INSIDE WASHINGTON/Locals expect an invitation to TEA
As Congress prepares to renew TEA-21 (the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century), city and county governments are calling on lawmakers to substantially increase funding for the nation’s bridges, roads and mass transit systems. The current $200 billion transportation bill expires next September, and local governments are calling for a seat at the reauthorization table.
“The new legislation should include a level of funding that meets the growing transportation needs of our nation and ensures that a fair share of the federal resources goes to county and other local governments,” Tarrant County (Texas) Commissioner Glen Whitley told the House subcommittee on Highways and Transit in September. “An increased local government role in planning and programming decisions regarding federal funds is essential to reauthorization.”
“We believe that local officials should have a stronger voice in influencing national transportation policy and should take the lead in the reauthorization of the surface transportation program,” New Haven (Conn.) Mayor John DeStefano told the same panel.
In dozens of hearings, House and Senate committees have sought the advice of local officials, who say more money is needed to meet the increasing demands of maintaining and enhancing transportation infrastructure. The annual cost of maintaining highways and bridges is expected to increase from $64.6 billion in 2000 to $75.9 billion in 2020, according to Federal Highway Administration Administrator Mary Peters. Factoring in improvements, annual costs could reach $106.9 billion over the same period.
As costs of maintaining and improving highways and bridges rise, so, too, do the costs for mass transit. Between 2001 and 2021, mass transit maintenance costs are expected to reach $14.8 billion a year, says Robert Jamison, deputy administrator for the Federal Transit Administration. With costs of improvements, the estimate rises to $20.6 billion.
Cities and counties own and maintain 75 percent of the nation’s roads and 90 percent of the mass transit systems, so it is not surprising that local officials are looking for greater flexibility in determining how TEA-21 funds are used. However, as they seek to influence reauthorization, they also are calling for a special program to address traffic congestion.
“Despite record levels of [transportation funding over the last six years], operational performance — measured by congestion — worsened throughout the country,” Peters says. “Congestion increased in metropolitan areas of every size.”
The Local Officials Transportation Working Group, which represents 11 organizations — including the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors — supports the concept of dedicated funding for congestion-related projects. “We support a comprehensive funding program to address congestion to … promote savings in infrastructure investment and increase the livability and economic viability of communities across the country,” says DeStefano, speaking on behalf of the group.
On that issue, local governments have friends in high places. For example, Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) need only look at his home state of Nevada to understand the economic and environmental impact of traffic congestion.
“As the Las Vegas and Reno regions have grown, so has traffic congestion,” says Reid, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Nuclear Safety. “Worsening congestion [threatens] my state’s continued economic growth, and we will have to do things differently if we are to reverse this trend.”
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.