No New Funding (equals) A Transportation Disaster

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It seems that every month, we’re faced with a new looming fiscal disaster that is only averted by our elected officials in Washington D.C. at the very last minute. Many of us know all to well the words “fiscal cliff” and “credit downgrade”. Both phrases have been synonymous with the continual partisan bickering in the Capital.

Now, usher in the Federal Highway Trust Fund, a pool of funds that is supposed to be dedicated to highway construction across the nation. This fund was established decades ago when the President Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Highway System was being built. The fund was meant to provide financing to the system, as well as other highways across the nation. This fund has been largely supplied through gasoline taxes, which haven’t been raised in a very long time, and is now in danger of running dry. Without any action by Congress to re-authorize transportation funding, long-awaited highway projects like the Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway in Garland, TX will never be able to be built, and improvements existing highways will eventually cease. This would not only significantly delay the much-needed upgrades to our nation’s aging infrastructure, but it will also cost thousands of jobs within the construction industry.

So what’s the issue here exactly? Well, many members of Congress have shown little to no interest in raising gas tax revenues, especially with more fuel efficient vehicles hitting the roads. Some legislators in fact, have instead opted to push and shove through plans to implement what is called the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax, which would essentially bill each and every commuter based on the amount of miles they travel. This plan has hit many roadblocks of its own, including opposition from privacy advocates who fear that equipment used to gather data to enforce VMT would possibly gather too much info about drivers. Currently, the only US state to have VMT in place is in Oregon. But they’re only operating VMT in a limited scope as of right now.

Here in the Tampa Bay area, the Federal Highway Trust Fund has been able to help modernize and expand many of our highways, by helping to keep state transportation coffers filled. This in-turn allows the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to keep their program of projects fully funded for the upcoming fiscal year. Federal money I’m sure has played a role in being able to help fund two projects in Pinellas County that have been gaining dust in the planning books for the past few decades. One project is to convert the portion of Gandy Blvd between Interstate 275 and 4th St N into a limited-access freeway flanked by frontage roads. Construction on this project was able to begin recently and is slated for completion in 2017 or 2018. The second project, which is not planned to begin until 2017, is the Gateway Expressway, which would convert portions of Pinellas County Road 296 and 611 into a limited-access tollway, also flanked by frontage roads.

Even more importantly though, is plans to rebuild the northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge, which connects I-275 between St. Pete and Tampa. Although state funds are already in place to build a basic four-laned bridge, those funds could possibly be impacted down the road, should FDOT have to re-prioritize highway projects due to a lack of federal funding. In this article from the Orlando Sentinel, FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad mentioned that the agency has put together a contingency fund of “couple hundred million dollars” just in case Congress doesn’t act. He has also mentioned that the planned Express Lanes project for I-4 through Orlando will be protected in whatever way possible should FDOT have to re-shuffle projects. This still leaves uncertainty for other road projects, especially those that tie in pedestrian and transit improvements, like bike lanes, improved sidewalks, and bus queue/jump lanes.

Furthermore, public transit funding could also plummet if Congress does not act on re-authorizing transportation funding. This is because a portion of the Federal Highway Trust Fund includes as Mass Transit Fund, which was established in 1982 and is also dependent on gas tax revenues. This would force many transit agencies across the nation to slash services and hike fares. For already cash-strapped agencies like Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART), further reductions in transit funding could mean that recent improvements in rush-hour, late-night, and weekend services could all be scaled back come 2015/2016. If the drop in funds is prolonged, HART could be forced to raise fares again…possibly much higher than previous increases. For the record, HART’s last base fare increases were in 2007 and 2012 respectively. Between 2007 and 2012, the base one-way fare has increased from $1.50, to $1.75, to $2.00. HART’s recent fare increases have been more modest compared to other districts who have had to raise fares in a more steep manner. Imagine however, if that fare suddenly jumped to $3.50…or even $4.00? Transit would begin to become unaffordable for most riders. And since purchasing new buses goes through a federal process, and utilizes federal funding, HART’s loss of transit buses could accelerate, forcing entire routes and services to be eliminated all at once.

The most grim consequence that any prolonged Congressional inaction could have on all this will no doubt be the loss of construction jobs. Many state leaders have warned that if the trust fund runs out, job losses could begin as early as this year as projects begin stall out. This will undoubtedly hurt the slow-going economic recovery and possibly even send the country right back into recession. And while some leaders have proposed just putting another “band-aid” on the matter, which many funding proposals have seen in recent years, this game of “kicking the can down the road” is not going to work for much longer. A long-term funding solution has to be devised…NOW!

l would strongly suggest contacting your legislators in Washington and tell them to come up with a long-term transportation funding solution that will be able to help our economy recover and grow. We cannot let Congress keep playing the “kick the can down the road” game, especially with transportation. They must devise a long-term solution to keep our infrastructure funded.

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