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Our nation’s transportation infrastructure is the backbone of a strong U.S. economy. But with a trillion-dollar backlog, America is simply not spending enough to keep its infrastructure in good repair. Investing in transportation is about more than filling potholes and paving roads; investment creates jobs and stimulates economic activity. Across the political spectrum, from the Simpson-Bowles Commission to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the AFL-CIO, there is broad, bipartisan consensus to invest more in transportation.
In spite of this consensus, Congress appears on the verge of passing yet another short term bill that retains the status quo and is funded by financial gimmickry. It begs the question: Why?
Putting aside the usual cynicism about our politics today, what exists is a debate about how best to fund our transportation needs: revenue (generally favored by Democrats) or reform (generally favored by Republicans)? Cut red tape or raise the federal gas tax? Loosen environmental permitting or implement a vehicle-miles-traveled tax? The answer isn’t reform or revenue, it’s reform and revenue.
We’ve got experience with this approach in Massachusetts. Thanks to Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature, Massachusetts enacted comprehensive transportation reform in the wake of a crisis like the one America is facing today. We merged six agencies into one, eliminated outsized pension perks, adopted nationally recognized accelerated constructions programs, implemented technology enhancements that also cut our costs, and embraced transparency and public accountability.
We also learned that reform alone was not enough to stabilize the system we had, never mind the system our citizens demanded. They want trains that support flexible work hours; safe bridges and free flowing traffic; bike paths and dedicated bus lanes that are more environmentally sound. As a result, a transportation finance package was enacted last year that raised our gas tax and increased tolls, fares and fees on a transparent and predictable schedule. Our transportation finances are shored up and we are making investments in projects support job growth and economic development.
Given Massachusetts’ success, Washington should adopt the reform and revenue approach. In that spirit, here are four common-sense suggestions that can help states raise revenues, improve project delivery and reduce construction costs.
• Expand “Every Day Counts”: Kudos to the Federal Highway Administration for creating the Every Day Counts initiative, designed to encourage state use of innovative methods, materials and construction techniques that shorten project delivery, reduce costs, improve safety and protect the environment. States are now delivering highway projects faster, cheaper and with little impact to the commuter. This initiative should be scaled across the entire Department of Transportation, including the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Transit Administration and Federal Railroad Administration.
• Accelerate federal project review: Project permitting and approval by federal agencies can take years, driving up construction costs, deferring job creation and frustrating the average commuter. In October 2011, President Barack Obama selected 14 infrastructure projects for expedited permitting and environmental review, including the Whittier Bridge project in Massachusetts. We saw firsthand how a sense of urgency can motivate federal regulators and overseers to move projects forward and put more Americans to work. Make this urgency the rule, not the exception.