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Missing from presidential race: roads, bridges

James Smith, of Chilstrom Erecting Corp., West Milwaukee, ties rebar while building a mechanically stabilized earth wall along the new Drexel Avenue off ramp Oct. 9 in Oak Creek. The new set of ramps at Drexel Avenue and the new bridge are expected to be complete before the end of the year. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Obama, Romney fail to offer up ideas for how to pay for aging transportation network

By Joan Lowy
Associated Press

Washington — Here are a few items that largely have been missing from the presidential campaign: planes, trains, roads and bridges.

But as Superstorm Sandy reminded the world so vividly, we can’t afford to do without them. So why isn’t the nation’s transportation infrastructure a hot topic?

Money, for one. Neither President Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has a good idea for how to pay for what needs to be done.

Most of the transportation network was built in the last century; in some places, it dates to the 1800s.
Aging highways, bridges, trains and buses frequently are in need of repair or replacement, and no longer can handle peak traffic demands. More than 140,000 bridges structurally are deficient or obsolete. The problem only will worsen as the U.S. population grows.

The aviation system is struggling, too. A long-delayed program to modernize air traffic control and use satellite-based technology is projected to cost tens of billions of dollars. The system is based on World War II-era radar technology. The annual number of airline passengers is forecast to rise from 730 million today to 1.2 billion in 2032, and the old system won’t be able to keep up.

The tab to keep the surface transportation system running is even greater. A congressional commission estimated that all levels of government are spending $138 billion a year less than is needed to maintain the current system and make modest improvements.

Gas tax revenues that pay for federal transportation aid to states are declining because people are driving less and cars are more fuel efficient. Inflation also has taken a toll. The 18.4 cents-a-gallon federal tax hasn’t been increased since 1993, and the federal Highway Trust Fund is projected to go broke in 2014.

“Obama mentions roads and bridges every once in a while, which I suppose is better than not mentioning it, but no one is really having any significant policy discussion about it or how it fits into our national debate over the debt,” said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a think tank.

If the candidates were to raise the issue, “it calls into question how you are going to pay for it, and there’s a reluctance to talk about specifics,” said Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

When Obama discusses transportation, it’s usually in the context of pumping money into projects to generate jobs and boost the economy. Romney usually doesn’t mention it unless he’s answering a rare transportation question.

During his first months in office, Obama persuaded Congress to pass an economic recovery bill that included $48 billion in highway and transit aid beyond normal federal spending, including $8 billion to jump-start a national high-speed rail program. But when House Democrats drafted a long-term transportation plan, the administration quietly asked them to shelve that proposal. Obama’s focus was on health care and there was no extra money to go around, Democrats were told. The White House also was unwilling to spend political capital trying to raise the gas tax to pay for transportation improvements, knowing Republicans would label the president a tax raiser.

The 2010 elections swept into the House dozens of tea-party Republicans determined to shrink the government, making it even less likely Congress would agree to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a long-term transportation plan.

Obama proposed a six-year, $476 billion transportation program this year; Congress ignored it.
Administration officials said the program would be paid for through the “peace dividend” created by bringing troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. But the wars largely were financed by borrowing, and phasing them out doesn’t create a new pool of ready cash.

Facing the prospect that the trust fund would run out of money and that highway aid would be cut off, Congress passed a two-year plan in June that uses money from increases in employers’ pension insurance premiums and pension accounting changes to keep transportation programs going at current levels, plus increases for some programs to account for inflation, through the 2014 budget year. After that, the fund once again is forecast to go broke.

Romney hasn’t offered a transportation plan. When answering questions about the subject, he has said he favors more toll roads, including government and industry partnerships that generate private investment to pay for construction of new highways and bridges in exchange for the right to charge motorists for their use. Such partnerships are practical for a relatively few large-scale projects that can guarantee investors a steady income.

“It’s all well and good to say let’s have private investment, but that’s just another way of saying we don’t want to talk about the money,” Schank said.

Romney has called for ending subsidies to Amtrak, the nation’s passenger railroad network. Obama has supported Amtrak, and Vice President Joe Biden is one of the railroad’s biggest fans.

Historically, transportation has been one of the few issues to span the ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans. The only Democrat in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet was Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, a former California congressman. The only Republican in Obama’s Cabinet is Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Illinois congressman.

But that bipartisan consensus has evaporated in recent years.

House Republicans were unable to pass their own transportation bill this year — they ultimately accepted the Senate’s version — largely because of division in their own ranks. Some GOP lawmakers wanted to continue the large federal role in transportation that began with construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. More conservative members wanted to turn transportation policy almost completely over to the states.

On the Democratic side, environmentalists and smart-growth advocates have increased their influence on transportation policy. They want to use transportation aid to encourage denser housing close to mass transit that will encourage people to rely less on their cars. They argue that highway aid ought to be limited to repairing and improving existing roads and bridges rather than new construction.

“There have always been differences in emphasis,” said Rob Atkinson, who headed the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission set up by Congress. “But now we have starkly different visions of the federal role in surface transportation policy that we haven’t had since the interstate highway system was built.”

Why it matters: Infrastructure

The issue:

From bridges to broadband, America’s infrastructure is supposed to be speeding along commerce, delivering us to work and piping energy and water into our homes and businesses. But just repairing all the breakdowns and potholes would cost tens of billions more than the U.S. is spending each year. Experts warn the resulting infrastructure and innovation deficit is jeopardizing our global economic competitiveness. Traditionally nonpartisan territory, spending for transportation and other megaprojects now routinely is caught up in politics, with Democrats and Republicans divided over how to pay for public works and which ones.

Where they stand

President Barack Obama has favored stimulus-style infrastructure spending plans, talking up highway, bridge and rail repairs as job creators, and pushed for innovations such as high-speed rail and a national infrastructure bank to finance projects with the help of private capital. But Republican opposition to increased spending and taxes has blunted many such plans.
Mitt Romney favors less involvement by the federal government in infrastructure, preferring to let states lead the way. Romney shuns the idea that public-works spending is a good way to jumpstart the economy, saying decisions on worthy projects should be based on need and potential returns. Romney also wants to privatize Amtrak by ending federal subsidies for the money-losing passenger rail system. He’s OK with borrowing to pay for megaprojects if there’s a revenue stream to pay the money back, such as tolls or port fees.

Why it matters

Much of America’s infrastructure, including its interstate highway system, is more than half a century old and in need of serious work to keep pace with a rising population. Highway, rail and airport bottlenecks slow the movement of goods and commuters, costing billions in wasted time and fuel and even measurably slowing the economy.

The World Economic Forum put the U.S. 24th last year in the quality of its infrastructure, down from fifth in 2002. The rest of the developed world sets aside on average about 53 percent more of its gross domestic product on transportation infrastructure than the U.S. does, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

The dilemma facing any president is how to maintain critical public works at a time of fiscal austerity and to exert enough leadership to get plans through a divided Congress. That challenge was apparent in the partisan wrangling earlier this year over a long-term bill to reauthorize federal transportation spending, which finally passed after nine temporary extensions.

Both parties highlight the need for infrastructure investment, but neither side has been willing to take the politically painful step of proposing an increase in the gasoline tax or some other way to pay for it.
The main source of federal transportation aid to the states, the Highway Trust Fund, is going broke. The gas tax that feeds it hasn’t been raised since 1993 and does not keep pace with inflation.

Trying to work around those logjams, cash-strapped states and cities are experimenting with creative alternatives, including public-private partnerships with financial institutions that are being invited to put up the initial cash in exchange for a slice of revenue from tolls, other user fees and the like. The idea has support from both Democrats and Republicans but is most heavily promoted by conservatives.

Proponents say such deals get projects off the drawing table faster than traditional routes. Skeptics warn the model could end up turning control of critical public works projects to entities more concerned with profit than serving the public. A focus on projects that generate the most revenue also could neglect rural areas and poor inner-city neighborhoods.

Associated Press

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