WASHINGTON, D.C. -- President Barack Obama recently signed the new transportation bill into law, allocating roughly $105 billion through 2014 into the nation’s surface transportation infrastructure. The bill keeps highway and transit spending roughly at current levels, and includes provisions enabling mayors of cities such as Los Angeles to fast-track bus and rail projects in traffic-choked regions. Senators Barbara Boxer and James Inhofe, who have been at odds more than once in the past, have hailed the legislation as evidence that the two parties can work together, and legislators from both sides are claiming the bill as perhaps the largest jobs measure of the year.
However, at a time when the country’s ailing infrastructure is in such desperate need of advanced modernization, one would have hoped that Capitol Hill could have produced a document which does more than maintain the status quo after spending three years and ten extensions in its formulation. Before discussing what the transportation bill could have accomplished, it’s important to look at the included provisions which have some role to play in diminishing our national oil dependence.
The bill authorizes states to utilize certain funds to install electric and natural gas vehicle charging infrastructure at parking facilities. The bill also includes language requiring the Secretary of Transportation to encourage the development of Intelligent Transportation Systems technologies to improve the performance of the National Highway System in areas of traffic operations, emergency response, incident management, and congestion management, through the use of demonstration programs, grant funding, incentive programs, among other tools. Such programs should be developed to improve the efficiency of the nation’s roads, and reduce the congestion-related fuel waste.
Finally, various National Goals and Performance Management Measures are established, including those focusing on congestion reduction, freight movement and reduced project delivery delays.
However, more importantly than what was included in this final bill, which is the first highway bill to be passed since 2005, is the absence of attention to petroleum dependence and the importance of its reduction. Language, which was in the Senate-passed bill, which would have made reduction of transportation-related oil consumption part of the national transportation strategy, was taken out of the final legislation. Moreover, the bill lacked necessary language encouraging dynamic tolling projects, which have a proven record of reducing congestion and lowering wasteful fuel consumption.
Furthermore, the nation’s highway system is still primarily funded by fuel taxes, which at 18.4 cents-a-gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents-a-gallon for diesel, have not been increased since 1993. The fund is currently able to provide about $40 billion of the $50 billion the program requires to operate annually, which means general revenues will have to once again compensate for the shortfall in the future as they have done since 2008. In the current tightening of the federal belt, a logical step would have been to use this bill as an opportunity to foster a transition towards user-pays funding sources. These would have offered legislators the opportunity to shore up funds for future infrastructure improvements while creating more direct and effective incentives to reduce petroleum usage.
SOURCE: Energy Policy Information Center