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.
...as a transportation planner who has worked on bus rapid transit-style systems in the greater Washington region, I’ve noticed a disconnect in the public’s expectations versus the reality of the systems they’re getting. It got me wondering: do people have an accurate picture of what BRT means or the benefits the systems provide? During public-planning sessions, I’ve heard a lot of feedback on BRT. The gist is, “That’s really nice that the bus is a different color and the station platform is fancy, but I just want it to be on time.”
After acts of terrorism — domestic or international — law enforcement agencies are almost always asked: “How are you ‘ramping up’ your security efforts?”
Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent buying buses and railcars every year. Although the national unemployment rate has declined since the Great Recession, for low-income families and communities of color, the unemployment rate remains in the double-digits and good, family-supporting jobs can’t come fast enough. We need strategies that revive U.S. manufacturing and other industries that can create the kind of jobs we want.
The recently adjourned 2016 Democratic National Convention put Philadelphia in the national — and international — spotlight once again. For the third time in four years, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority transported thousands of visitors to the City of Brotherly Love and its surrounding counties. As with the U.S. Open in 2013 and the World Meeting of Families and Papal Visit in 2015, public transit was a key component for all event activities.
Everywhere, evidence reveals how we’re moving into a less-consumptive, sharing-based society. Whether it’s people’s homes, torrent files or a car ride downtown, sharing is in. As environmentally conscious and economically prudent reducers and re-users, millennials are choosing non-traditional forms of transportation. This behavior has already had a huge impact on the way the transit industry is planning for its future.