A Funding Bridge We Must Cross Now

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The federal transportation trust fund is running on fumes. It's time to face the fact that an increase in the gasoline tax will be required to fill the tank. While no time is an easy one for this conversation, the Minneapolis bridge collapse in August forces a reality check that we cannot ignore. If we can't have a serious public conversation now about national infrastructure needs and the overdue bills that need to be paid, when can we? Failure to act has long multiplied the stress on every aspect of our lives. From running a business to getting to football practice to commuting, crumbling infrastructure, or the lack of infrastructure, is wreaking havoc. And public safety makes the debate inescapable.

As chair of the Montgomery County Council's Transportation and Environment Committee, I initiated our effort to identify new funding ideas with the help of a terrific team of finance experts. But local and even statewide funding plans won't raise enough to deal with our multibillion-dollar transportation backlog.

Federal responsibility for this mess was underscored by the Government Accountability Office's July report pointing out that between 1980 and 2005, road use across the country grew 2.7 percent annually while new road construction, measured in lane miles, grew at 0.2 percent annually. The GAO already had added transportation funding to its list of "high risk" issues for the federal government to tackle, predicting that the transportation trust fund will reach a negative balance by 2011. That's only four years away!

If we are to start digging out of this hole, gas taxes will have to be raised at every level of government. What will that buy us? A small increase will get more infrastructure. A larger, long-term increase will encourage people to switch to more fuel-efficient cars, lead to lower gas consumption, ensure cleaner air and water, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

An increase in the federal gas tax isn't the only solution. It is, however, the most straightforward and expeditious. Many other options will continue to be on the table. But at this point, the apparent preferred federal solution is to kick it back to the states to propose their own gas tax increases, tolls and user fees. Given federal inaction, it is no surprise that Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley have had to step up to the plate with aggressive transportation funding proposals.

But as the Minnesota bridge collapse so terribly demonstrated, this is neither a purely regional problem nor an isolated one that local and state governments can be expected to solve on their own. Let's not make the preservation and expansion of infrastructure that supports our nation's economy, security and safety another unfunded local mandate. A federal gas tax increase is needed now.

-- Nancy Floreen


The writer is also chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' Climate Change Steering Committee.

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