C. Kenneth Orski, a noted public policy consultant and 30-year veteran transportation expert, recently wrote an interesting editorial concerning the growing realization that efforts to increase funding for transportation infrastructure – roadways, bridges, and the like – may ultimately be a fruitless endeavor.
I’ve touched on this topic before in this space– indeed, I quoted from one of Orski’s previous missives on this subjectin here as well – but now the “flat funding” issue seems to be crystallizing into political reality.
As a result, meeting the future needs of transportation infrastructure in the U.S. may devolve into what might just be called a “making do with what we’ve got” effort.
Orski (above at right) – who served as associate administrator of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration under Presidents Richard Nixon and Geraldand now publishes a transportation newsletter – posed this simple question at the outset of his article: Is the so-called “infrastructure crisis" we face in this country a myth or a reality?
“Manywithinthe transportation communityfirmly believe that the crisis is real,” Orski wrote.
“Theypoint out that many of our roads, bridges and transit systems are approaching the end of their useful life and are badly in need of repair, reconstruction and modernization," he said. "They are convinced that withoutan ambitious program of investment – beyond the billionsthatalready are being spent – the transportation infrastructure willcontinue todeteriorate, rendering great harm to the nation's economy.”
He also noted that America’s various transportation groups – such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials(AASHTO) – also find it difficult to understand why politicians and the public do not share the same sense of urgency.
“Theytend toblame themselvesfor doing a poor job of ‘educating’ the public about the catastrophicconsequences of inaction,” Orski noted.
But is this necessarily so, he asks? First, Orski explained, proponents of more robustspending ignore the political realities of mounting federal deficits ($1 trillion per each year of the Obama administration) and the shadow of a $16 trillion debt hovering overall fiscal decisions. As a result, he said, Congress is not about to vastly increase spending on transportation.
Then, too, concern about deteriorating infrastructure has failed toresonate with the electorateduring theelection campaign.“The promiseof transportation spending as a job creator proved to have little political credibility,” Orski pointed out. “Nor didthe presidential candidates care to mention transportation intheir recent debate on domestic priorities, despitepleas bystakeholder groups to includeinfrastructure on the political agenda.”
Finally, so-called “infrastructure crisis” believers decry this supposed "indifference" or "short-sightedness" on the part ofthe politicians and the public. But their anger is misplaced, contended Orski.
“People recognizeand acknowledge the need to modernizeand expand the nation's infrastructure. Theysimply are not convinced bythe‘sky is falling’ rhetoric employed by the alarmists – dire warnings of collapsing bridges and crumbling roads ifgovernment does not greatly increase spendingon infrastructure,” he said.
“Theytrust their own eyes more than they trustthe unverified claimsofthe experts – and what theysee ishighwaysand transit networks thatare well maintained andfunctioning smoothly and reliablymost of the time,” Orski added.
“Theysuspectthatwarnings of catastrophic consequencesif spending oninfrastructureisn’t boosted are overblown,self-serving, andmore often than not inspired byadvocacy groups, lobbyists and industry spokesmenwho have a financial stake inpushing formore federal spending," he stressed.
Moreover,Orski pointed out that the public isnot sure that all of thebillions of dollarsthat the federal government already devotestotransportation (some $114 billion in fiscal year 2012 alone) are spentwisely, nor thatmoremoney will make the transportation system perform any better(e.g. reduce congestion).
“They believe thatthe desire to greatly increase investment in infrastructure must be tempered by the overridingimperative to get the nation's fiscal house in order,” he said.
In sum, then, Orski expects transportation funding to either remain flat or actually decline in the future and emphasized that industry stakeholders should begin adjusting now to that impending reality.
“As one senior congressional aide confided to us, ‘I don't see our constituents lobbyingto raise the gas tax in order tospend more money on transportation,’” Orski noted. “The bottom line: regardless of the outcome of the November elections, do not expect aboost in federal transportation spending.”