How can Transportation Infrastructure Tax Dollars be Equitably Apportioned between Urban and Rural Transportation Needs?

Prescott Valley, AZ Correspondent-America’s transportation infrastructure, which is managed by the DOT (Department of Transportation) and administered in a number of capacities by a series of support programs through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 includes a number of tax funded and grant programs that apportion monies between urban and rural transportation needs.

Current programs include the TIGER Discretionary Grant program (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery); the Transportation Planning Capacity Building Program; Federal Transit Administration; Rural and Small Urban Area Formula Grant Program; Rural Transit Assistance Program (RTAP), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and numerous other programs that are associated with the disbursement of tax dollars to transportation needs.

With all the grant and taxpayer funded programs currently operating under the jurisdiction of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the DOT, it is difficult to completely determine just where tax dollars are being equally proportioned between grants, tax dollars and other financial platforms; however, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) provides a good deal of financial and technical support for state, local and Indian tribal governments for the most vital of transportation requirements, which include construction, improvement, and preservation of the national highway system.

In order to assess the apportionment of tax dollars between the transportation needs of urban and rural areas, full evaluations of certain critical transportation matters in both areas should be foremost in the planning and administering of tax dollars. All areas of transportation needs should be labeled by levels of urgency. Current Reinvestment Act grant program monies are apportioned by states according to areas of greatest citizen need within those states.

Addressing the immediate needs of urban areas should include examination of deteriorated streets, bridges, railroad crossings, overpasses, drains, potholes, washed out areas, curbs, bus and transit availability routes, and other areas that have become safety and traffic flow concerns to cities. Once those areas have been thoroughly investigated, cost estimates should be targeted towards the most vital concerns, which have either been bypassed or ignored through current programs. Apportionment of tax dollars should be determined specifically through examinations and cost appraisals of the affected areas in question.

Rural areas should be evaluated similarly, particularly for country roadways that citizens use for driving to work or other rural areas, going to school, getting to medical centers and shopping centers as well as acquiring direct transportation or shuttles, buses or trains into a city. If county or rural roads require grading, smoothing, paving or other repairs or replacements, or a transit system needs to be provided to convey rural dwellers back and forth, the needs should be addressed in such a way that the most critical transportation requirements are fulfilled first. Monies should always be allocated for the most crucial of needs, not for some pet project of a local, state or federal government official or program.

Equitable distribution has to come about through the setting aside of the dollars needed to complete urgent transportation projects. It should occur in a timely enough fashion to cover the needs of both urban and rural areas but again, priorities have to be made with safety concerns in mind, vital transit route maintenance, road repairs and other urgent transportation needs. Apportionment has to be completed fairly with no favors to projects that have been allocated monies for non productive kinds of transportation actions. Taxpayer funded transportation projects that require immediate action from years of neglect and abuse should be top priority.

Taxpayer monies for urban and rural transportation needs can be equitably dispersed when the right logistics are utilized and taxpayer costs are held to strict budgetary guidelines. The transportation needs of inner cities and rural depressed areas can be fairly dispersed when programs are streamlined and given precedence. Areas in dire need severely impacted by transportation dilemmas should always be at the top of the to-do list whether through the Department of Transportation tax dollars or grant programs.

Gastonia, NC Correspondent-The Interstate Highway system was a fantastic idea, and it is most assuredly one of the things that allowed our country to thrive, expand and become the commercial and industrial powerhouse it is today. However, like a child who builds a sand castle at the tide line and then goes off to play, we’re about to see our grand project fall to bits.

A few years ago, a bridge on I-35 in Minneapolis completely collapsed, killing many and injuring many more. The sad fact is that this bridge wasn’t even close to being the worst on a nationwide scale. In the midst of growing transportation demands, our state and federal governments are spending a pittance on vitally needed upkeep.

The classic battle over spending the money on urban or rural infrastructure should boil down to two factors: usage and age. A fairly new freeway (such as the Grand Parkway in the Houston area) needs minimal upkeep, and thus should get a lower priority. An older freeway that sits near a population center (such as I-277 in Charlotte) should be much farther up the list. Vital arteries must be identified, bearing in mind that a rural road can easily be just as important as an interstate if its overall health interferes with the transport of farm products to market. The road crews can’t work very well on empty stomachs, right?

Regardless of population density, the decision must come down to a simple calculation of condition and utility. If that means Broadway or Sunset Boulevard get fixed after a rural route in West Texas that connects four cattle ranches to a railhead, then so be it. The people making the decision should in no way be connected to any political party or government agency. They should be academics, transportation professionals and construction experts able to give solid estimates on repair costs and timelines. Keep the politics out, and we just might get the job done.

Owatonna, MN Correspondent-In my home state, Minnesota, the Governor and Legislature failed to reach agreement on a two-year bonding bill whose primary purpose is to plan and finance transportation maintenance, improvements, and additions. The deal breaker was the Democratic governor and Senate’s insistence on providing funding for a new branch of the Twin Cities’ slowly expanding light-rail system. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives opposed the new light rail line because it was seen as too costly and siphoning dollars from rural transportation such as widening the busiest, most dangerous highways, repairing bridges, and improving rural transportation options such as county or area bus service to underserved areas.

Because of the impasse, nothing was decided. The governor refused to convene a special session to address this issue specifically because he feared he would not get the support he needed to fund the light rail plans. As a result, no improvements anywhere in the state will be scheduled until the funding issue gets decided. The only transportation infrastructure projects that will happen are those that have already been approved and funded from previous legislative sessions.

The failure to address transportation needs equitably and adequately needs to be solved. The solution is to lay out the specific costs for each taxpayer and each transportation option. Let voters decide with their dollars rather than allow legislators to make deals and siphon money from one group to another. Most of the projects are determined by whatever special interest group with a stake in the decision lobbied hard enough. Large contractors stand to benefit from winning bids for state projects. Unions whose members will see increased employment from building more roads support road building. Businesses in certain areas that will directly benefit from improved transportation of their goods to market (such as farmers or rural manufacturers) only want projects that save them money or make them more competitive.

Light-rail riders must bear the full cost of a ticket to ride the train, not the cost of that ride minus subsidies to the transit company from the state. If urban transit passengers are forced to bear the real cost of “cheap” public transportation around a metro area, they may think twice about taking so many trips. They may insist that expenses are trimmed and tightly controlled by the commission that oversees the system. They may choose to walk more instead of ride. They may opt for a bus over the light rail and make allowances for extra travel time.

Rural automobile drivers and truckers must pay the full cost of the maintenance of those roads they travel. This should come in the form of a direct toll for roadways, similar to purchasing individual fares on a bus or light rail. Those who do not use the service will not pay for it. Those that do will have to decide if the cost is worth it, or elect to make fewer trips. Trucking companies will need to decide if paying more for the privilege of hauling greater loads over roads and bridges is worth the time and manpower savings as well as the inconvenience of more frequent road maintenance projects that slow travel times.

If urban auto commuters are compelled to pay the real cost of using multi-lane freeways to get from one side of town to the other five days a week, they can vote with their dollars as well and perhaps move to a house closer to their workplace. Parents who routinely drive their children all over the place for playdates, sports, and other activities may decide that it is too expensive to drive, and require their children to either limit their activities or ride bicycles, walk, or get rides from others to get to where they want to go.

The solutions are not simple or easy. The only way to find the best solution to transportation issues is to allow voters to select intelligently from all the options available, and make sure those options are accurately priced regarding overall costs to each individual, not the costs that are determined by creative accounting and backroom deal making by lobbyists and special interests.

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