Public schooling

Pete Rahn / May 11, 2009

The discussion on how to fund the transportation system we need in the U.S. is a challenging one. We have grossly underfunded transportation at the state and federal level for the past 30 years, and it’s showing. For some reason, people don’t think they should have to pay for safe, modern roads and bridges. Because of that sentiment, our highways are deteriorating, with many fixes today being no more than Band-Aids.

The discussion has become even more complicated with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. While the additional money is certainly welcome, the public’s expectations for what can be accomplished with this funding far exceed the amount available. People are likely to think the states are now flush with money to pour into their transportation infrastructure, and therefore, no long-term solution to our transportation-funding crisis is necessary.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Missouri is a prime example. The amount of economic stimulus money we received for transportation—$637 million—is about a third of our annual budget. It doesn’t come close to meeting our $31.3 billion in transportation needs over the next 20 years. I’m sure the same goes for other states.

When we think of transportation in the coming years, the picture looks pretty bleak. Funding for transportation has been on the decline since the 1980s. Now, the economic downturn is making things even worse. It has hurt car sales, thus lowering sales tax revenues that fund transportation. When gas prices rise, people drive less, further limiting transportation funds.

In addition to these concerns, the solvency of the federal Highway Trust Fund remains questionable. If Congress continues to infuse the fund with general revenue, there is a growing fear that the nation’s leaders will eliminate the trust fund and put transportation into the general revenue budget where it would vie for a piece of the pie along with all other government interests. We can’t let this happen.

So what can be done to shore up our crumbling roads and bridges and make public transportation a more viable travel option? First, I believe the state departments of transportation must go to the heart of the matter and ensure their operations are open and transparent. We have to tell the public what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and what the benefits are. We must then measure how well we’re delivering services to our customers and make adjustments as necessary. If our citizens don’t trust us to do what is right with the tax dollars we’re given, we won’t be able to sell a long-term funding solution no matter what it is.

Second, I believe we need to inform the public of our progress. We must show them we can bring in projects on time and within budget. We must demonstrate that we can get a dollar of value for every dollar we spend. In Missouri, our Practical Design initiative—which stresses designing projects to fit specific needs without the frills—has allowed us to save nearly $500 million and put it back into road and bridge improvements.

We also need to educate the public on financing options available. Our role is not to dictate the solution—whether it’s public-private partnerships, raising the gasoline tax or charging citizens based on the number of miles they travel—but to show what can be accomplished with the funding.

We know what lies behind new pavement, bridge interchanges, bike trails and landing strips are people who make those projects happen. Where our customers see a new bridge, we see people working and traveling, supporting hotels, restaurants, service stations, grocery stores and banks. And where they see new highway lanes, we see fewer traffic fatalities. We must show that transportation improvements save lives and improve our quality of life.

Long-term funding for transportation is a national issue. Our problems can’t be solved state by state. It will take all 50 states working together to achieve success.

About the Author

Rahn is the director of the Missouri Department of Transportation and the president and CEO of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.