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April 27, 2011

OCTA CEO: Transportation funding facing a changing landscape

by Will Kempton

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, a bill that made it easier for Americans to connect, from the Liberty Bell to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Windy City to the Big Easy.

That legislation marked the first time in U.S. history the federal government assumed a greater role in providing transportation infrastructure to the nation. Funded through the federal gas tax, — previously used to help balance the budget — the Highway Act provided a dedicated and reliable revenue stream to build the interstate highway system.

Constructing the system proved to be an economic boom for the country. However, the success was fleeting because the federal gas tax was insufficient to meet the nation’s growing travel needs. Starting in the 1970s, federal gas tax revenues declined as the nation experienced the first fuel crisis. This led many states to impose their own or raise existing gas taxes to keep pace with dwindling revenues and rising costs.

Gas taxes do not grow with the economy and are an unreliable source of revenue for transportation projects and programs. Today, the issue has become more alarming as improved fuel efficiency of new cars is causing less fuel to be consumed per mile, resulting in less fuel tax collected.

Although the federal government recently passed a continuing resolution to keep federal funds flowing until the end of September, the outlook for transportation funding is bleak. 

The situation is similar at the state level given the struggle with lower sales tax revenue. We can anticipate a further decline in transportation funding from the federal and state governments.

The devolving role of the federal and state government has resulted in local governments stepping up to maintain and expand our transportation infrastructure.

Self-help counties, those with local sales-tax measures, are a saving grace for many regions where keeping up with the pace of growth is proving to be a continuing challenge.

The diminishing funds available from federal and state transportation sources gave way to the emergence of self-help counties in the early 1980s. Here in California, for example, 19 self-help counties now encompass 81 percent of the population and provide more than $4.2 billion annually for local transportation improvements.

And in Orange County, Measure M, the half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements, changed the landscape of transportation in Orange County by adding 192 freeway lane miles, improving 170 intersections and 38 freeway interchanges, and implementing commuter-rail throughout the county.

For counties with a strong tax base, local sales-tax measures have proven to be a successful model, but it is not the only solution. There needs to be a unified approach including local, state, federal and private dollars that responds to the fluctuations in the economy while paving the way for long-term growth and stability. In addition, we need to make the development process more efficient to deliver projects faster and reduce costs.

The Federal Aid Highway Act bridged the gap between the four corners of the U.S., but today the challenge lies with preserving that connection and preparing our transportation system to meet the needs of future generations.

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "California: the last hope for high-speed rail" here.


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  • MK[ April 27th, 2011 @ 10:30am ]

    "And in Orange County, Measure M, the half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements, changed the landscape of transportation in Orange County by adding 192 freeway lane miles, improving 170 intersections and 38 freeway interchanges, and implementing commuter-rail throughout the county." Success or failure? Futher our reliance on oil by building infrastructure for cars. I used to live there in the OC. My parents complain about high gas prices. I told my mom to use public transit. But the frequency and time travel is so bad, she won't consider it. Measure M should have explored more BRT solutions and improve bus service in the region. In the OC, transportation solutions are about widening freeways thereby kicking the can down the road as usual. So glad I don't live there anymore. Cities like Portland saw this madness a long time ago. They stopped widening freeways and invested in light rail. Now they are reaping the benefits.

  • Michael Komenda[ April 27th, 2011 @ 11:42am ]

    Rebuilding our transportation system would have a definite positive impact on our economy if we had the same industrial sector as was present half a century ago. We have evolved from a industrial driven economy to service sector and research and development. Many materials used in American projects are produced overseas. The early building of America's infrastructure was built with steel made in America as well as the other products needed in construction. We no longer lead the world in making goods from raw material. My belief is that the manufacturing base needs to be created again before major infrastucture projects are pursued. The tighter economic loop of material produced by the United States and then used in reconstruction of bridges, highways,dams, etc..would lead to economic stimulation in our country.

  • Thiago[ July 27th, 2012 @ 7:27pm ]

    about Lakeshore GO; it serves motlsy Hatlon/Peel to Union and Scarborough/Durham to Union. Lakeshore GO is still a cross-region line though. By your definition, Yonge is not a crosstown line either; southbound trains in the AM peak empty out substantially at Bloor; more people get off (or on) than stay on travelling through Bloor from north to south. Yonge is still a crosstown line though.I think you're focusing too much on downtown. Why should any city design its subway so that it is grossly impractical to travel anywhere but downtown? Bloor-Danforth avoids us having that problem with its current configuration.Bloor-Danforth was shorter and less expensive than the flying-U, but the expense associated with it did have relation to streetcar network impacts; they would have had to keep more of the streetcar network and incur a fair amount of track replacement costs on Bloor, which was near the end of its life at the time, in stark contrast to Queen, which didn't need track replacement for quite a while yet back then. A lot of concern about how to effectively service the high demands between Greenwood and Ossington in the Bloor-Danforth corridor did factored into it, because obtaining streetcars was becoming increasingly closer to impossible while the fleet continued to age. The late-1950s report evaluating the two did not focus much attention on the functionality of the wye, so that was a very minor factor in deciding the alignment, although the TTC obviously had other reservations about some specifics of the wye to the point that Norman Wilson resigned in protest (this sounds like a StasCan story), as discussed previously.What I would put forward as a testament to the success of the Bloor-Danforth line, and confirming that it was the right choice and far from a mistake, is its off-peak ridership. The off-peak ridership of Bloor-Danforth is extremely healthy, and applies to weekends as well. I think you see more crosstown use outside of the peak periods, and

  • Bibek[ July 28th, 2012 @ 4:23am ]

    Yes good transit secrive is better than a full secrive grocery store in your neighborhood. I lived in north Eastlake for a year. The transit secrive was amazing (49,66,7x).Because Eastlake doesn't have any large grocery store you learn to rely on the small corner stores for random things, ice cream, drinks, etc. While it is annoying that they don't have everything, and is a bit more expensive, it really loved the store near my apartment. It was a 2 minute walk from my place and I knew the owners after just a few months of living in the area.The thing is you learn to plan what you will need for the week and go shopping once. If you don't have good transit secrive it is a pain in the butt every single day.

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