A turtle is at the bottom of a ten-foot well. Every day he climbs two feet up the side, only to slide back down one foot. How long will it take him to get out of the well?
It’s a math problem we all saw in elementary school, and it came to mind again this week as the U.S. Department of Transportation officially submitted the Obama administration’s proposed transportation bill to Congress.
While some new initiatives in the GROW AMERICA Act should give transportation advocates hope, it also refuses to confront the most pressing problem with current federal policy: funding. And this refusal to acknowledge that more systemic problem is making the climb out of our infrastructure crisis that much harder.
What Goes Up…
First, the good news: in its current form, GROW AMERICA proposes spending $478 billion over the next six years to upgrade the country’s transportation infrastructure.
To be sure, the bill isn’t likely to pass the Republican-led Congress, even though it is designed to please as many elected officials as possible through spending increases that promise many a ribbon cutting.
Regardless, the proposed act serves as a guiding document, giving us a preview of the transportation policy that the Obama administration would ideally like to see implemented down the road. And, all things considered, it’s a pretty good vision. Here are some of the highlights:
- A Rapid Growth Area Transit Program that devotes $3.4 billion to competitive grants for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects in the country’s fastest-growing cities. This initiative would help address the accessibility problems created by the suburbanization of metro-area job markets, as documented in a recent Brookings report. What’s more, it serves as an unspoken admission that the Department of Transportation has not done enough in recent years to encourage investment in BRT, which is a more cost-effective form of transit than alternatives such as streetcars.
- A new $6 billion FAST Grant Program, which aims to better prioritize the way federal transportation dollars are spent. The FAST Grants represent a desire to move away from the tradition of spending formulas that guarantee each state receives a relatively equal amount of money, with no larger national objective in mind—a practice that a 2012 Center for American Progress report roundly criticized.The FAST Grants would not replace those formulas, but they would create new competitive awards for infrastructure projects that serve desired “national transportation outcomes.” Notably, a key criterion for the grants would be “improvements to regional governance,” which would represent the most active role Washington has taken to date in combating political Balkanization and its detrimental effect on the ability to craft sound regional transportation policy.
- A Connection to Opportunity Pilot Program, which will enable planning organizations in some of the country’s largest urban areas to “increase connections for disadvantaged Americans and neighborhoods with limited transportation options.” In light of the recent outpouring of support for James Robertson, the Detroit man who walks 21 miles every day commuting to his factory job, the need for such a program is beyond doubt.
…Must Come Down
Despite these forward-thinking measures, however, GROW AMERICA doesn’t address a more fundamental problem with federal transportation policy: the funding crisis.
The gas tax, which provides money for most transportation spending via the Highway Trust Fund, has remained stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. Adjusted for inflation, the tax collected on one gallon of gasoline is worth 38 percent less today than it was then. And when the increased fuel efficiency of the U.S. vehicle fleet is factored in, the amount of tax collected on a new car traveling 100 miles has declined 51 percent. As a result, Congress has needed to step in and save the Highway Trust Fund via cash infusions five times over the past seven years.
The simplest way to solve this problem would be to raise the gas tax—which is insanely low compared to other developed countries—even a modest amount.
Instead, the Obama administration’s plan relies on short-term gimmicks. It would, for instance, lift the current rule that bans tolls on most interstate highways. But even if toll booths sprung up overnight, this money would belong to states or local tolling authorities, and therefore may do little to advance a national transportation agenda.
At the federal level, meanwhile, the administration proposes a 14 percent tax on overseas corporate profits, which it claims would generate about $270 billion over the six years of the bill.
This plan is problematic for a few reasons. First, the amount of revenue it would generate is not very impressive in the context of the gas tax. To raise the equivalent amount through a gas-tax increase, Congress would only need to raise it by 26.4 cents per gallon—and that figure assumes the amount of gasoline we consume does not increase in the next six years, which it almost certainly will.
Second, the Obama plan actually creates a cliff of sorts, by providing no mechanism to keep funding at comparable levels after the bill expires. Come 2021, officials will be scrambling to fill the gap, and what they’ll find is the (still) untouched gas tax.
This is the slipperiness inherent in the Department of Transportation’s bill. The provisions in the GROW AMERICA Act can go a long way toward creating a more efficient and equitable national transportation policy. But until the funding issue is resolved, our country will be like the turtle in the well. Only this time, no matter how much progress we make, we’ll be doomed to slide right back down to the bottom.