Wrangling over transportation funding may harm economy's recovery, experts at forum warn

Posted: February 03, 2012

With Washington deadlocked over funding for the nation's highways and transit systems, several transportation experts warned Thursday at a forum in Philadelphia that continued wrangling could jeopardize the nation's recovering economy.

"Even a catastrophe doesn't seem to bring it home," said Peter J. "Jack" Basso, chief operating officer of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. He cited the 2007 collapse of an interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis, which he said brought only momentary attention to the state of America's transportation system.

Noting that partisan debates in Washington have blocked a long-term national transportation policy since 2009, Basso said, "The process is sinking the ship."

Basso was one of four transportation panelists at the National Constitution Center.

New Jersey Transportation Commissioner James Simpson said more transportation decisions should be made by states, with fewer federal restrictions on how money is spent. He defended Gov. Christie's controversial decision to cancel a multibillion-dollar rail-tunnel project between North Jersey and New York City as too expensive.

Joshua Schank, president of the Washington-based Eno Transportation Foundation, said "money makes all the difference in the world" and suggested the United States should rely less on the gasoline tax for its transportation funding.

Martin Wachs, a senior principal researcher at the RAND Corp. in California, lamented that despite the vitriol in Washington, "the public doesn't seem to understand what is going on."

The panel met as a House transportation committee was putting the final touches on a $260 billion, five-year transportation-funding bill that drew fire from both ends of the political spectrum.

Democrats complained that the Republican-controlled committee was shortchanging mass transit in favor of highways and gutting programs to protect the environment.

And the Club for Growth, a free-market, antitax group influential with tea party Republicans, told House members that it opposed the bill because it spends too much money and vowed to include the bill as a key vote in its congressional scorecard.

Also Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee proposed a transportation-financing plan that would eliminate an agreement in place since the Reagan administration that divides gas-tax revenues between highway and transit programs.

Currently, 2.86 cents of the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax goes to buses, subways, and commuter rail lines. Eliminating that dedicated source of funds and replacing it with a one-time transfer of funds, as the GOP plan proposes, would leave transit programs vulnerable in future budget fights as Congress looks to reduce overall spending.

Basso said that transportation funding used to be relatively nonideological, and that the current fight has created "the most tension I've ever seen" in his 48 years in the industry.

The panel was cosponsored by the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government as the first in a series of public-issue discussions in honor of the institute's 75th anniversary.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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