All five of the proposed routes meet again at U.S. 27 near Fellowship and west of Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club.
State road planners on Thursday revealed a spaghetti map of possible routes for the proposed “Coastal Connector” highway project — including one that could bring a new interchange at Interstate 75 in north Marion County.
The plan is in its earliest stages and the current study is only gathering public input. The highway would connect north Central Florida with the Tampa area and run through Citrus and Marion County. The new road, likely a toll road, would reduce the strain on Interstate 75 with the goal of keeping up with growth and improving transportation and future emergency evacuations.
The project is decades from fruition with no construction expected before 2045, according to Harry Pinzon, an environmental engineer with the Florida Department of Transportation.
The five routes unveiled on Thursday all start at the end of State Road 589 (Suncoast Parkway) which is now set to end at State Road 44 in Citrus County but could go as far north as County Road 486 in Citrus. From there, the routes split off and would cross over the Withlacoochee River at one of four points between Lake Rousseau to the west and near State Road 200 to the east
All five of the proposed routes meet again at U.S. 27 near Fellowship and west of Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club. The road would continue north and would either follow the current path of State Road 326 east to U.S. Highway 441 or would continue north and exit just south of the U.S. 441/U.S. 301 split. The more northerly route would not mirror an existing road and would need a new interchange at I-75.
While still in the very preliminary stages, Randy and Sally Keller came out to a public meeting held in Crystal River on Thursday evening to see where their property sat in relation to the routes. A similar meeting is set for Ocala on May 1 at the Hilton Ocala, 3600 SW 36th Avenue at 4 p.m.
Turns out their 5-acre lot is only a few hundred feet away from one of the proposed routes.
“It’s kind of scary,” said Sally Keller. “Now I know why we’ve gotten six letters from people wanting to know if we wanted to sell. I knew something was up.”
The Kellers live in Brooksville and their property near Dunnellon is raw land.
But dozens more attended the meeting and many huddled around several big screen monitors to try and pinpoint their homes. Some routes do overlap existing home sites.
For Sandra Marraffino, who lives in Dunnellon, none of the proposed routes crossing the Withlacoochee are ideal.
“That is all very sensitive land from an ecological standpoint,” Marraffino said.
Tens of thousands of birds nest on islands on Lake Rousseau and the route closest to State Road 200 would cut through Halpata Tastanaki Preserve, home to a population of Florida Scrub Jays. The dwindling species is only found in Central Florida. In between, there are other bird habitats including burrowing owl, said Marraffino, a member of the Marion Audubon Society.
Her suggestion for a route crosses the Withlacoochee further west and takes the road through Levy County and into Alachua County.
Despite some misgivings, all those approached at Thursday’s meeting agreed that a new road is necessary given the state’s growing population and the bottlenecks formed during Hurricane Irma evacuations last year.
“We are really open to what’s going on,” said Nancy Huff, who also lives near one of the routes. “But it’s going to take so long, who knows what it will really look like.”
If promises were concrete and asphalt, this country would have the world class infrastructure that President Donald Trump keeps talking about. Unfortunately, it takes careful planning, political will and, most importantly, billions of dollars. All those characteristics are in short supply in the Trump administration.
Infrastructure is an early casualty of Washington’s fixation on the November mid-term elections. Retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and others are signaling that Trump’s $200 billion federal infrastructure plan is all but dead for this year.
Even Trump admits infrastructure is dead until 2019—or maybe forever. He has been talking about infrastructure improvements for at least three years since the early days of his candidacy, often calling U.S. roads and bridges akin to “a Third World country.”
“I don’t think you’re going to get Democrat support very much,” Trump said in Ohio recently, before adding: “And you’ll probably have to wait until after the election, which isn’t so long down the road. But we’re going to get this infrastructure going.”
Maybe yes, but maybe no. There is the not-so-small area of how to pay for these improvements without resorting to usual Washington bookkeeping and scorekeeping trickery. Truckers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce briefly floated a nickel-a-year increase in the fuel tax—18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline, 24.4 cents on diesel, unchanged since 1993—but that trial balloon crashed and burned by the no-tax pledge signed by most Republicans in Congress.
In more bad news, a planned infrastructure fund by the private equity firm Blackstone that was said to be creating up to $40 billion in private money has been slow to get off the ground. Saudi Arabia was supposed to be the fund’s largest backer, but they have backed off. Saudi money was supposed to be half of the $40 billion.
According to a New York Times report, Blackstone’s goal is now $15 billion, but even that figure is suspect because of lukewarm returns on infrastructure investments.
So that leaves truckers and other motorists absorbing billions of dollars in delays and repairs due to outdated infrastructure at highways, bridges and intermodal facilities around the country.
American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear has estimated the trucking industry currently loses nearly $50 billion annually to congestion. “That is unacceptable,” he said recently. “We must unclog our arteries and highways and make our infrastructure safer and more efficient by investing in our roads and bridges.”
Jim Burnley IV, who was Transportation Secretary under Ronald Reagan, said working on an infrastructure program in an election year is a neat political trick—and one just not possible in the current political climate.
“Sadly, that’s probably true,” Burnley, now a partner with the Venable Inc. law firm in Washington, told LM. “We’re just not in a political environment where big, bold infrastructure programs are available.”
With the Highway Trust Fund collapsing, Burnley said, the time is ripe for bold, new thinking. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), from 2021 to 2026 trust fund revenue is projected to total $243 billion. But outlays will amount to $364 billion, resulting in an imbalance of $121 billion. Each year during this period, the trust fund faces shortfalls of between $19 billion to $23 billion, the CBO says.
“Was it this hard when I was there? Yes,” Burnley said. “I hope Congress will have the political will to really come to grips with that fundamental resource. That doesn’t mean dramatic increases in the fuel tax. There are almost an infinite other ways to do it. But the political will has to be there—and right now it isn’t.”
Even if funding is coming from Washington, a majority of it appears heading to rural states that supported Trump. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao recently said DOT awarded more than 64% of this round of TIGER funding was for rural projects, as opposed to bottlenecks in and around urban areas.
The only thing the White House has been able to produce on infrastructure this year is a vow to expedite review and permitting for major U.S. infrastructure projects. It establishes a lead federal agency with a commitment to oversee any major projects, but few details how this will streamline complex deals. Under the current process, agencies may conduct their own environmental review and permitting processes sequentially resulting in unnecessary delay, redundant analysis, and revisiting of decisions. Now federal agencies conduct their processes at the same time.
But at least that was welcome news in some quarters of the business community looking for any action on infrastructure.
“(That) is a welcome change that will not only expedite review and approval of important infrastructure projects, but also help increase American competitiveness and economic growth,” said Mike Burke, Chairman and CEO of AECOM and Chair of the Business Roundtable Infrastructure Committee. “While much work remains to revitalize our nation’s aging infrastructure, this is a vital step forward in accelerating long-overdue infrastructure improvements throughout the country.”
Illinois Roads and Transportation Builders Association President and CEO Michael Sturino said while the plan helps cut through red tape, it probably won’t help Illinois because it favors rural (Republican-leaning) states at the expense of blue states.
“This is really going to go to more of the Wyomings, and the Oklahomas, and the Dakotas, those very sparsely populated states,” Sturino told the Illinois News Network.
About the Author
John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. John is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis.
Another top adviser to President Trump is leaving the White House. An administration official tells NPR that DJ Gribbin, architect of the president’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, “will be moving on to new opportunities.”
This latest staff departure comes as the infrastructure plan hits a roadblock in Congress.
A little over a year ago, Gribbin left his job at Macquarie Capital, a finance and asset management firm where he focused on public-private partnerships, to take the lead on crafting a infrastructure plan for the president. The proposal relies heavily on using incentives to attract private investments.
Trump initially promised he’d deliver a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan in his first 100 days, but it took more than a year until Gribbin and the White House would unveil and deliver the plan to Congress in February. And the president upped the ante, calling it “the biggest and boldest infrastructure plan in the last half-century,” promising it would generate a $1.5 trillion investment in rebuilding the nation’s highway, railways, bridges, tunnels, airports, seaports and water systems.
But the Gribbin-drafted proposal calls for federal spending of just a fraction of that, $200 billion over 10 years, with the rest coming from state and local governments and private investors.
Gribbin told NPR’s All Things Considered that America is up to the task. “It’s apparent that cities and states and counties are eager to invest more in infrastructure,” he said.
And he pushed back on the notion that the administration can’t ask state and local taxpayers for such funding, when a much a bigger federal investment in infrastructure is long overdue.
“All of these funds come from taxpayers — right?” said Gribbin. “And if you go out and you ask the public, you know, where do they want to invest? They have much more confidence if they write a check locally that that money will be spent in a way that they can be held accountable for than if they send a check to Washington.”
He also added in a briefing for reporters that “this is in no way, shape or form … a take-it-or-leave-it proposal. This is the start of a negotiation.” And White House officials added that “the president has said he is open to new sources of [federal] funding,” including an increase in the gas tax. “We want it to be bipartisan.”
Nonetheless, the plan has received a cool reception in Congress. It calls for the $200 billion in federal funding coming from unspecified cuts elsewhere to the federal budget, which Democrats vehemently oppose. Democrats also want a much bigger portion of the infrastructure spending to come from federal sources, such as the gas tax, while many Republicans refuse to consider a gas tax hike to fund it.
At an event to promote the infrastructure plan in Ohio last week, Trump went off script and acknowledged his plan to rebuild and repair the nation’s roads and bridges isn’t going anywhere fast, telling the crowd, “you’ll probably have to wait until after the election” in November.
Regular readers of this column for Public Works Financing know that I’m a big fan of tolls as a better highway funding source than fuel taxes. But even those who aren’t big fans of tolling should be concerned about the coming demise of fuel taxes as the primary source for funding America’s highways.
Back in 2005, I served on a special committee appointed by the Transportation Research Board (TRB). Our challenge was to examine likely future changes in vehicle propulsion and the demand for highway travel. Even then, it became clear to all 14 members that fuel taxes were not sustainable, long-term. Our report, The Fuel Tax and Alternatives for Transportation Funding, explained why we’d reached this conclusion and suggested steps toward finding a replacement. They included:
Retain and strengthen the users-pay principle;
Expand the use of tolls;
Test what we now call mileage-based user fees; and,
Find a stable source of tax funding for transit.
Our findings were reinforced several years later when the congressionally-appointed National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission assessed a wide array of replacements and concluded that replacing per-gallon taxes with per-mile charges (mileage-based user fees—MBUFs) was the best way forward.
For the last five years or so, a growing number of state DOTs have operated pilot programs to test various ways of implementing MBUFs to replace per-gallon fuel taxes. They have learned that it’s wise to offer people several alternative ways of having their mileage reported and that it might make sense to have private firms provide the interface with vehicle operators to alleviate concerns over government monitoring people’s travel. They’ve also found that actual experience with a per-mile charging system alleviates most of the concerns people have based only on what they’ve read about the idea.
The transition from per-gallon to per-mile will be a major shift in transportation funding. So it is critically important that we think hard about the scope of this change. As I see it, there are four serious flaws with the 20th century model of paying for highways via per-gallon tax in addition to dependence on one particular mode of vehicle propulsion. The others are:
Most fuel taxes are not indexed for inflation;
The original users-pay/users-benefit principle has been seriously breached;
Fuel taxes are viewed by people as taxes, not payments for highway use; and,
Fuel tax revenues are sent to politicians, not directly to highway providers.
Ideally, we should fix these four flaws as part of the transition from per-gallon to per-mile.
Problem one is the smallest change. A growing number of US toll roads now index their toll rates to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or some other inflation index; this has been made a lot easier thanks to all-electronic tolling. Eight states have recently indexed their fuel taxes to inflation, too, so inflation-indexing state MBUFs should not be a big deal.
Problems two and three are related, I believe. Highway users readily accepted gas taxes when they began at the state level in 1919, because they were sure that although it was called a tax, it actually operated as a pure user fee: all the revenues were deposited into a dedicated state highway fund, so the users-pay/users-benefit principle was visible and widely understood. But in the second half of the 20th century, that principle was eroded, bit by bit, as state highway departments became state transportation departments. In a large number of states, the dedicated highway fund morphed into a state transportation fund, supporting a whole array of transportation modes. Congress did the same thing with federal fuel taxes, starting in the 1970s. But the large majority (and in some cases all) of the revenue still comes from “highway user taxes.” Thus, while users-pay has been retailed, the users-benefit part of the deal has been seriously undercut.
And that, I believe, has contributed to the public perception of a “gas tax increase” as simply a tax increase, and therefore something to be resisted. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) objected vociferously to recent calls for a federal gas tax increase, right after Congress had given most Americans a tax cut. A whole array of taxpayer groups seconded that motion, and the odds of Congress enacting a federal fuel tax increase look very small.
That kind of battle does not, for the most part, occur when your cell phone company increases rates in order to add more cell towers to give you better reception. Nor does it occur when your electric company replaces an aging coal-fired power plant with a state-of-the-art gas-fired plant. A well-supported rate increase for such a project is likely to be approved by the state regulatory commission without much fuss. In these and other cases, what you pay is clearly a user fee—one that meets the users-pay/users-benefit principle. And this is true even when the supplier in question is a municipal electric, gas, or water utility. You pay utility bills, not tax bills.
Those utility cases are also different from highways in that you pay the user fees directly to the provider of the service. Here again, the same is true whether the utility is run by the local or state government or is an investor-owned company. You are charged based on how much or what category of service you use, and you pay the provider, not the government. The only case where this is true in the highway sector is toll roads (whether private or public).
My point here is that the emergence of viable methods of charging per mile also makes it feasible to de-politicize highways and re-organize them along the same lines as the other public utilities on which our economy depends. If we are going to go through the great effort it will take to change the method of paying for highways, let’s at least attempt to fix all the flaws that are now evident with today’s fuel tax model.
Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation.
This column first appeared in Public Works Financing.
Posted January 09, 2018 07:29 AM, Updated January 10, 2018 08:25 PM
The city of the future will not be the cold metal domes or Mars settlements of science fiction movies. It will be a community of 19,500 homes surrounded by thousands of acres of green space and capable of producing its own energy — in total harmony with the environment.
And that future is now.
Residents started to move this month to homes in the utopian paradise of Babcock Ranch, northeast of Fort Myers and a three-hour drive from Miami. Its most distinguishing characteristic: It will rely 100 percent on solar energy.
It’s the first totally ecological, self-sustaining city in the United States, a living laboratory for businesses, government and citizens.
Like all technology, the new city has raised questions, such as how can it avoid depending on traditional methods of generating electricity.
Developer Syd Kitson, a former offensive guard with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, said his city has one of the world’s biggest photovoltaic solar energy generation fields, with 343,000 panels laid out along 440 acres, equaling 200 football fields. The solar plant was built in partnership with Florida Power & Light (FPL).
“I’ve been asked if I got hit on the head too many times when I played football,” Kitson said in an interview with BBC World. But he insisted that it is a realistic and profitable idea. “It’s much easier and cheaper if you plan it that way from the beginning,” he said.
Babcock Ranch has an integrated smart network that allows residents to monitor and control their electricity consumption. Self-driving electrical buses are already making test runs in the center of the city, about equal to the size of Manhattan.
Residents and visitors can use the shared transportation system to rent bicycles and explore the city and its pathways through green areas full of cattle, birds and alligators.
James and Donna Aveck will be moving to Babcock Ranch in mid-January. The Michigan natives retired to Punta Gorda more than 10 years ago. They just bought a 1,955-square-foot home in the new development.
The new city has “all of the innovation we love, because we embrace change, but we also love the friendliness of the place,” Donna Aveck, who is convinced that global warming is a major problem, told the Naples Daily News. “We are attracted by the idea of protecting the environment and having community paths and gardens. We feel at peace as soon as we get here.”
Because the Avecks bought into the pioneer project at its very start, the developers named a lake in the new city “Lake James.” Babcock Ranch is expected to eventually reach 50,000 residents.
Follow Daniel Shoer Roth on Facebook and Twitter: @DanielShoerRoth.
Members of the National League of Cities are meeting in D.C. this week to make their case for more federal funding.
It’s no secret that America’s crumbling roads and bridges and chronically struggling transit systems need help: The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it would take $2 trillion to bring the nation’s infrastructure into an “adequate” state of repair. That dire situation has been a recurring theme of President Donald Trump’s never-ending infrastructure week.But the proposal the White House finally released last month to address the problem has drawn criticism from city leaders for shifting the funding burden onto the backs of state and local governments. At the National League of Cities’ annual conference this week, mayors and city council members declared rebuilding infrastructure as their number-one priority in the year to come. And they’re determined to negotiate better terms on Trump’s infrastructure deal.“A good plan is not a good plan unless there’s money connected with it,” said NLC executive director Clarence Anthony at a press conference Monday morning. While the White House proposal, “Rebuilding Infrastructure in America,” is often billed as a “$1.5 Trillion Infrastructure Plan,” many critics have noted that this figure is misleading at best. Instead of direct federal funding, Trump’s proposal requires cities to prove they can shoulder up to 80 percent of the bills for federally funded infrastructure projects themselves. That sum would then be matched by a federally sourced 20 percent. In all, only about $200 billion of that $1.5 trillion would come from the feds.City leaders are now in D.C. to lobby lawmakers for a better deal. “We are asking our partners—because we do recognize you as partners—in the federal government to rebuild with us as we rebuild our cities,” said NLC vice-president Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary, Indiana.On Monday, delegates met with DJ Gribbin, the special assistant to the president for infrastructure policy; on Wednesday, they’ll talk with House and Senate leaders, particularly key members of the infrastructure committees. And on Thursday, they’ll go straight to the White House to make their case. “At minimum, we’re asking for an equal partnership of 50 percent funding from the federal level to local governments,” said Anthony.“The 80-20 split is off the table,” added Los Angeles city council member Joe Buscaino. “An equal partner is an equal partner.”Mark Stodola, mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, and the president of the NLC, outlined four critical infrastructure areas: water, transportation, broadband internet, and workforce development. “We’ve got to make sure we provide a sustainable investment,” said Stodola. “We’ve got to address not only the existing infrastructure backlog, but also long-term funding streams that are necessary to maintain this infrastructure.”The statistics are daunting: More than 6,000 bridges are structurally deficient, and 41 percent are over 40 years old; access to broadband internet, meanwhile, is lacking for 78 million people, due to connectivity issues or prohibitive cost. Cleveland city council member Matt Zone also emphasized the importance of climate resiliency in rebuilding: 2017 was already the most expensive year for natural disasters in history, due to extreme events like hurricanes Maria and Harvey, costing $306 billion in damages. “We’ve got to invest in durable infrastructure, not just infrastructure—infrastructure that doesn’t need to be continuously rebuilt when every storm happens,” Zone said.Instead, the White House is going in the opposite direction, proposing $275 billion in cuts to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a key player in post-storm emergency response, and $30 billion from HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Program, which funds affordable housing and allows cities to use discretionary funds for infrastructure resilience projects.And it’s not just that local budgets don’t feel like inflating their infrastructure contributions. A lot of them can’t: In 47 states, preemption measures curb cities’ ability to raise their own revenue to meet infrastructure needs; in 22 states, cities can’t use sales tax hikes to fund infrastructure.The NLC presser also touted some of the creative funding fixes cities have employed recently, such as L.A.’s Measure M, which raises transit funding via a sales tax increase (and which was recently cited approvingly by an unnamed Trump staffer). Other cities have turned to public-private partnerships: Virginia’s high occupancy toll lanes on the Beltway got a funding boost from a private firm; and New York and New Jersey are reconstructing the Goethals Bridge with the help of an Australian bank.Smaller communities—the ones that need a federal assist the most—have also raised cash by selling off public utilities like water systems, but studies show that residents often end up getting charged more for the same product. “Our ability to pay doesn’t change the need for that infrastructure,” said Gary’s Freeman-Wilson, “but it certainly determines our ability as local elected officials to deliver.”Bipartisan aspirations on immigration and health care reform have been dashed before, and leveling funding to 50/50 is an ambitious target. But at Monday’s press conference, Stodola expressed confidence that the NLC’s negotiations in the coming days will bring results.“It seems like Congress has got their feet in concrete, and they need to take them out,” said Little Rock Mayor Stodola. “So we’re going to break that rock. We’re going to knock them out of that concrete, and by golly we’re going to take it to them on the Hill.”About the Author
From President Trump’s Camp David retreat with cabinet officials and congressional leaders at the beginning of this year, word emerged that the president and his advisers are divided on the best policy for infrastructure. Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, presented a detailed plan to make $200 billion in federal investments in order to unleash $1 trillion of total infrastructure investment through public–private partnerships, a plan that has now been leaked to the media. The president himself, meanwhile, reportedly prefers a more straightforward national building program.
Any discussion of infrastructure spending needs to recognize the stark reality of the American cost disease. As explained in a December New York Times report on the New York subway, when the United States builds infrastructure, it often costs more than any similar industrialized country would consider spending. New York City brings the cost disease to its highest fever, but even cities that excel at cost containment by American standards would have their numbers thrown out on their ear in many other countries. Liberals sometimes wave away cost concerns by reemphasizing the need for any particular project, and conservatives sometimes blithely presume that any project is wasted money. But all parties involved must recognize and address the cost disease, which drastically reduces the amount of infrastructure Americans can get out of any particular budget figure. Building a tunnel six times more expensive than one in France means that you get one-sixth the tunnel that you should. As transit researcher Alon Levy has shown, the American cost disease is real, and the situation is dire.
While the entire basis of these cost overruns is still not known, it is clear that American labor costs significantly contribute to project-cost inflation. Prevailing-wage standards, set under the Davis-Bacon Act, are a frequent target of the ire of conservatives, who charge that the requirements empower unions to run up prices and drain the public purse. These prevailing wages certainly inflate costs, and repeal or reform of Davis-Bacon would help the taxpayer receive a fair value for his investment. However, competitor nations such as France and Spain cannot be said to possess weak unions or ungenerous labor laws, and those nations still manage to build infrastructure for a fraction of American per-mile costs. Davis-Bacon repeal is no silver bullet, and further reforms will be needed.
As Jarrett Walker explains in his book Human Transit, operation costs in industrialized countries are dominated by labor. Simply put, people are expensive in rich countries, and hiring workers requires paying significant wages and benefits. Thus, one of the most effective ways to exercise fiscal prudence is to ensure that human personnel are not wasted in their transit work. Unfortunately, wasting person-hours seems to be American transit’s most consistent accomplishment. Subway trains that should be able to be run by computer often must be managed by one or two drivers, and tunnel-digging machines that the French operate with fewer than ten people are managed by more than two dozen well-compensated Americans.
Capital costs, meanwhile, are also inflated by “buy American” procurement rules attached to federal infrastructure financing. When local governments take advantage of federal grants or loans to expand their infrastructure, they are required to buy at least 60 percent of rolling-stock components, such as rail cars and buses, from American manufacturers. (Current law requires that level to rise to 70 percent by 2020.) Manufactured goods, on the other hand, must be 100 percent American in materials and manufacture. While well-intentioned in their concern for American manufacturing, such policies can further inflate the cost of infrastructure. For example, according to the American Action Forum, Americans pay 34 percent more for their metro cars than the global average. Even with such policies in place, contracts often go to the most competitive global firms, which then set up separate manufacturing facilities in the United States. The profits are passed back to the foreign headquarters, while taxpayers pay the price for not being able to access the normal industry supply chains.
For the American taxpayer to receive assurance that his money is being spent wisely, any major infrastructure investments should be accompanied by actions to treat the cost disease. Already, the governors of New York and New Jersey are expressing indignation that the Trump administration has renounced an Obama-administration plan to fund half the ballooning cost of their new tunnel-building program. They would do well to turn that indignation toward their own transit authorities for wasting historic amounts of money. The 50 percent of the projected cost that the governors were already willing for their states to pay should be beyond sufficient to complete the entire project, and then the concerned states would not have to go through federal procurement channels at all.
Furthermore, when the national government picks up significant portions of the tab, it often incentivizes projects that should never have been undertaken at all. In 2010, self-described “recovering engineer” Charles Marohn pointed to a project in Staples, Minn., that cost $9.8 million to build an overpass above a railroad in order to connect two state roads and ease the congestion that came from waiting for train cars to pass. Staples has a population of 3,000. The federal government offered it $8.8 million for the project, and the state of Minnesota chipped in for the other $1 million. While the good people of Staples might enjoy their uncongested cross-town connection, Marohn wryly predicted that if they “were asked to simply pay 10 percent of the cost, . . . this project would not be happening.” Most federally supported projects are not so heavily subsidized, but a more customary 80 percent federal match was enough for the Louisiana city of Shreveport to attempt the decidedly retro project of bulldozing a working-class, mostly black neighborhood to build an urban highway connector through the city in the name of economic development.
The good news is that even as Washington continues to argue over the best way to make infrastructure investments, private actors are already emerging to offer innovative means of transportation. Whether with cars, trains, or the humble bicycle, new companies are stepping up to unleash American mobility, and each innovation holds the potential to reshape demand for other infrastructure components as people adjust their living and travel patterns.
Virginia’s McAlester’s Field Guide to American Houses conveys this recurring effect in a few pages as it details the development of American neighborhoods. Towns and cities were first built to be accessed most regularly on foot, meaning that homes, workplaces, and shops necessarily intermingled, all built on relatively narrow plots of land. The advent of horse-pulled streetcars stretched out development along a commuting pattern that opened up land for neighborhoods of residential rowhouses. The electric streetcar created spokes of development, populated by detached houses, emanating out from city centers. Because the neighborhoods still had to be navigated on foot after residents disembarked from the streetcar, though, homes in these early suburbs were built on relatively narrow lots. The automobile filled in the land between the streetcar spokes and eventually pushed out to fields opened up by freshly paved highways, allowing direct access to ranch houses and split-levels built on much wider lots.
We may now be approaching a similar point of transformative change through the explosion of private transportation services. The most well-known newcomers to the transportation scene are ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft. By enabling people to turn their personal cars into de facto taxis, the services upended the long-standing taxicab-medallion cartel system and tapped an explosive reserve of unmet consumer demand for point-to-point mobility. Uber and Lyft are also among the most active investors in what is widely projected to be the next phase of the automobile’s development: the autonomous vehicle.
Cars are far from the only mode of transportation undergoing significant innovations, however. In Florida, the “Brightline,” the first private passenger-rail project to be constructed in the United States in a century, is taking paying customers. The privately funded, financed, built, and operated line connects West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, with stations in Miami and Orlando set to follow over the next few years. And Texas Central recently passed its first major federal environmental review on its way to constructing the first true high-speed-rail system on the American continent. Texas Central will connect Houston and Dallas, the fourth- and fifth-largest metro areas in the country, and it will run without state subsidies.
Creativity is also bubbling up in the bicycle world, as many American urban centers have seen bikeshare programs emerge. The market appears to have decided that the time is ripe for such systems to make money. Companies such as Ofo, Mobike, and Limebike are surging into city centers and finding huge numbers of customers. Seattle, for instance, had just wound down its failed city-run bikeshare program when three dockless bikeshare companies filled the void, building the second-largest city bikeshare fleet in the country without spending a single public dime. In China, such dockless bicycle companies, which offer cheap and easy last-mile connections, have dried up the ridesharing services’ market in short-range trips and driven demand back into transit.
To commit enormous federal funds right now while the forms of American mobility are so rapidly shifting, then, would be to bet one’s stack of chips while one’s hand is still being dealt. Instead of rushing to build new roads and highways based on past habits, we should turn our focus to rescuing and reinforcing the investments we have already made. The “crumbling” bridges and roads that President Trump decries will not crumble any less because a new bypass is being built on the other side of town, and maintenance liabilities are already outstripping many communities’ capacity.
Instead of starting another highway-building program, the United States would do well to focus on maintenance, to devolve planning and funding decisions to localities, and to ensure that the playing field is level enough to accommodate whichever road the future of transportation goes down.
– Mr. Coppage is a visiting senior fellow at the R Street Institute, where he studies conservative urbanism and the built environment.
With the release (PDF) of its Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America, the Trump administration announced its intent to rely on state, local and private investment to provide the lion’s share of new infrastructure funding. Local projects with the highest non-federal share of funding would have priority and a project’s economic benefits to the public would take a back seat to revenue potential in the plan’s ranking system. But with its lack of new federal funding, the plan may not be the best path to economically beneficial or creative solutions to America’s most serious regional, national and long-term problems.
The plan would diminish the federal role in funding and regulation and reduce requirements for environmental permit reviews that the administration blames for slowing project approvals. Private developers would be incentivized to play much larger roles in financing public infrastructure.
State and local governments today bear 62 percent of the cost of building new transportation and water infrastructure and 92 percent of their annual operations and maintenance costs. Annual public spending on transportation and water across all levels of government currently exceeds $400 billion (PDF). The federal share is under $100 billion. Freight railways are almost all privately owned, but private ownership accounts for less than 1 percent of America’s surface transportation and water infrastructure assets.
The president’s plan asserts that federal spending of $200 billion over the next 10 years will unleash some $1.3 trillion in new spending by states, local governments and private developers for a total of $1.5 trillion. But most of the $200 billion would likely come from cuts in existing infrastructure and other domestic programs—it would not be “new” money on top of current federal infrastructure programs unless Congress acts to raise the gas tax or generate other new revenues.
How the six- or seven-fold increase in state, local and private investment would happen is a mystery. The plan includes $20 billion for federal spending on “transformative projects,” defined as projects with positive impacts unlikely to attract private investment.
Block grants to rural states for spending on infrastructure are another element of the plan, with a total set-aside of $50 billion. Rural economies need a boost, but the vast majority of aging infrastructure and most economic growth are in highly urbanized states.
Even more important than imprecision about national spending priorities is the absence of clarity about the future federal role and the need to raise new revenues and increase direct spending on infrastructure. With the interstate highway system complete, many believe federal leadership in transportation funding is no longer necessary and that the federal share of transportation spending, now less than 25 percent of the annual $220 billion (PDF) total, can continue to decline. They maintain that local projects should be supported by local resources, public and private. This is already the case for water and wastewater utilities where the federal share is only 4 percent, although most local governments depend on federal subsidies through tax-exempt municipal bonds for financing and low-interest loans through federal and state programs.
Federal retreat is appropriate for projects that largely benefit local populations. But an entirely different class of projects could bring widespread benefits to larger regions and the nation as a whole. Such projects would transcend state boundaries and promote clearly national goals. Harbor improvements, major flood control works on the nation’s great rivers,and the interstate highway system were the reasons the federal government years ago began funding “internal improvements.” The Clean Water Act of 1972 cleaned up the nation’s rivers and streams. It initiated a massive public works program to help cities of all sizes build secondary sewage treatment plants to comply with new water quality standards.
The nation has different needs now, but there still are national needs. More than 60 percent of the interstate highway system was built before 1970, and a renewed national road network is needed no less in the current era of fast-changing new road and vehicle technologies than it was in the 1950s. Freight hubs connecting rail, roads and ports around the country are congested and reaching their limits. The plan would allow states to toll interstates to raise needed money for improvement, but it does not mention how the bankrupt federal highway trust fund could be put on sound footing.
Urban mass transit—considered a national asset in other countries—provides economic and environmental benefits that cannot be fully financed by fares. The plan requires local governments to capture land value increases near transit stations to fund transit, but does not commit sufficient federal money to match local revenue. Coastal and riverine cities are struggling to keep up with increasing threats from stormwater flooding, with federal spending on recovery from natural disasters—mostly flood-related—exceeding $300 billion in 2017 alone. Federal spending on protection could save federal money on recovery.
The conversation about national infrastructure policy should be not only about which level of government or which private investors will put up the money. It should be a call for imagination and vision of what U.S. infrastructure needs to be for a prosperous 21st century. The conversation could and should transcend party politics. Achieving that could be the biggest transformative project of all.
This commentary originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report on February 16, 2018. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.
The White House Feb. 12 released the detailed infrastructure package that President Donald Trump promised throughout his first year in office. It arrived the same day the administration issued its FY2019 budget, the day has finally come.
The introduction of the 55-page “Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America”, says: “To help build a better future for all Americans, I ask the Congress to act soon on an infrastructure bill that will: stimulate at least $1.5 trillion in new investment over the next 10 years, shorten the process for approving projects to 2 years or less, address unmet rural infrastructure needs, empower State and local authorities, and train the American workforce of the future.” The president adds, “My administration is committed to working with the Congress to enact a law that will enable America’s builders to construct new, modern, and efficient infrastructure throughout our beautiful land.”
The plan details differ little from what Trump administration officials have discussed for months. The main focus is largely on incentivizing state and local governments and private sector entities to use their money to capture some of the $200 billion the administration proposes to spend. The plan also reforms and speeds the construction project approval process at the federal level and increases workforce capacity to carry out the jobs that may be needed and created because of this investment.
As expected, the Trump administration’s infrastructure package does not address the looming Highway Trust Fund (HTF) solvency problem. Beginning in FY 2021, the HTF will need roughly $18 billion per year, on average, to avoid severe cuts in the amount of annual investment levels of the federal highway and transit programs during subsequent years. In fact, the proposal only raises the HTF in passing and without addressing the looming fiscal crisis. Moreover, the package does not include a way to pay for the $200 billion in federal resources the president is recommending.
Here is a breakdown of how the package intends to leverage the federal dollars to produce as much as $1.5 trillion in total investment:
Infrastructure Incentives Program ($100 billion), a competitive grant program for projects including major investments by states, localities, and the private sector. It would be administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The plan does not say how much would be allocated to each agency. As part of the selection process, the plan does weight heavily towards how much new, non-federal revenue can be brought to the table for a project. The federal share is capped at 20 percent per project, and no state can receive more than 10 percent of the $100 billion.
Rural Infrastructure Program ($50 billion) that aims to improve the condition of infrastructure, enhance regional connectivity and access to markets and employment opportunities and spur economic growth outside cities. Eligible projects would include transportation, broadband, water, power and electric infrastructure. In this program, 80 percent of the funding would be distributed by a formula based on population of less than 50,000, and lane mileage. The remaining 20 percent would be distributed via a performance grant program for states that submit a comprehensive infrastructure investment plan. Tribal and U.S. territorial areas would also be eligible for funding under this program.
Transformative Projects Program ($20 billion) would provide federal funding for, “bold, innovative, and transformative infrastructure projects that could dramatically improve infrastructure” but are, for various reasons, considered too risky for private sector investment. The U.S. Department of Commerce would oversee this program, with consultation as needed from other departments, and eligibility would include all previously mentioned uses of infrastructure as well as “commercial space”. Up to 50 percent of planning costs and 80 percent of construction costs could come from this program.
Infrastructure Financing Programs ($20 billion) would allocate an additional $14 billion for the expansion of existing federal credit programs, including the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program and Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA). This additional funding would allow the administration to further diversify the portfolios for these programs. Specifically, port and airport infrastructure projects would be eligible for TIFIA credit assistance, which is currently limited to highway, bridge, transit and certain intermodal projects. The RRIF program would be amended with incentives for short-line freight and passenger rail projects.
Another $6 billion would be used to broaden eligibility for tax exempt Private Activity Bonds (PABs). This financing tool has been an option for certain highway and freight facility projects since 2005, subject to an overall cap of $15 billion. The proposal would remove this cap (as well as similar state volume caps) to strengthen the certainty of PABs’ future availability. The administration would also enable PABs to be used for reconstruction projects, longer-term private leases and concession arrangements, and a number of new non-transportation infrastructure categories.
Federal Capital Financing Fund ($10 billion) to help federal agencies purchase real property and pay for it over a 15-year period rather than the current requirement that this be done within one year. The fund would help finance these purchases and the relevant department would repay the fund in 15 installments via annual appropriations. The aim is to save money in the long run by hopefully avoiding some cost-prohibitive leases.
Transportation Financing and Contracting
The administration’s proposal would enable states to toll existing Interstate facilities, and use tool revenues to benefit certain surface transportation infrastructure projects beyond the scope of the tolled facility itself. Similarly, states would be able to commercialize rest areas on Interstate highways, provided they “reinvest” the proceeds in the same corridor.
The administration also seeks to eliminate normal federal-aid requirements for highway and transit projects where federal dollars are “de minimis” and for smaller projects largely out of the federal-aid highway right-of-way. A state would also have the option to repay a project’s federal share to the HTF and terminate the need to comply with federal requirements in its maintenance and operations. In the same vein, “federalization” requirements for projects funded by state infrastructure banks would be reduced. The proposal would also raise the threshold for “major” highway projects from $500 million to $1 billion, in order to decrease the number of these larger projects subject to additional supervision and administrative requirements by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
Enable federal land management agencies (such as FHWA’s Federal Lands Highway Division) to use a wider variety of alternative contracting and project delivery methods.
Expand existing pilot programs intended to encourage public-private partnerships (P3s) and partnerships between public agencies for transit capital projects, and enable the privatization of airports.
Authorize utility relocation for highway and transit projects to take place prior to completion of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.
Require the use of “value capture financing” as a prerequisite for certain transit capital
grants. As an example, private entities benefiting from a transit project may be asked to share in its cost through a tax, fee, assessment or other arrangement.
Establish an Interior Maintenance Fund that would allow the U.S. Department of the Interior to keep half of the revenues collected from new energy and mineral exploration in order to address the deferred infrastructure maintenance backlog – including roadways – within the inventories of the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Allow the disposition of federal real property, making it easier to sell federal government-owned assets that may better be managed or owned by states, localities or the private sector.
Project Approval Process
President Trump’s infrastructure proposal would make significant changes to the environmental review and approval process for transportation construction projects. The proposal builds on his August 2017 executive order on reforming the permitting process by setting a two year time limit for environmental reviews. Specifically, the lead agency on any project would have 21 months to complete an environmental review and then additional permitting requirements from other agencies would have to be completed three months thereafter. A number of reforms to NEPA are also made, including limiting the range of alternatives to options which are feasible and eliminating duplication of agency review efforts. The plan would also revoke EPA’s authority to review NEPA decisions made by other agencies.
The proposal also calls for changes to major environmental laws impacting transportation construction. Specifically, the plan would remove EPA from the wetlands permitting process (making the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers solely responsible for such permits) and eliminate EPA’s ability to retroactively veto Clean Water Act permits. Additionally, the Clean Air Act’s transportation conformity process would be altered by requiring that it apply only to the most recent set of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). This would eliminate the problem of counties struggling to meet old standards when new ones are introduced. The plan would also eliminate duplicative regulatory requirements for historic sites and parklands.
NEPA delegation – such as that currently done by FHWA – would also be expanded to other agencies under the proposal. Additionally, the program would be broadened to include delegation of regulatory responsibilities outside of NEPA, including Clean Air Act transportation conformity decisions, flood plain determinations and noise policies. Also, changes would be made to the way in which courts review challenges to transportation projects. Under the plan, courts would only be able to halt transportation projects for legal challenges in “exceptional circumstances.” In addition, federal agencies are directed to establish guidelines on the timeliness of data used in environmental permitting decisions. Once these guidelines have been established, courts will not be able to entertain challenges to agency data based on whether or not the information is current.
Because of an anticipated increase in construction and other employment resulting from infrastructure legislation, as well as related economic growth, the administration proposes numerous improvements and reforms to federal education and training programs. These include:
Expand Pell Grant eligibility to individuals seeking a vocational certification or credential, often through a short-term educational or apprenticeship program.
Reform the Perkins Career and Technical Education program with the objective of improving access to high-quality technical education in secondary and post-secondary institutions. This would include directing a larger share of Perkins funding to high schools, in part to “fast track” interested high school graduates to infrastructure-related jobs.
Grow the eligibility for the Federal Work Study program among students pursuing career and technical education, particularly low-income and low-skilled students seeking quick entry or reentry to the workforce.
Require states accepting federal dollars for infrastructure projects to allow participation by workers with skilled trade licenses from other states.
Trump Administration’s FY 2019 U.S. Department of Transportation Budget Proposal
Conventional Washington wisdom says that any administration’s budget request is usually “dead on arrival.” That may be especially true this year. Congress and the administration agreed Feb. 9 on overall discretionary funding levels for both defense and non-defense spending for FY 2018 and FY 2019. The deal by congressional leaders and the president increased spending by more than $300 billion over FY 2017 funding levels, a portion of which will undoubtedly go towards transportation programs. The question is which programs?
The budget deal combined with the Trump administration’s infrastructure package release make the transportation sections of the FY2019 budget somewhat subdued. However, the president’s budget is helpful in that it demonstrate the areas the administration feels should be emphasized and those that may be reduced or eliminated. Congress controls the “power of the purse,” however, and will make most of the funding decisions, despite the administration’s request.
Federal Highway Program
For FY 2019, the administration’s budget for highways conforms to the amount enacted in the FAST Act, as it did for FY 2018. The budget recommends $46.001 billion in new contract authority, up from $44.924 in FY 2018, and an obligation limit of $45.269 billion, up from $44.234 in FY 2018. Both FY 2019 figures represent an increase of 2.3 percent over FY 2018. In addition, $739 million of contract authority could be obligated above the limitation, bringing total obligation authority for the year to $46.007 billion. This represents a significant change from the FY 2018 budget, when the administration recommended freezing highway program funding for FY 2019 at the FY 2018 level.
Nonetheless, the long-term outlook for the highway program remains highly uncertain. At current funding levels, outlays from the highway account exceed projected revenues by about $8-$9 billion per year. The balance in the highway account will be dissipated by the end of FY 2021. In response, the administration’s budget includes the following adjustments:
First, the administration’s budget assumes a freeze on new contract authority and obligations at $43.969 billion per year through FY 2028. By contrast, the FAST Act provides for annual growth of just above 2 percent, or close to $1 billion, annually. A freeze thus means the obligation limitation in FY 2028 would be about $10 billion less than continuation of the FAST Act.
Even more critical, however, is the forecast that outlays for highways will have to be cut from $47 billion in FY 2021 to $36 billion in FY 2022 and beyond. In essence, rather than raise new revenues, the administration is proposing to limit payments to states and contractors from the Highway Trust Fund after FY 2021 to no more than projected HTF revenues under current tax rates. To fill the $11 billion gap, states would have to use their own funds, stop construction work on some projects, or slow down reimbursements to contractors.
Public Transportation Program
The Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund is the source of funding for the Transit Formula Grants program, which includes money for a wide variety of transit needs, including operations and maintenance of urban transit facilities, bus purchase and repair, repairs to fixed guideway transit systems, transit programs in rural areas, and transit for seniors and persons with disabilities, among others. For FY 2019, the Trump administration proposes to provide $9.90 billion for the Transit Formula Grant program, down from $10.5 billion in FY 2018. Longer term, like the highway program, the Highway Trust Fund can continue to pay for the transit program only for another couple years before revenue constraints force a cut. Following FY 2021, the administration’s budget proposes a reduction in outlays for the transit formula program from $10.1 billion to $6.3 billion in FY 2023 and beyond. Absent new revenues, this would mean significant program cuts or a greater burden on state and local governments to fund mass transit needs.
Only a small fraction of Formula Grant funds, however, are used for construction of transit facilities. Most funding for major transit project construction goes through the Capital Investment Grants/New Starts program. In recent years, this program has been funded from the general fund and requires an annual appropriation. For FY 2019, the administration’s budget recommends cutting new money for this program to $1 billion, down from $2.4 billion in FY 2018, and using the funds only to continue construction activity on ongoing transit projects. There would be no federal funding for new transit projects. Longer-term, the budget projects funding for Capital Investment Grants to remain at the $1 billion level through FY 2028.
Highway Trust Fund
A $70 billion infusion of general funds into the Highway Trust Fund under the 2015 FAST Act will, according to the FY 2019 budget, keep the trust fund solvent through FY 2021. After that, however, the trust fund will not be able to maintain existing funding for highway and transit improvements without new revenues, either in the form of another general fund transfer or an increase in highway user fee revenues.
Unfortunately, this critical issue is not addressed in either the FY 2019 budget or the Administration’s Rebuilding Infrastructure in American plan. According to the FY 2019 budget, the federal motor fuel and truck taxes will generate no more than $42 to $44 billion per year in revenues into the Highway Trust Fund for the foreseeable future. At the same time, annual outlays of $55 to $58 billion per year from the trust fund would be required just to maintain existing levels of investment in the federal highway, transit and highway safety programs. As a result, the balance in the highway trust fund would be depleted by the end of FY 2021.
The administration’s response to this bleak Highway Trust Fund forecast is two-fold:
After FY 2021, limit outlays for the federal highway, transit and transit safety programs to Highway Trust Fund revenues. As the table shows, this means cutting outlays by about $13 billion.
Shift responsibility for investing in transportation infrastructure to state and local governments, as well as the private sector.
The Trump administration once again is advocating for the privatization of the nation’s air traffic control system. House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) passed legislation out of his committee in 2017, but it did not advance beyond that stage and has generated substantial opposition from Republicans in the House and Senate. Under the administration’s approach, the aviation passenger ticket taxes would be reduced and the new entity would impose new user fees to support the system.The budget proposes continuing Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding at $3.35 billion—the level at which it has been since FY 2012. The AIP is the federal capital construction program that airports use to build and maintain runways, taxiways and other critical infrastructure.
Other Transportation Programs
The Trump administration FY 2019 budget also calls for:
No funding for the National Infrastructure Investments program, or TIGER Program, which was initiated by the Obama administration and provides grants from the federal general fund for a variety of transportation projects—highway-related activities are the historically largest recipient of the program. Congress provided $500 million in FY 2017.
A $962 million cut in Amtrak funding over FAST Act authorized FY 2019 levels, a 57 percent reduction, and cuts to several other smaller rail programs.
$1.25 billion, or 21 percent, cut to the Army Corps of Engineers budget from what was enacted in FY 2017. These programs, among other things, support port and water infrastructure activities.
Now that the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan is public, the real work begins in the halls of Congress. The authorizing committees will likely hold hearings on the administration’s plan in the coming weeks and will, hopefully, begin crafting legislative language to move promptly through the House and Senate.
The president’s detractors, including the media, will likely focus on what’s missing from the plan. Some of that criticism is justified, given the absence of a HTF user fee solution. However, ARTBA will continue pressuring Congress and leadership on both sides of the aisle, in particular, to move an infrastructure package forward that includes a HTF revenue solution as its foundation.
President Trump’s plan is like the starter’s gun at an Olympic speed skating race. In order for a package to be completed before Congress begins to focus full time on the November midterm election, we need to work hard to make sure this package moves at a record-breaking pace.
I’ve been writing this Public Works Financing column for more than two decades. During this time, I’ve researched and written dozens of policy studies on transportation infrastructure, advised federal and state transportation agencies, and served on various transportation committees and commissions. From all of this I’ve concluded that the way we fund and manage the U.S. highway system is broken and needs serious rethinking if it’s going to meet the needs of 21st century America.
The problems are legion, beginning with the huge direct cost of traffic congestion in America’s 200 or so urban areas—a whopping $160 billion per year just in wasted time and fuel. And while our highways and bridges are not “crumbling,” there are chronic problems of deferred maintenance, leading to many rough roads and a surprisingly large number of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges.
Our highway funding system based on per-gallon fuel taxes is breaking down for several reasons. A growing share of the proceeds is no longer spent on highways, so people have come to view gas taxes as just another tax, which politicians are therefore leery of increasing. Yet as cars continue to get more efficient—using fewer gallons to go a given distance—revenues from per-gallon fuel taxes can’t keep pace with either the growth in driving or the cost of building and maintaining highways.
Moreover, with decisions on how to spend transportation revenues being largely political, at both state and federal levels, the billions raised and spent each year are often not spent on projects that would produce the most bang for the buck. Most federal highway and transit money is doled out by formula, and although members of Congress are no longer allowed to “earmark” pet projects, the overall process is based far more on politics than on sound economic principles (such as ensuring that benefits of a project exceed its costs).
I now think that a far better model would be to reconceive highways as another category of network utility, in addition to the familiar examples of electricity, water supply, telecommunications, and natural gas. Most network utilities are not run by government agencies, with key decisions made by legislators. Instead, the providers are organized as companies that sell services to customers, under government oversight. That’s true regardless of whether those companies are owned by investors or are government enterprises (like municipal electric and water utilities).
If highways were provided by highway utility companies—investor-owned concession companies, government toll agencies, or nonprofit user co-ops—a great many things would be different. For example:
People would pay for highways based on how much they use them, just as we pay for water by the gallon and electricity by the kilowatt hour.
People would be just as familiar with what highways cost, based on their monthly bill, as they are with the cost of cable television, cell phones, electricity, etc.
Per-mile highway charges would be subject to some form of regulatory oversight, based on the extent to which the highways and bridges in question had competitors or were essentially monopolies.
Large-scale highway investments—for new highways and for replacing worn-out ones—would be financed via the capital markets, just as individuals do in buying a home and as other utilities do in building new facilities, rather than being paid for piecemeal out of annual appropriations.
Major highway investments would be primarily business decisions, not political decisions, subject of course to the same kinds of land-use and environmental constraints faced by all other commercial developments.
Highway operations would be managed in real time, to provide customers with the quality of services they were willing to pay for.
Highway companies would have strong incentives to keep their facilities in excellent condition, to attract and keep customers.
That may sound like a utopian vision, but there are reasons to think we are at a point where dramatic change will be necessary. The federal government is on a path toward insolvency, where nearly all federal revenues will be consumed by entitlements, defense, and paying the interest owed on the national debt. There will be no “general revenue” left over to bail out a Highway Trust Fund.
Most state governments are saddled with huge unfunded pension and health care obligations to retired public employees, so they are not in a position to take up the slack from a reduced federal role in transportation. And per-gallon fuel taxes will have to be replaced by a propulsion-neutral funding source—some form of per-mile charging.
These conditions set the stage for the transformation to a new highway system, supported by three other key developments. One is the growing worldwide success of revenue-financed public-private partnership (P3) concession projects for highways and other transport infrastructure. Compared with Australia, Chile, France, and Spain, the United States has hardly scratched the surface of what is possible.
Second is the emergence of global infrastructure investment funds, which have amassed over $350 billion of equity to invest in revenue-producing infrastructure in the past five years. Most of this is being invested in European, Asia-Pacific, and Latin American infrastructure—but these funds clearly desire to invest far more in the United States, if only there were a “pipeline of projects.” America’s aging, hyper-congested highway system could offer an ample pipeline.
A third development is the increasingly recognized need for public pension funds to diversify their portfolios by investing more in revenue-producing infrastructure. That’s hard to do in U.S. transportation, because nearly all airports, highways, and seaports are owned and operated by governments. But P3 concessions open such infrastructure to serious investment by non-profit pension funds as well as for-profit investment funds.
The transformation of U.S. highways from state-owned enterprises to highway utility companies could not happen overnight. But in my forthcoming book, Rethinking America’s Highways: A 21st Century Vision for Better Infrastructure (University of Chicago Press, June 2018), I lay out scenarios showing how a several-decades transition could occur. The book shows that investor-owned toll roads have a long European and U.S. history that was overlooked once motor vehicles arrived on the scene. The concept was rediscovered in post-World War II Europe, and it spread to Australia, China, and Latin America late in the 20th century. It is only in the last 15 years that P3 highway infrastructure has gained a toe-hold in the USA.
The preview of the White House infrastructure plan (leaked on January 22nd) offers some steps toward beginning this transition. It recognizes the need to reduce the direct funding role of the federal government for infrastructure owned and operated by state and local governments. It provides for expanded P3 financing tools (Private Activity Bonds, Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act programs, etc.) as well as repealing the federal ban on toll-financed Interstate reconstruction and modernization. And by not embracing a federal fuel tax increase, it de-facto encourages the needed shift from per-gallon gas tax to per-mile charging, led (as it should be) by the states that own the highway infrastructure.
A version of this column first appeared in Public Works Financing.
Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.