Mayors say ‘no’ to highways

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As the federal government sets priorities for long-term spending and deficit reduction, future transportation infrastructure investments should focus spending on pressing metropolitan transportation infrastructure needs as opposed to low-priority highway expansion projects.” –Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed

As debate continues to heat up over how and where to spend America’s ever-shrinking pool of funds available for transportation, U.S. mayors are adding their powerful political voices to the fray – favoring more metropolitan-focused spending at the expense of highway investment.

Now, to be fair, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) stressed its opposition to highway expansion projects centered on those similar in nature to the infamous $398 million “bridge to nowhere” proposal back in 2005 to link the 50 residents of Gravina Island to mainland Alaska – a project advocated by Alaska’s congressional representatives at the time, Rep. Don Young and the late Sen. Ted Stevens.

Yet, while the mayors’ rightfully heaped loads of disdain upon this proposed (yet never built) bridge, they were certainly not shy about calling for an increase in fuel taxes if more of that money could be spent on the construction of bicycle and pedestrian pathways.

[The USCM is also a strong proponent of the Obama administration’s national high speed rail initiative, which of late has come under critical fire similar to that of the “bridge to nowhere.” The mayors’ view of high speed rail is below.]

These are just some of what we’ll call “interesting” viewpoints revealed by the USCM’s new 176-city transportation survey. Here are some others:

• Ninety-eight percent of the mayors point to investment in affordable, reliable transportation as an important part of their cities’ economic recovery and growth.

• Ninety-three percent of the mayors urge reforms in federal transportation programs to allow cities and their metropolitan areas to receive a greater share of federal funds directly.

• Absent a greater share of funding directly to cities and metropolitan areas, only 7% of the mayors indicate support to increase the federal gas tax.

• Ninety-six percent of the mayors believe that the federal government should increase spending on transportation infrastructure to reverse decades of underinvestment in cities, with strong majorities indicating support to increase the federal gas tax to improve transportation infrastructure, if a greater share of the funding got invested in local road and bridge infrastructure (89%) and public transit (65%).

• Seventy-five percent of the mayors indicate support to increase the federal gas tax if a greater share of the funding got invested in bicycle and pedestrian projects.

• Eighty percent of the mayors indicate that highway expansion should be a low priority.

• Seventy-five percent of the mayors say a national infrastructure bank or expanded availability of federal financing tools such as Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) or Build America Bonds would accelerate or increase the number of transportation projects that could be implemented.

Kasim Reed, mayor of Atlanta, GA, and chairman of the USCM Transportation Committee, discussed the survey’s findings at a press conference today at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., and while many in trucking might take issue with the group’s views on many subjects, the economic importance of U.S. cities – and the transportation networks that support them – aren’t in doubt.

“Given the economic problems facing the nation, mayors believe it is more important than ever that federal transportation priorities be targeted to metropolitan areas – home to two-thirds of U.S. residents,” Reed said. “The long-term productivity of transportation infrastructure spending is greater when it is invested where economic growth will occur, which is in the metropolitan areas.”

He noted that in the U.S., metropolitan areas account for 86% of employment, 90% of wage income, and over the next 20 years, 94% of the nation’s economic growth – but they are burdened with the nation’s worst traffic jams, its oldest roads and bridges, and transit systems at capacity.

“Simply put, these areas are receiving significantly less in federal transportation investments than would reflect their role and importance to the nation’s economy,” Reed pointed out.

“This survey confirms what mayors have been saying for years: through a new direct partnership with mayors, the federal government should make tomorrow’s transportation infrastructure more metropolitan-focused, more energy-efficient, and more environmentally sustainable,” added Tom Cochran, USCM’s CEO and executive director.

[U.S. cities are also being touted as the leaders of an “alternative fuel revolution” as their fleets are in many cases the most suited to use non-petroleum based fuels such as natural gas.]

“Our metropolitan areas rank high among world economies, but they are saddled with bus and rail systems at capacity and aging roads and bridges that will undermine their ability to meet the nation’s future economic output,” Cochran added.

He noted that the largest U.S. metropolitan areas account for 87% of the nation’s traffic, with the three most congested cities – Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago – accounting for 27% of that traffic.

“Given these factors, metropolitan areas should be at the center of federal transportation infrastructure investment underscored this point,” Cochran noted.

Here’s the thing, though: if metropolitan cities are to be the “engines” of future economic growth, they need transportation connections to the outside world. Thus, putting a “low priority” stamp on highway investment seems counter-intuitive.

I mean, let’s face it: trucks move about 70% of U.S. freight. Even if more railroad capacity could be added to remove some of the highway volume – not a sure bet, as few citizens want railroads running through their neighborhoods – it would take years, if not decades, for such a shift to occur.

In the meantime, like it or not, trucks are what we’ve got to work with – and surely it makes no sense to cut oneself off from the single mode that’s going to deliver your economic output to the nation, much less the world? Yet here are 75% of U.S. mayors on record as saying higher fuel taxes are good if – and only if – that money goes for bicycle and pedestrian paths. Last I checked, such paths don’t do diddly for economic growth.

Maybe it’s just me, but there still seems to be a huge disconnect between the economically vital role trucks play in this country and what most people – mayors included – perceive that role to be. And unless that perception is changed, I don’t think much of the economic growth predicted by the mayors might occur at all.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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