Time for Congress to Clean Up its Self-made Transportation Funding Mess

by Mariia Zimmerman


Springtime in the nation's capital: budgets and blossoms. Time to make your voice heard!

Springtime in the nation's capital: budgets and blossoms. Time to make your voice heard!

It’s March in Washington, DC. The time of year when cherry trees start to blossom and the city is invaded by people of every political persuasion here to lobby Congress and the administration about any and everything having to do with the budget.

Knowing what to say to Congress this year feels  a little harder. We find ourselves in a politically-made quagmire. One self-made political budget crisis after another, no budget proposal yet from the administration, and no sense that facts and logic, community need, or even good ol’ politicking will likely result in ….well, anything from our Congressional leaders.

Other Congressional observers will offer recommendations to fix the currently broken federal political system. I simply want to convey how important it is that we DO find a way forward, and soon. We cannot continue the current path of under-investing in our nation’s infrastructure – social or physical.

According to Ranking Member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Peter DeFazio (D-OR), “In 2014, federal investment in surface transportation — which is currently about $50 billion per year — will drop to $6 billion or $7 billion. In one year.”

These numbers are shocking, but even more astounding is that this is a self-made fiscal wound. And it is happening at the same time that states and cities have identified an incredible set of projects to create jobs, support economic growth, address environmental challenges, and make our communities great places to live. They are raising new local revenues and waiting, waiting, waiting for their federal partner to show up. Implementing these plans should be a no-brainer. Instead, it seems to be a no go.

For the past three springs, the crowd advocating for transportation funding has grown. The business community is engaging at both the national and local levels calling for more investment. Mayors of every political color from cities large and small are calling for more investment. Environmental and social equity advocates are calling for more investment in low-carbon, low-cost mobility options. And of course, the transportation industry itself continue to call for investment to address the cost of congestion to the economy, to repair the unsafe conditions of our roads, bridges and transit systems, and to support new investments to serve a growing population and economy.

Yet Congress is either M.I.A. or worse, not honoring its own agreements. The 9 month old federal transportation bill, MAP-21, provides only 2 years of funding authorization instead of the traditional six. House Republicans just passed a bill cutting more than $785 million from what they agreed to last summer. Elsewhere, the self-made sequestration cuts are slicing almost $100 million from the federal program to fund new transit systems – and $300 million less than proposed in last year’s budget. A month after passing emergency relief to restore systems devastated by Hurricane Sandy, sequestration slashes this by $1/2 billion. It appears the word of Congress counts for little these days which is a national sham -- especially when the cost is borne by state and local governments trying to meet very real safety, mobility, and economic needs, and felt by those of us who depend every single day on our roads, buses, and trains to get us where we need to go.

I’ve been working with several communities to figure out how to make their plans a reality at a time of shrinking federal funding. It’s been encouraging to see ideas being tested (and approved) for new local and state revenue sources. Yet, we cannot let Congress off the hook. MAP-21 consolidated many programs, which was a good policy decision. But the sum appears less than the individual parts.

The current Surface Transportation Program, for instance, combines $5 billion of new responsibilities but Congress only provided $1 billion in new funding. Programs to fund bike lanes, provide safe routes for children to walk or bike to school, and to retrofit streets were combined and under-funded from previous levels. The set of programs to provide special transportation services for seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income workers were also combined and again, total funding less than previous levels which is particularly striking since these are three growing segments of our population!

We must continue to find ways to innovate in transportation: on the planning and engineering side, as well as the financial. We cannot depend on the federal government to solve our problems. But we also cannot continue to let Congress kick the can, or worse, kick us when we’re down. Individual voices do make a difference. If you care about these issues, make your voice heard!

You can choose to be one of the many descending on Washington this spring, or even better, ask to meet with your Senator or Congressional representative at home. They’ll have more time, and you can show them exactly what these projects mean to your community. Make sure if they come to the ribbon cutting, they know that you’ll be watching to see they honor their word. If they don’t, turn up the heat. And thank those who understand how important it is to invest in our nation’s future. Ours is a democracy, and we need to use its power to get us back on course - investing in America.

Note: Whether meeting back home or in DC, my friend Stephanie Vance, “the Advocacy Guru,” has some great resources on how to be your own successful advocate.