It feels like we were just here. The clock is winding down on federal surface transportation funding with MAP-21, the current funding package set to expire at the end of May and the Highway Trust Fund facing impending insolvency. That déjà vu stems from the fact that Congress just went through this last summer when they extended a nearly expired MAP-21 for 10 months, continuing the pattern of short-term funding patches that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says is, “literally killing [America’s] will to build.”
Though it is perhaps wishful thinking that this Congress will be the first since 2005 to pass a bill with more than two years of funding, Foxx, Democrats and Republican Congress people, and transportation advocates have all expressed their desire for a long-term, sustainable funding source. In early March, over 260 chamber of commerce executives added their voices to the chorus with a letter to Congress urging passage of the same.
Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and one of the organizers behind the letter, says chambers of commerce and transportation advocacy are a natural fit.
“Since the inception of chambers of commerce in the U.S., transportation has been a high priority,” says Toebben. “Whether you’re talking about things like the Erie Canal or railroads, interstate highways or mass transit, the business community has always understood it’s essential to move people and products throughout country.”
For Toebben, transportation is the number one federal priority. “This bill probably impacts more Americans than any piece of legislation that [Congress] will consider this year. Everyone who’s working has to find a way to work, whether that’s driving, transit, car-sharing, or walking or bicycling.”
In addition to urging Congress to pass a long-term bill and find a sustainable Highway Trust funding source, the letter outlines several points the chambers hopes the legislation will address, including a nod to supporting multi-modal transportation.
“The larger the urban area that you’re involved with, the more likely you are to be looking at transit possibilities. If you’re in a smaller community in a more rural area, you’re likely to be dependent on highways and railroads. We understand that every community has different needs,” says Toebben.
He emphasizes that he is nonpartisan when it comes to transit modes. “We’re not trying to pick winners and losers. We’re saying we believe it’s essential for federal government to be a partner with cities and states,” he explains.
The letter also highlights a need for more local control. It says Congress should, “empower local communities and metropolitan regions with more authority over both federal funding and decision-making. Innovation is happening at the local level yet our local decision makers don’t have enough of the tools.”
Toebben says that local and regional projects used to often receive 80 percent of their funding from federal sources. Under that arrangement, it made sense to have strict guidelines coming down from the top.
“Now out in L.A. the federal share is 10 or 15 percent at most. Why do we have to live with same rules that we had to live with when they were putting in 80 percent of money?”
He says local and regional municipalities can likely streamline processes to be more efficient, saving time and money on major transportation projects.
The Innovation in Surface Transportation Act could be part of the solution chamber executives are looking for. Introduced last May by Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis, the bill]} would increase local access to federal dollars with a special pool of money available just to local projects.
Of course the biggest question for any funding package is where exactly those billions of dollars will come from. The 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax has long been the primary source of federal transportation funding. Congress hasn’t raised that tax since 1993, but there is growing bipartisan support for the idea. Democrat Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Republican Rep. Tom Petri co-sponsored a bill that would nearly double the gas tax.
Toebben says he cannot speak for other local chambers, but says raising the gas tax is “one of the possible methods of replenishing the Highway Trust Fund and we, the L.A. Chamber, would support it … the U.S. Chamber is also in support.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.