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It's hard to claim that America's transportation system is in great shape. The American Society of Civil Engineers says the United States has a $3 trillion backlog on transportation projects and it costs drivers in traffic jam time, wear on cars and damage to the environment.
But how are we going to pay to improve it?
Emil Frankel, visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, joined Kerri Miller on The Daily Circuit Wednesday.
"We have an aging, congested, deteriorated system," he said.
But one thing politicians can't seem to agree on: How to pay for upgrades.
Richard Geddes, associate professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University, also joined The Daily Circuit discussion.
"We have not always underfunded road repair in the country," Geddes said.
Taxes on gasoline have always been a strong source of funding for transportation infrastructure projects as long as there were more drivers using more gasoline, thus paying more taxes. That isn't the case anymore, Geddes said.
"The main [reason] in my view is the increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles, which means that people can drive more vehicle miles, but don't pay proportionately more in fuel taxes," he said.
So should we increase the gas tax? Geddes said it's a "political bomb to go out and advocate for an increase from the federal gas tax."
"At least part of the reason for that is people's lack of faith that the revenue from an increase from a gas tax would be spent wisely by Congress," he said.
Geddes referred to the 2005 highway bill, which included 6,371 earmarks and the notorious "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.
Steve in St. Paul called into the show in support of paying more for his road usage.
"I'm actually a general contractor here in the Twin Cities, so I use the roads fairly regularly, much more than probably some people," he said. "Unfortunately I'm not able to create any commuting or sharing of vehicles because of the type of job that I do, but I'd be more than willing to pay for the cost of what I use."
Linda in Bemidji also called into the show and expressed concern about the extra cost to people in rural communities.
"An increase in the gas tax is kind of a disproportionate hit to rural people especially in little communities such as ours where we have very little investment in transportation," she said. "I think you drive further and you don't have the option of having a bus or any other type of public options there."
On Facebook, Marty Walsh suggested a better toll system.
"Highways inside cities should be flexible toll toll roads," Walsh wrote. "They serve no purpose other than to get people where they are going as fast as possible, and so having a price to make that happen is the best way to do it."
ASKED AND ANSWERED
Kerri Miller: It's kind of ironic isn't it though? We're getting more efficient and that means that it's having an effect on the roads and bridges that we are traveling on.
Richard Geddes: Right. That's right, Kerri. You used the term ironic. Mary Peters, the former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, used the term 'a policy at war with itself' because at one level we are encouraging people to drive more efficient cars I believe for very sound reasons, but on the other hand we rely on fossil fuel consumption in order to fund the infrastructure that those folks are driving on. So there really is very deep and profound tension between those two policies.
People are willing to pay more for transportation infrastructure if they know their money is actually going to fixing the roads they use.
Video: What Would Frankel Tell Congress About Transportation?
Kerri Miller (host): Now in-depth on bad commutes that the sounds of Americas roads cracking under the pressure of too much traffic and too little repair. The American society of Civil Engineers says we've got a three trillion, yes that's trillion dollars back log on transportation projects and it costs all of us in traffic jam time, wear and tear on our cars, damage to the environment, and don't forget about the highway trust fund that could soon hit E. So what are we doing about it? That's our in-depth segment today and I hope you'll join in. Would you be willing to pay higher gas taxes, higher tolls or a special fee for the miles you drive if it would pay for better roads and more transit? Or do you have a better idea for our roads and bridges? So I want to hear from you, are you willing to pay more to have a better commute? How much are you willing to pay? Maybe you have a better idea on how to improve our roads and bridges. Our guest Emil Frankel is a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and he is joining us this morning from Washington. Mr. Frankel thank you for the time today.
Emil Frankel (guest): Good morning.
Miller: Richard Geddes is with us, he is an associate professor at Cornell and the author of "The Road to Renewal", and he is with us from Ithaca, New York and Richard Geddes thank you very much for being with us.
Richard Geddes (guest): Thank you for inviting me.
Miller: I thought I would come to you for some quick background here. Have we always underfunded road repair in the country or has something happened in the last decade or more that makes what's happening now unique?
Geddes: Was that directed to me Kerri or?
Miller: Yes, Yes please Richard Geddes.
Geddes: Well yes, I believe the answer is essentially no we have not always underfunded road repair in the country. In fact since the interstates were constructed or at least since construction began in the late 50's there was fairly good source of revenue for construction and maintenance of interstates provided by possible fuel based taxation. Basically cents per gallon per tax as long as people were driving more over time that as vehicle miles driven per year was rising since it has essentially has done pretty much continuously since that time when there was a lot of revenue for the expansion and maintenance of our roads, bridges, and tunnels.
Miller: But now that revenue is diminishing.
Geddes: It is and there are a couple of factors that are driving that change I think. As the main one in my view is the increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles which means that people can drive more vehicle miles but don't pay proportionately more in fuel taxes.
Miller: It's kind of ironic isn't it though? We're getting more efficient and that means that it's having an effect on the roads and bridges that we are traveling on.
Geddes: Right. That's right Kerri. You used the term ironic. Mary Peters the former U.S. Secretary of Transportation used the term a policy at war with itself because at one level we are encouraging people to drive more efficient cars I believe for very sound reasons, but on the other hand we rely on fossil fuel consumption in order to fund the infrastructure that those folks are driving on. So there really is very deep and profound tension between those two policies.
Miller: And Emil Frankel, how serious is the deterioration? I mean, how urgent is this?
Frankel: Kerri if I can on a personal note I want to say Hello to Rick Geddes and Mr. Geddes among other things was very important member of commission established authorized by congress and legislation in 2005 that looked at policy and revenue and the need for reform of national transportation policy and he was really one of the most important and insightful members of that commission which as shared by Secretary Peters.
Miller: I'm glad you're here together than.
Geddes: Thank you.
Miller: My question was how serious is the deterioration?
Frankel: Well, until your introduction I thought that the American Society of Civil Engineers the last figure I heard was 2.22 trillion dollars.
Miller: Up to three now.
Frankel: It's going up all of the time. The deterioration that applies to infrastructure including but not limited to transportation. I mean we have an aging congested, deteriorated system. Not only the interstate system when you think about it some parts of it go back fifty to sixty years, forty to fifty years is reaching the end of its lifetime and with a lot of bridges and I hardly have to say this to the people in Minneapolis who experience tragically the loss of the bridge on from Connecticut in 1983 the bridge went down on interstate 95 in southwestern Connecticut. So our two states have experienced this and it's also true of transit systems. Minneapolis and soon St Paul will have a newer system if you will, but if you talk about the older cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago certainly, and even newer systems like Washington there have been really serious deterioration enough to raise some safety concerns as well as operation.
Miller: Is it right to say Mr. Frankel that you believe that we're in this spot because we simply don't really think about transportation needs until they have reached a crisis level?
Frankel: Well I headed a transportation agency in Connecticut and I was fond of saying to my colleagues that we were a little like official in a sports event, an umpire or referee that if nobody talks about us we must be doing our job and on the flip side to that is that the media generally, hopefully this is an exception to that, the media and generally the public don't pay attention to the transportation system or indeed to most network services until there is system failure. It has been very difficult as Professor Geddes points out that to get people to invest we haven't had an increase in the federal gasoline tax since 1993 so that is almost twenty years and while we need to be moving to a different from, a more sustainable form of support right now the gas tax is pretty much it and it hasn't gone up. There continues to be very strong resistance to it and I know it's very contentious in Minnesota about increasing the gasoline tax.
Frankel: Even after the bridge went down.
Miller: It happened, but you're right, over the governor's veto.
Frankel: Right. So it's an issue that people don't want to pay attention to, don't really want to pay your investment in, particularly and the national level. But it's also true that the systems haven't been operating as efficiently and productively as they should be. We need to be more selective and establish priorities in the investments that we make. That 2.2 trillion or 2.3 trillion dollars, whatever the backlog is, we cannot obviously bridge that gap. We're going to have to make choices about the key investment and most beneficial and productive investments where Mr. Geddes has written and talked about that a lot.
Miller: Mr. Frankel, I want to get to those choices, but as you know I am interested to hear what our listeners are thinking about that. So this hour we're in depth on transportation policy and I'm asking you as you listen in today whether you'd be willing to pay more through a gas tax increase, through toll roads, through perhaps fees for how much you drive. Would you be willing to pay more if that money, and this is a key, was targeted at improving our roads, bridges, and our transportation infrastructure, and transit by the way? To the phones to Travis in Stewart. Hi Travis what's your view on this?
Travis (caller): Hi, I am actually all for raising gas taxes. I put a lot of miles every year on the road so I see how back they are actually getting especially leaving the suburbs. Some of the downtown roads are necessarily as bad because they are the focus, but when you get onto some of the side roads they're choppy, they are falling apart. It's just bad, but I have no problem paying even up to five, six dollars plus a gallon for gas.
Miller: So the gas tax is how you think this ought to be levied?
Travis: Oh yeah, I think it would force people to seriously get away from the very large, heavy vehicles they are driving and start thinking smarter about what they are actually driving and why versus as status symbol as well.
Miller: Rick Geddes we're going to talk about increasing gas prices a little later this hour, some people are shocked when they pull up to the gas pump. There's somebody that says hey bring it on I want to fund this. How common is that view?
Geddes: Well, in terms of funding through gas taxes, I don't think there is a lot of support for that. In fact the commission that Emil referred to that I served on had a final recommendation of increasing the federal gas tax by thirty cents which would be a large percentage increase over the current 18.4 cents per gallon we pay now and almost prior to the release of that report we found members of congress so of pre-distancing themselves from that key conclusion because it's really a political bomb to go out and advocate for an increase from the federal gas tax. In my sense of the reason, at least part of the reason for that is people's lack of faith that the revenue from an increase from a gas tax would be spent wisely by congress. In the 2005 safety lieu highway bill which was the last highway bill to reauthorize spending out of that revenue, there were 6371 earmarks. I guess the one on the end was the notorious bridge to nowhere in Alaska and of course people hear those numbers and hear these stories and they also understand that everybody pays the gas tax and in some sense it's a regressive tax that I think there is a lot of concern about funding improvements in infrastructure. Our commission came out with some suggestions on ways to try to more effectively spend that money, for efficiently spend that money, but we have found that it's very difficult to do that within a political context.
Miller: On twitter a listener here says "I'd be all for paying more to fix roads and fix local transport." To Steve in Saint Paul. Hi Steve.
Steve (caller): Good morning.
Miller: Hi, what's your view on this?
Steve: Pretty much the same thing as the last caller and the last twitter there. I'm actually a general contractor here in the Twin Cities so I use the roads fairly regularly, much more than probably some people, unfortunately I'm not able to create any commuting or sharing of vehicles because of the type of job that I do, but I'd be more than willing to pay for the cost of what I use. Now whether that's through a fee when you relicense or through an additional tax on the thing. But I also agree with the guest in that the problems that they do have is that we don't trust congress and what they're going to do with the money that we are going to give them even like on the funds that we have for the environmental fund, the legacy fund and where that money is being spent and stuff like that so it's a tough situation but I think most people would agree that if you're going to use it you should pay for it like a user fee.
Miller: Steve I appreciate the call. Emil Frankel just to be clear here the money from the gas tax does go into the highway trust fund that again that is why as vehicles get more efficiency that's why the balance on the trust fund is in trouble and why tax payers have bailed it out several years haven't they?
Frankel: That's true, and as Rick pointed out that gas tax revenues have been more or less flat for a variety reasons that we have touched on but yeah it is true. The appetite for authorized projects and programs has been greater than projected revenues so under the last authorization safety lieu in 2005 by the end of the period congress had to go to the general funds borrowing in the range of three different steps 35 billion dollars to keep the highway trust fund whole. I think this issue, I am struck and impressed by the comments that I've just heard. I think it is right that people don't know and often don't trust that the money will be used, even if it goes into the highway trust fund at the national level for the right kinds of projects and programs. And that is something kind of resorting that trust is really I think a critically important think. I think it's also too that there is a lot of misunderstanding maybe the greatest at the federal level you know when the gas tax was dedicated to the highway trust fund in 1956 and the trust fund was created it was done specifically for the purpose of constructing the interstate highway system and people could look at a map and see lines on a map and many cases of course construction in their own metropolitan regions as the case may be so people had a sense that their gas tax was being used for specific things and at the state and local levels there have been some successes. Both increase in the gasoline tax or getting dedicated sales taxes or other forms of taxes applied to specific projects were people can make that connection some more difficult to do at the federal level. I think also that many people don't know how much they are paying. I haven't seen polls on this, maybe Rick Geddes has, but I think there is a sense that the federal gas tax is a lot higher than it really is or that has been increased steadily. I suspect there are some people that aren't happy about what's happening at the gas pumps right now in terms of increasing prices and some of that might think it's attributable to increasing taxes when of course it goes to the base prices of petroleum.
Miller: But gas taxes are increasing in the state on Minnesota. They are going to increase in the state of Wisconsin. Do you think people confuse that with the federal gas tax?
Frankel: I'm sure that's true that some people I don't know if it's the majority but I think that some people will see taxes going up and assume that it does apply to the federal programs and the federal highway trust fund.
Miller: We are in-depth this hour on transportation policy and we are talking about ideas for how to improve transportation, construction, roads, bridges, public transit, and I'm asking you a question this hour. Would you pay more? Would you pay more in gas taxes? Would you pay more in special fees? How would you pay more if you are willing, or not to improve infrastructure, roads, bridges, public transit? To Laura in Maple plains. Hi Laura.
Laura (caller): Hi thanks for taking my call.
Laura: I'm interested to know if we're talking about the efficiency of the vehicles and how because they are more efficient we are paying less at the pump but what about the construction process of the roadways being built and the efficiency of the construction if its making it last longer or making better roadways through technology?
Miller: Yeah that's a good question. Rick Geddes?
Geddes: Yeah well I think that is actually a terrific question and I think it gets to a very important point that a lot of people may not realize but there have been enormous strides forward in terms of the technology of road construction. One example is placing sensors called Memes Sensors into concrete and other parts of the infrastructure that can read the quality of that infrastructure. They pass a reader over the road and the sensor will convey to the reader a number of different qualities about the concrete such as the Ph level, etc. That allows the government or whoever is operating the road to be more efficient in what sections of the road they replace for example. So there's a lot of improvements, you know it's not just a simple road anymore, there's a lot of engineering improvements that have taken place over the past few years that I believe could be incorporated much better into our infrastructure. But of course to incorporate these new technologies that requires the incentives to do that as well as the funding, it requires money to put those things into the infrastructure and bring that up to the level of technology that we have which is why I have been a fan of public/private partnerships, and increasing use of private design people, private design people. For a long time a believe more could be done with private facility operators who have to be contractually bound essentially to use those sorts of modern technologies to replace the road in the most efficient way possible. I think there's a lot that can be done in terms of innovating in infrastructure that we might think is rather plain but in fact it is not.
Miller: Rick Geddes is one of our guests this hour as we'll talk about raising more money for transportation policy and infrastructure repairs. He is a professor at Cornell and Emil Frankel is with us he is a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center. More coming on our in-depth conversation on the Daily Circuit. And to the phones to Linda in Bemidji, Hi Linda thank you for waiting.
Linda (caller): Hi I just wanted to say that increase in gas tax is kind of a disproportionate hit to rural people especially in little communities such as ours where we have very little investment in transportation and like transportation options.
Miller. Okay. So what does this mean for rural people?
Linda: Well I think you drive further and you don't have the option of having a bus or any other type of public options there.
Miller: Rick Geddes that's a fair concern isn't it?
Geddes: Yes it is Kerri and thank you yes. It is a good point and it raises a broader issue that's not just about raising the gas tax per say but also the issue that a lot of policy folks such as Emil and myself and others in the transportation community have though t about and that is a vehicle miles travel charge. In other words you get a water bill that charges you per gallon of water you use per kilowatt hour of electricity per therm of natural gas. Like a utility you would pay per mile driven and there is a whole lot of set of equity concerns like the one that the caller brought up regarding any new policies like that but I want to emphasis that there are a lot of scholars that are working on addressing those equity concerns. One possibility would be to take some of the revenue generated by the vehicle miles traveled charge and rebate that to the motorist. In the East we have Easy Pass, so credit their easy pass account for at least part of that, use the other part of that to improve transportation options such as mass transit as the caller suggested so there's a whole set of proposals that I think are very innovative in ways you could incorporate a vehicle miles traveled charge that would make that charge more equitable.
Miller: Emil Frankel I just want to get in this part about private entities and private investors coming in and building some of these facilities and building some of these roads I think that they built a bridge in Connecticut, is it in your home state?
Frankel: No I think it's in Virginia. If I could Kerri I'd like to add a footnote to what Professor Geddes has said and I think in response to the caller. One of the advantages of moving away from a gas tax is a flat tax on per gallon is that you could with a vehicle miles traveled charge you could set different rates for using different parts of the system so for example mileage on rural roads where there are fewer alternatives as the caller mentioned might have a lower charge than urban systems. So I think there are a lot of options as well as the fact that vehicle miles travelled charge is a much more sustainable charge in the long run. As Rick talked about I am also a strong believer in that and you also have to create revenue streams you know the private sector is not going to come in and rebuild a bridge over the Mississippi river for example just because they're public spirited. If they borrowed money they have to repay loans. If it's an equity investment they have to return on their equity and that means that that bridge that new bridge or replacement bridge will need to have tolls or some other form of user charge to create revenue streams so part in parcel for the greater role for the private sector in construction and reconstructing and operating parts of our transportation systems needs to be doing something with our funding sources reforming those and creating more sustainable sources that are tied to the services that people are receiving.
Miller: You know Rick Geddes I'd think we ought to do a show on just on this idea of privately funded projects. I'd hope that you would come back and talk to us as some point.
Geddes: I'd be pleased.
Miller: It's interesting because I know there is this new bridge opening up in Chesapeake, Virginia and private investors built it so I think we'd have a good conversation about that. Both of you thank you so much.
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