There was positive news last week out of Washington as the House of Representatives voted to approve an extension of current highway and transit funding at existing levels through September 30.
The bill, which garnered bipartisan support, will now move to conference with the Senate’s $109 billion two-year surface transportation reauthorization bill, dubbed MAP-21.
To boil it down, this action buys Congress more time as the well of transportation dollars was set to run dry June 30. Buying more time is nothing new when it comes to funding the expansion and maintenance of our nation’s highways and keeping our buses and trains running for the millions of people who depend upon them. This is the 10th time since October 2009 that the previous six-year transportation bill has been extended.
And while an extension is a step in the right direction, what we must have is a long-term surface transportation bill.
Without a dedicated and reliable stream of federal funding, we are significantly hampered in our ability to effectively plan for, deliver and maintain critical transportation infrastructure projects.
Nowhere is the need for freeway improvements and maintenance more apparent than in our own backyards. Every four years, the Southern California Association of Governments updates its Regional Transportation Plan.
Approved last month, the latest plan calls for a $524 billion investment through 2035. Of that amount, $305 billion is projected to come from existing sources, including local sales tax measures. The remainder, nearly $220 billion, is expected to be raised through yet-to-be implemented innovative financing strategies and new revenue sources. These efforts — like raising the federal gas tax or introducing a vehicle-miles traveled fee — face considerable obstacles.
Without question, finding a way to improve and continue to maintain our transportation system will be a significant challenge over the coming years.
In Orange County, we fund transportation primarily through local means, like the voter-approved, 30-year, Measure M half-cent sales tax. In fact, of funding for projects, 76% are local dollars, 13% come from state funds and the federal government provides 11% through the Highway Trust Fund.
And while 11% may seem like a small portion, the Highway Trust Fund is the lifeblood of transportation funding. Those are dollars Orange County can rely upon and use to plan for the future. Of course, that is entirely dependent upon Congress finally passing a multi-year transportation bill.
Unfortunately, transportation and its funding often takes a back seat to other high-profile national debates. The economy, healthcare and education grab headlines day after day, but there is arguably no issue that touches closer to home for more Americans than transportation. From an economic perspective, — both in terms of job creation and moving people and goods — mobility is a fundamental building block to ensure our economic prosperity, not to mention our quality of life.
The time has come to stop the extensions and pass a bill that recognizes how vital transportation is to our nation’s future.
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When it comes to communicating that people have transportation options besides their own drive-alone cars, the transit industry is getting its lunch handed to it, and has been for decades. It must face that it’s a fringe player that wants to become mainstream. And it’s not getting any easier. While we hear so many great stories about options presented by bikeshare systems and technology and Uber, the fact remains that people are buying cars more than ever.
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