The State of U.S. Transport

17 Sep

Transportation policy has gotten short shift on the national stage during this election cycle. For all the talk about the economy and jobs, it doesn’t seem like anyone is promoting sound national transportation policy as a means to help bolster the nation’s economy.

Now, that isn’t to say that the current Administration hasn’t made a concerted effort to make infrastructure investment (including transportation improvements) a cornerstone of its economic recovery efforts. Indeed, the President has continually reminded us that the U.S. needs to invest in its infrastructure to keep pace in the global economy.

However, if you take a look at both national party platforms and what they have to say about their stance on transportation policy, you’ll probably be underwhelmed – or confused.

The Democrats included some pretty ho-hum language in their platform, noting that they “support long-term investments in our infrastructure.” The Republican platform concedes “that we all need clean water and safe roads, rail, bridges, ports, and airports.” This would’ve been unremarkable had it not been followed by an accusation that the current Administration’s support of public transportation and integrated land use policies amounts to “urbanist social engineering.”

In any case, U.S. transportation policy continues to evolve. Whether it comes together in a coherent manner, is yet to be seen.

Recently, the Obama Administration’s announcement of new fuel efficiency standards has been making headlines. While this is a definite win for the environment, the new rules underscore the need for our national leaders to come up with a new model for financing transportation infrastructure in the U.S.

Let’s start with the basics. The new fuel efficiency standards will require the average gas mileage for each automaker’s passenger vehicle fleet to equal 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. For 2012, new vehicle fleets are averaging 28.9 mpg, which exceeds the regulatory requirement of 28.7 mpg.

The higher efficiency standards are likely to help decrease carbon emissions and reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels. People will be paying less money at the pump — accelerating a years-long trend. That’s great news for your wallet, but bad news for our transportation network.

That’s because consumers pay an 18.4-cent federal gas tax for every gallon of gas they purchase. That tax generates $100 million per day in revenue that is deposited into the Highway Trust Fund that is intended to finance highway and mass transit projects. However, a combination of higher fuel efficiency, shifting settlement patterns, and the political unpopularity of raising the federal gas tax have left the Highway Trust woefully underfunded. The Congressional Budget Office predicts it’ll go broke by 2014.

It’s apparent that we need to find a new way to finance the nation’s transportation projects. During the latest transportation bill reauthorization fiasco, House Republicans floated the idea of tying transportation revenues to royalties from expanded oil and gas exploration. The White House suggested filling the gap with revenues from reduced defense funding. What we got was a bill that maintains current funding for transportation projects, but ignores the reality that the Highway Trust Fund cannot keep pace with our transportation needs.

Meanwhile, local and state governments have adopted a patchwork of user fees, local taxes, and differing degrees of privatization to help fund transportation projects. As project costs continue to rise (especially for mass transit projects), we need to come up with new models of financing changes to our transportation network at the federal level.

Research suggests that stagnating (or declining) transportation spending at the federal level would have a deleterious effect on the economy by hampering “interstate commerce and metropolitan transport.” The Congressional Budget Office notes that “if future government spending on surface transportation infrastructure matched recent amounts, the condition of the highway and transit systems would probably deteriorate.” Having a modern transportation network is clearly in the nation’s best interests, and our public policies should reflect it.

2 Responses to “The State of U.S. Transport”


  1. Los Angeles: Measure J – Accelerate Traffic Relief and Job Creation « The ELP Blog - October 19, 2012

    […] IT MEANS: Measure J is a predictable outcome based on the fractured state of transportation infrastructure finance in the U.S. Voters expressed […]

  2. Living Up to the Potential of Clean Transportation | The ELP Blog - April 18, 2013

    […] funding to build, rehabilitate, and reimagine our aging transportation network. As we noted back in September, the lack of federal dollars has led to a patchwork of local initiatives (financed primarily […]

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