As I write this, another annual Infrastructure Week recognition has just passed in Washington, D.C., yet it doesn’t seem to matter. If anything, this year’s publicity was even less than last year’s. Once again, while everyone agrees that funding for infrastructure, including for public transportation, must be increased dramatically, and most agree on the reasons, too few in D.C. are willing to raise taxes, cut spending elsewhere or borrow money at record low interest rates to pay for the investments.
States and cities are doing what they can
States and cities are attempting to increase their funding, but because the recession so deeply affected them many continue to struggle. According to the Pew Foundation, previously sacrosanct spending on police and fire protection as well as education is still behind pre-recession levels in most states. In fact, transportation spending has, for the most part, fared better than these other areas.
True, voters in many states and localities have agreed to bigger public transportation investments, at approval rates that average greater than 70% for more than two decades now. This trend has limits, however. First, many are now reaching levels of self-taxation that may not get much higher. Second, because of state legal limits, many have no dedicated funding for public transportation and some cannot go to voters directly for the increases. That is because many have firewalls built into their state constitutions against spending the money on anything other than roads.
In one of the few states that can use gas tax revenues for transit, California proves that this is no panacea. The California Transportation Commission’s new five-year state transportation funding plan just released cuts of $754 million and delays another $755 million in previously programmed surface transportation spending because of the loss of gas tax revenue in the wake of lower gasoline prices. It is the largest such reduction in the past two decades. And, this is a state that has acted to take up the slack in federal spending more than many others.
Lack of consensus has already led to disaster
Such underfunding and inaction has already exposed the problems that we will face if we do not own up to the hundreds of billions of dollars needed just to maintain the system that we have. Washington’s Metro system, which will shut down in segments throughout the balance of the year for safety-related repairs that have been deferred in some cases for decades, is a stark reminder of what’s at stake, but it hasn’t been the only life-threatening example of aging infrastructure. A failed bridge over the Skagit River in the Seattle area is another. Hurricane Katrina exposed the nation to what a city faces when it underfunded levees. Flint, Mich. exposed a city’s residents to lead poisoning when the state’s governor and legislature decided to scrimp on waterworks spending.
Does anyone seriously believe that keeping taxes at their lowest levels in half a century has a greater impact on future economic growth than paying the infrastructure repair bill now long overdue?