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Can We Avoid the ‘Mobility Cliff?’

By Admin

One of the hazards of using terms like ‘fiscal cliff’ and ‘sequester’ is that we become numb to their true meaning.  But if congressional gridlock prevents us from funding our surface transportation systems, we will go over the mobility cliff.

I challenge anyone in America to hop on a transit bus or in their car and travel more than a couple of miles without seeing the visible – and frightening – signs of a surface transportation infrastructure that is falling apart:  old (often dirty) transit equipment, traffic jams, dangerously deteriorated bridges and highways and empty train platforms caused by service cutbacks and fare hikes.

At the current rate of investment, we will spend $1.1 trillion below what is needed on infrastructure projects between now and 2020 — and it will take almost 80 years to complete the transit projects now on the books.  The World Economic Forum ranks America’s infrastructure 25th in the world, one spot above Qatar; our transportation systems rank even lower.   The collapse of these investment programs will cost our economy more than $3 trillion in lost GDP growth by 2020.  That’s a boat load of lost jobs in an economy still reeling from the Great Recession.

The root of this crisis is simple.  We are trying to run a 2013 transit/highway system on a 1993 budget, because our Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is fed primarily by gas excise taxes that are not indexed to inflation and haven’t been increased in 20 years.  The HTF’s buying power has fallen by 33 percent during those two decades.  It pays out more than it takes in, and will be insolvent by 2015 if Congress does not act.

It’s a ‘mobility cliff,’ if you’ll pardon my jargon, but what can we do?

One solution would be to simply increase the gas tax, index it for inflation and dedicate the revenues to fund surface transportation.  Proposals like this have come and gone, cut down by short-sighted anti-tax zealots who seem to think we can retool and modernize our economy and transportation system with a mix of reckless austerity budgets and fairy dust.

If that trend continues, Congress and the White House could consider ideas like converting from a flat per-gallon rate to a per-dollar percentage – a sales tax.  That will boost revenues.  Longer term, in view of rising fuel efficiency standards, there may need to be a move away from revenue structures based on fuel consumption.  One proposal creates a Vehicle Miles Traveled fee – a so-called VMT – but the large-scale implementation of a VMT is years away.  We don’t have years to wait.

Innovative financing ideas – intended to attract private investment – could help, but they are no substitute for real action to address the underlying crisis facing the HTF.  And any innovative finance measure must apply longstanding worker protections and Buy America requirements to ensure we are using federal investments to support good American middle-class jobs.

During the debate to come, TTD will make the case that a failure to act will cause our economy irreparable harm as the rest of the world out invests us and threatens our status as the world’s leader in the complex and interconnected global system of freight and passenger commerce.

We must stare down those politicians who would happily throw us over this mobility cliff.  We owe it to the American people.  We owe it to our generation and the next to keep the American competitive spirit alive in an economy where success is defined by quality and innovation, not crumbling infrastructure.