Perhaps nothing that happens in the Barack Obama presidency will be more important to the American transportation system than creating a vision for the future.
That opportunity comes this fall, when President Obama and Congress can reinvent how the U.S. transportation system is planned, prioritized and funded with the reauthorization of federal transportation funding.
The plan must be visionary and bold, and it must answer three basic questions:
• What is the federal government's role?
• How do we prioritize a long-term plan?
• How do we pay for it?
Already, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates the annual cost of simply maintaining our current highway system is 12 percent more than the government is actually spending. The current administration cannot afford to limit its role in transportation policy but, instead, must prioritize interstate commerce and national security.
It must develop a long-term vision, with multimodal infrastructure investments that go beyond the highway system and stretch our imaginations: an increased load of freight rail to minimize highway congestion, a national system of Critical Commerce Corridors as proposed by ARTBA that moves truck freight safely while separating it from passenger traffic, eco-friendly transit lines that ease congestion.
It's time to get creative, to reinvent our transportation system and adopt groundbreaking concepts that are part of a strategic approach framed at the federal level. Recent stimulus funding should not be confused, or substituted, for reauthorization and long-term solutions.
Discussions about funding mechanisms must be inventive--and plentiful. Potential sources could include the following:
Increase the gas tax and tie it to inflation. Create state infrastructure banks. Replace or supplement the gas tax with user fees, which would be tied to vehicle miles traveled, and tolls. Allow public-private partnerships where they make sense.
The possibilities are limited only by the imagination. The challenge is here, the time is now.
To let your elected officials know your opinion on this or other issues, contact them at www.house.gov or www.senate.gov.
Paul Yarossi is president of HNTB Holdings Ltd and co-chairs the SAFETEA-LU Reauthorization Task Force on behalf of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) in Washington, D.C.