of wasted gasoline.

Joe Nathanson leads Urban Information Associates Inc., an economic and community development consulting firm.

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