Broke, Broken and Out of Time: Let's get serious about transportation funding - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Broke, Broken and Out of Time: Let's get serious about transportation funding

Flickr user Zachary Korb (CC)

On May 13, 2015, the Metropolitan Planning Council, Brookings Institution and Union League Club of Chicago hosted Broke, Broken and Out of Time—a half-day conversation highlighting the critical importance of investing in and modernizing America’s infrastructure systems. This blog series features interesting and timely ideas for infrastructure solutions in the Chicagoland.

Don’t look now, but Congress just passed the THIRTY-THIRD short-term funding extension for highways and transit. This one is for only 60 days. That’s like driving to work by inserting a quarter into a slot in your dashboard every 500 feet. It may eventually get you there in fits and starts, but it’s not very efficient. Unfortunately, it’s the new normal. And it’s a streak that would embarrass a third-world country.

If you gaze in any direction in Greater Chicago—and if you look closely—you can’t help but notice how transportation infrastructure is literally the foundation of the region’s economy. As the nation’s rail hub, the waterborne commerce connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, the home of the nation’s busiest airport and a sprawling transit, commuter rail and highway system, Chicago was built on, and has staked it future vitality to, its transportation system.

But look closer. What does virtually every element of this diverse transportation system have in common? Answer: It was designed, built and paid for by your parents and grandparents. In many cases, by your great-grandparents. And then ask yourself the logical follow-up question: are we shouldering our share of this generational obligation? Are we paying it forward? You know the answer. 

...like driving to work by inserting a quarter into a slot in your dashboard every 500 feet.

I think of infrastructure as a generational transfer of optimism to the future. It is what tomorrow’s economy and quality of life will be built on. By that standard, today we are abjectly failing our children and their children.

If you delve further, however, you will observe that green shoots of optimism and generational responsibility are popping up in some places, but maybe not where you’d expect it. At the recent Metropolitan Planning Council Infrastructure Week event, the transportation panel discussion made it clear that the action is at the state and local level, not the federal level. At least 18 states have raised their gas taxes or sales taxes on fuels, indexed them to inflation or raised transportation revenues in other ways over the last few years. Similarly, scores of cities, counties and metro areas across America have increased their transportation revenues through “self-help” measures like referenda. Why this contrasting flurry of activity at the state and local level with the depressing lack of progress at the federal level?

It is important to remember that our transportation system is built from the ground up, not the top down, and is in many ways an aggregation of local choices and priorities into a national system. Add to this the fact that the discussion at the state and local level tends to focus on very specific needs and projects—the performance of which you can readily measure—and you can see why the public is willing to invest in carefully defined local infrastructure projects.

We can all do our part by advocating for specific local transportation projects that will form the foundation of the future economy and prosperity in our local communities. And let’s make sure Washington is watching.

John D. Porcari is senior vice president and national director of strategic consulting for WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff and former deputy secretary of the United States Department of Transportation.

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