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Samuel I. Schwartz, P.E.Back to OpinionSamuel I. Schwartz, P.E.

Local transportation projects gain steam

I know I sometimes sound like Chicken Little yelling “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” because, believe me, our transportation infrastructure situation is pretty dire.

But this time I want to talk about a happier topic: cities, states and counties that are finding new ways to fund much-needed transportation initiatives.

A Philadelphia Septa bus. Photo: Flickr/Knight725

Take, for instance, Alexandria, Va., which recently passed a general property tax increase to fund three high-capacity transit corridors. A tax increase during one of the worst economic climates in recent history? “When you clearly demonstrate the short- and long-term benefits of the transportation projects you’ll fund, you can win support,” said Vice-Mayor Kerry Donley.

Alexandria initially wanted to pass a commercial property tax increase, but after extensive public outreach, the city went with a lower tax increase on both residents and businesses with 2.2 percent dedicated to transportation improvements. The Council adopted the proposed increase with its fiscal year 2012 budget in May. “We haven’t heard one complaint,” said Donley.

Alexandria benefited from a strong foundation for local transportation-dedicated taxes. In 2007, the state gave Northern Virginia jurisdictions the authority to levy a transportation tax on commercial real estate to address the region’s growing congestion. Alexandria’s neighboring counties, Arlington and Fairfax, used that authority and passed tax increases for initiatives like bus rapid transit and streetcars.

“Alexandria residents could see their neighbors making these investments,” said Donley.  “It helped them see that similar transportation projects here would not only increase mobility and reduce congestion, but enhance the opportunity for future economic development.”

Pennsylvania also understands the need to invest in transportation. And it’s doing something about it, too. With bipartisan support, Pennsylvania is set to pass a range of new transportation-funding mechanisms that would directly benefit the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, better known as SEPTA.

Through good management and foresight, SEPTA has maintained its service levels — and number of employees — during economic circumstances that have forced other public transit authorities to cut back severely on both.

This feat is even more remarkable considering that SEPTA currently lacks a sustainable, long-term state revenue source for its capital budget. SEPTA’s capital projects were to be funded with new tolls on I-80 — until the federal government blocked the idea.

“Well, it made it easier to stick to our operational goal of reaching a state of good repair for our infrastructure,” said Byron S. Comati, director of strategic planning and analysis for SEPTA.

Comati points to several factors that have allowed SETPA to maintain its levels of service. First, SEPTA has a steady source of revenue for its operational budget, thanks to a state-guaranteed funding formula created in 2007. “Other transit agencies have to go to their state legislatures with a begging bowl every year,” said Comati.

Second, SEPTA’s planning group is housed with the authority’s finance department. “Organizationally, we’re fixated on fiscal management,” said Comati.

And third, SEPTA adopted austerity measures. “It’s the classic tale of doing more with less.”

SEPTA might have to be austere no longer. The proposed funding measures include adjusting vehicle and driver’s fees to inflation, uncapping a wholesale fuel tax, and dedicating 2 percent of the existing sales tax to transit. That package would send $200 million SEPTA’s way for capital projects by year one and up to $400 million by year five.

“Pennsylvania legislators have been very receptive to our infrastructure needs, for both road and transit,” said Comati. “In our ideal timeline, this bill would pass by November.”

The recent transportation-funding initiatives taken by Mayor Villaraigosa and the county of Los Angeles are even more encouraging. In November 2008, more than two-thirds of Los Angeles county residents approved Measure R, a new half-cent sales tax increase that would fund a 30-year series of massive transit expansions and highway improvements.

Measure R was successful for three reasons, according to Jaime de la Vega, Villaraigosa’s former deputy mayor for transportation.

  1. The mayor worked with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), politicians, and diverse stakeholders to prioritize transportation needs.
  2. The measure specified the exact improvement projects it would fund.
  3. The mayor ran a well-orchestrated public-education campaign.

Then, the morning after the measure passed, Mayor Villaraigosa announced that 30 years was too long; he wanted build all those projects within one decade.

“The Mayor nearly gave me a heart-attack when I heard him say that!” laughed de la Vega, who is now the general manager of the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Transportation.

As deputy mayor, de la Vega helped craft the Mayor’s idea into the 30/10 Initiative (also known as America Fast Forward), which proposes to leverage Measure R’s half-cent sales tax into federal loans that would allow the MTA to speed up its construction schedule from 30 years to ten.

“Accelerating the timeline would provide up to 20 more years of use-value out of the system. It would also provide the extra benefits of increased mobility and reduced congestion over those two decades. And it would double the number of jobs created within that decade,” said de la Vega.

Implementing the 30/10 Initiative depends on three changes to federal policy: 1) tripling its Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) lending program (which provides loans, loan guarantees, and lines of credit for surface transportation projects), 2) creating a new class of qualified tax credit bonds where the federal government subsidizes the interest cost, and 3) expanding the New Starts capital transit funding program.

Best of all, none of these policy changes would impact the nation’s budget, because all the federal loans are guaranteed by local, dedicated funding streams.

The principles behind the 30/10 Initiative have national implications — and support; more than 100 mayors of U.S. cities have signed on in support of the federal policy changes.

“We’re advancing the discussion of how the federal government can assist and incentivitize localities to invest in themselves,” said de la Vega.  While the exact contents of the transportation re-authorization bill are still in flux, there is reason to think these policy changes will make their way into the legislation.

Not that L.A. is waiting for the federal government to start its transportation-improvement projects. Thanks to Measure R, the county is already breaking new ground.

Can the rest of the country find infrastructure funding through these same measures? Well, we’ve got to know about them first. Too often, we engineers just gather around and bellyache about our infrastructure-funding woes. As chief bellyacher, I propose a new strategy: Let’s gather around and share the good news stories. Ray LaHood, set up a kumbaya conference!

The good news includes Oklahoma’s new and desperately needed eight-year bridge rehabilitation program (Goal: zero structurally deficient bridges by 2019) — as well as Mica’s new willingness to look for additional transportation funds for his re-authorization bill. But we can’t count on Congress coming up with the bucks; this is the playing field we’re on. We’re going to have to learn from each other to get the job done.

–Additional research by Laura MacNeil.