Postcards From Our National Transportation Funding Meltdown

At an event billed as a “town hall” held at USDOT headquarters yesterday, top department officials answered questions about the future of the nation’s road, rail, bus, and bike networks -- even as the prospects of passing a comprehensive transportation reauthorization bill anytime this year appear as dim as ever. Already, reauthorization of the transportation bill is nearly a year overdue, as lawmakers have failed to muster the will to pay for it.

cardin.jpgMaryland Senator Ben Cardin addresses the crowd yesterday. Photo: Adam Voiland
A plenary session that focused on the Mid-Atlantic region prior to the town hall provided a few glimpses of how the continued legislative deadlock is plaguing local agencies and preventing the evolution of transportation planning beyond the car-based status quo.

The head of the District Department of Transportation, Gabe Klein, called the current moment one of the scariest times in transportation history. He warned that lawmakers have difficult and uncomfortable decisions ahead about how to pay for the reauthorization bill.

Klein emphasized the need for diversified sources of funding for transportation investment, despite the political challenges. He noted, for example, that local jurisdictions, like DC, should have the latitude to explore congestion pricing as a way to raise revenue.

During the same panel, Richard Sarles, the interim general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) explained that his agency is spending much of its funding on efforts to improve the safety of its system after a catastrophic Metro collision last summer. With little clarity about what the future holds, Sarles warned that there simply aren’t funds available to address large expected increases in ridership on city transit systems in the coming years.

Reform-minded lawmakers, most notably House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Jim Oberstar (D-MN), have made it an urgent priority to reauthorize the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU, or, more commonly, the transportation bill). But with revenues from the stagnant gas tax flagging, lawmakers can’t agree on how to raise the funds needed for the bill, and they’ve postponed dealing with the problem by passing a series of emergency extensions.

The frustration was evident among attendees at yesterday's conference. "There’s no innovation right now," said Faramarz Mokhtari, a planner at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "The status quo is continuing."