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There's nothing more boring and soulless than a freeway, right? That's what any respectable lover of natural beauty - myself included - thinks. But try seeing it from another angle. Next time you're driving along one of our interstate highways, consider what it represents: a time when our nation had the vision, the resources and the resolve to build something really big and useful. A time when government wasn't considered the epitome of soul-sucking evil. A time, in short, when the folks we elected to public office were grownups.
Now we have this Tea Party-driven notion that any kind of government spending or control is a gross violation of individual rights. Eager to prove their ideological purity, lawmakers are crawling over one another to slash billions from federal programs of every stripe. Meanwhile, the nation's transportation infrastructure is crumbling, clearly inadequate to handle the massive increase in international and domestic commerce that is projected for the years ahead.
There's no lack of plans that purport to address the crisis. Few, though, have much of a grounding in reality. President Obama's 2012 budget proposal is a start, proposing $556bn for investment in transportation systems over the next six years. The plan adopts a wise "fix it first" policy, while setting aside money for high-speed rail, and calling for a National Infrastructure Bank to prioritize projects and attract private capital.
What's missing is a way to pay for it all. Obama's proposal would essentially zero out monies in the Highway Trust Fund - the main source of funding for programs authorized by the current surface transportation law - without offering any means of recharging it. That would leave the plan about $326bn short of the funds needed to fulfill the President's vision. The absent element is, of course, an increase in the federal gas tax, which has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, without even being indexed for inflation.
Neither the President nor Congress has the appetite to propose higher fuel taxes at a time when the price of gas at the pump is already well over $4 a gallon in many parts of the country. Barring such a move, however, it's difficult to see how we're going to fix and maintain all of our existing roads and bridges, let alone pay for crucial new projects.
At least the President is taking the infrastructure issue seriously. From the Republicans, we get a proposal by Wisconsin's Rep. Paul Ryan that would cut transportation investment by $13bn to $17bn per year. Capping spending at 2008 levels, the plan seeks to slash current budget authority by about a third. As for any increases in future funding - dream on. Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, is out to gut as many federally supported programs as he can, regardless of their long-term value to the nation.
"The driving agenda for the budget, especially for 2011, is debt and deficit reduction," says Janet Kavinoky, executive director of transportation and infrastructure with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Transportation has been lumped in with all other spending."
Congress, Kavinoky says, seems unable to distinguish between the concepts of "spending" and "investment." Yet fixing the infrastructure problem is essential to a full-scale economic revival. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, nearly a third of the nation's roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and a fourth of all bridges are either "structurally deficient or functionally obsolete." That's a poor foundation on which to base long-term recovery.
Kavinoky sees some hope in the deficit-reduction plan being developed by the so-called Gang of Six - a bipartisan group of senators who are hoping to turn the recommendations of Obama's debt commission into a workable bill. It seems unlikely, though, that the lawmakers will propose an increase in the fuel tax, or any other revenue-raising mechanism.
Joshua Schank, president and chief executive officer of the Eno Foundation, notes that Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is already on record as opposing a gas-tax increase. Since Baucus also chairs the Senate Finance Committee, he's unlikely to sign off on any proposal to revive the Highway Trust Fund.
Schank rates as "incredibly low" the chances of increased transportation funding under a long-term reauthorization bill before the next presidential election in 2012. Legislators have already punted by extending the current law, known as SAFETEA-LU, until October 1 of this year. Another extension, providing political cover for any president or congressional candidate during election season, would surprise no one.
The outlook for transportation "looks really grim," says Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. The sector should expect less money in the coming months and years, not more, he says.
Baxandall finds it ironic that the long-term solution to the high price of oil involves the creation of a more efficient transportation infrastructure - yet it's that very trend that is preventing lawmakers from proposing a viable means of financing improvements.
In a sense, politicians have themselves to blame for the image that transportation projects have in the eyes of the general public. Too many lawmakers have focused on big projects of questionable value to generate jobs - and votes - in their home districts. (Thank you, Sarah Palin and Alaska legislators, for the Bridge to Nowhere.) What used to be called "pork" has taken on the equally reviled label of "earmarks." Obama's proposal attempts to bring some objective criteria to the process of selecting the best projects for development, but count on members of Congress to keep pushing for those that stoke their own political fires.
Kavinoky says proponents of infrastructure development need to make the case for sensible projects that can yield real value to the nation as a whole. "Part of our challenge in the stakeholder community is to find a good project and explain why things have been done well in particular states and local areas," she says. "At some point it's [a matter of] sowing the good news."
Maybe altering public sentiment will raise the level of maturity among certain members of Congress. Because there's one lesson that every child needs to learn: You get what you don't pay for.
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