A SMALL STEP FORWARD

On January 12, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx outlined plans for the issuance of a 30 – year blueprint for the overhaul of the country’s transportation systems. The object of the study will be to develop a comprehensive national transportation system, rather than the collection of individual systems based primarily on the wants and needs of the various states. The Department of Transportation will draw on work already done by the University of Virginia and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). In a 2012 report, the ASCE projected that an infusion of $3.6 trillion by 2020 will be necessary to meet infrastructure needs. The chances of that happening are slim to none, but the country desperately needs a well-conceived and researched plan.

To most of us a description of infrastructure problems is a blinding glimpse of the obvious. Hundreds of articles have been written about the state of the infrastructure and the continuing, clumsy efforts of Congress to develop a sound, practical funding system. What we have read very little about is a national blueprint for the projects. Without this, there will be no guarantee that the funds, when and if available, will be spent in the best interests of the country as a whole. In the Transportation Act of 1940, Congress legislated that all regulation was “to recognize and preserve the inherent advantages of each (mode). The law went on to say “…..all to the end of developing, coordinating, and preserving a national transportation system by water, highway, and rail, as well as by other means, adequate to meet the needs of the commerce of the United States, of the Postal Service, and of the national defense.”

Although economic regulation is, for the most part, a thing of the past, this obligation is not; but it was not until 1956 that Congress under the Eisenhower administration planned and developed a comprehensive interstate highway system. First of all routes were designated, then legislation was passed to authorize the building and provide a funding mechanism that aided the states in meeting their construction obligations under the plan. It took 35 years and $500 billion, but it is difficult for many of us to imagine what some of us remember – the U.S. without an interstate system. That was over 50 years ago however, and although the obligation was elaborated on in 1991 and 1998 legislation, little has been done since then.

A number of states, because of Congress’ failure to provide funding, have increased state fuel taxes and are using the funds for highway and bridge construction and repair. Although this no doubt, will help the states, these projects may or may not facilitate a national system.  The state of Tennessee just spent a whopping $753 million on a Nashville by-pass. So far its highest and best use seems to be easing traffic flow between Memphis and Knoxville on University of Tennessee football game days.

Secretary Foxx has his work cut out for him. During the next 30 years we could have delivery drones, driverless automobiles, and as yet unidentified transportation conveyances, and he has called this report a “conversation about the future, rather than a conclusive definition of a path forward.” While this is a little disappointing, it is a start; and hopefully, will lead to a constructive plan.

Written By: Clifford F. Lynch