The Transportation Investment Conundrum

Finding a solution to transportation funding may require first asking what Americans want from their transportation system and how they are willing to pay for it.Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer is preparing to push a legislation to raise the federal gas tax by 15 cents per gallon and lay the groundwork for a transition to what he terms a more stable source of funding for U.S. transportation infrastructure.

In the current congressional climate, it doesn't seem as if Blumenauer's "Update, Promote and Develop America's Transportation Essentials Act" has much of a chance to see the light of day, let alone pass a sharply divided Congress.

Blumenauer spent time in Oregon during the congressional break to tout the legislation. He says added gas tax revenue will help catch up on lagging transportation investment and relieve pressure on the federal general fund, which has been tapped to supplement the Federal Highway Trust Fund that is running on empty.

Congress grabbed $50 billion from the federal general fund to sustain projects underway as part of the federal transportation bill that expires at the end of 2014.

As vehicles have become more fuel efficient — and some have stopped using gas or diesel altogether — federal and state highway trust funds have felt the squeeze of declining revenues relative to road miles they must maintain, upgrade or expand. 

With the national and many regional economies still shaky amid an uncertain recovery, politicians aren't eager to see major highway and bridge projects shut down, especially right before an election. But Congress hasn't shown much appetite to turn transportation into a major economic development and job creation opportunity. 

Bumping up the gas tax, and adjusting it automatically for inflation, may have its own political pitfalls, but they probably pale in comparison to the deep ruts that must be navigated to switch to a new revenue source, such as one based on vehicle miles traveled, congestion pricing or some combination. These ideas affect urban and rural areas quite differently, which could amplify political divisions that can follow the same geographical divide.

Oregon has and is continuing to experiment with gas tax alternatives, but is discovering the road to something new is filled with potholes.

Funding for roads and bridges is only part of the challenge. There is a desire for more and better public transportation options that cuts across ideological and geographical lines. While needs can differ in urban and rural areas, they have common themes of access, reliability and safety. An intriguing emerging trend is that many young adults prefer to use public transportation or ride-sharing options rather than own a car.

Like so many complex problems, there isn't always a lot of structure to the public debate. Transportation is always among the list of priority voter issues, but it seldom is number one or two.  It gets treated in political debate pretty much like the football team that almost made the playoffs. 

The discussion of how to fund transportation investments usually is the center of debate, rather than a robust dialogue over what voters want and are willing to pay for. That robust dialogue is undermined by a wide, but inaccurate perception that federal and state authorities are cashing in on the sharply higher prices for gas at the pump. 

To get anywhere on transportation may require an edu-marketing campaign that explains where the money for projects comes from and what it buys and asks what people would like to buy and how.