by Edward Wytkind, president, AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department
With too many Americans out of work and a transportation infrastructure that is crumbling beneath us we can’t wait until 2011 for a new federal surface transportation bill.
Transit systems nationwide are hemorrhaging. From Boston to St. Louis, Cleveland to Portland, Atlanta to Miami and statewide in California, service and jobs cuts are mounting. Despite record ridership, mass transit systems across America are in crisis. When the cost of gas spiked last summer, ridership soared and high volumes have continued ever since. But the weak economy is causing huge shortfalls in state and local revenues. Transit agencies are facing the budget ax just when their services are in highest demand.
It is no better in transportation construction. Nationwide, the jobless rate is approaching 20 percent, even worse in some states.
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History shows that transportation bills are engines of job creation. The economic recovery bill, which dedicated $48 billion to transportation infrastructure, was a great first step, but it is only a down payment on job creation and the massive investment needs for America’s transportation systems.
Here’s a snapshot of our transportation infrastructure today:
-- The average commuter rail passenger coach is 24 years old. 62 percent are being used beyond their replacement age.
-- 59 percent of transit buses need to be replaced within six years.
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-- More than 20 percent of city roads do not pass the basic test for pavement and ride quality.
-- 26 percent of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient.
Poor roadway conditions are the number one contributing cause of motor vehicle crash severity, which cost our government and the American taxpayer $12 billion annually. If we kick this can down the road any more it’s going to land in a pothole.
The Highway Trust Fund, which supports highways and transit projects across the country, faces an imminent shortfall. The administration has suggested shoring up the trust fund with money from the general treasury so that state transportation projects don’t come to a grinding halt.
Also due for an update this year—and set to expire in September—is the multiyear surface transportation bill. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) has proposed a comprehensive, $500 billion bill that invests in and reforms how we invest in America’s transportation infrastructure.
Some are trying to use the crisis in the Highway Trust Fund as the reason to delay a multiyear surface transportation bill. The fact is we must do both.
We must patch the Highway Trust Fund before the August recess. And we must complete the authorization bill during this Congress—the nation cannot wait for action on either of these priorities.
We know that these are serious times, with several critical issues demanding leadership. Wednesday night we heard the president make the case for health care reform. Achieving energy independence is a critical issue and, of course, the deep recession weighs on the minds of America’s workers. These are issues our members care about, understand and face every day. But the transportation investment gap is also a critical issue—if we don’t make a significant commitment to transportation now, we will cause irreparable harm to our economy for years to come.
We’re never going to live in a Washington that doesn’t have a full plate. If we don’t act now, then when is it a good time to address our dire transportation needs? We must pay for America’s massive transportation infrastructure needs with dollars, not fairy dust or more hyperbole about the need to invest in America.
There are two choices: raise revenues or fail to meet this country’s real surface transportation needs. If we fail, we also miss the opportunity to put people back to work while the economy continues to bleed jobs.
There are a variety of funding mechanisms that were discussed last week in a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on the challenge of funding our transportation needs.
A new Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee would be a user fee for those who utilize the roads. Some believe it could replace the gas tax as the primary funding source for the Highway Trust Fund. By most accounts, a VMT would take years to implement. We have concerns about ensuring privacy for drivers. But clearly the VMT discussion is moving forward and we look forward to that debate.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has proposed taxing oil securities. This is an exciting proposal worthy of serious consideration. It does two things: it goes after unsavory oil speculation and goes a long way to fill the gap in our ailing surface transportation investment program.
We support an increase in the gas user fee and believe it should be indexed for inflation. During the 16 years in which this tax hasn’t been increased, the costs of construction, freight shipments and passenger traffic have skyrocketed. It will be difficult—if not impossible—to pass a serious authorization bill unless the fuel user fee is increased.
I can only hope that as this debate over a user fee increase unfolds, that it does not degenerate into political gamesmanship. This decision should be made based on our national interests, not short-term political calculations.
The surface transportation bill offers an important opportunity to create economic growth in the near-term and break the cycle of underinvestment in America’s transportation network. This is our opportunity, quite literally, to build bridges to a better economic future.
Make no mistake—the costs of delaying a robust surface transportation bill are higher than the costs of passing it.