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October 2012 Archives
The Brookings Institution released a report last week with an astonishing (and potentially controversial) finding: Airports in the largest 100 metro areas handle 96 percent of all international passengers, but they receive only 36 percent of federal funds for infrastructure maintenance and improvements.
The policy argument behind the project is simple, but it has implications far beyond aviation. The authors argue that the government should find out where the international air traffic is and take advantage of it by investing more in those places, not less. "International aviation is one of the fastest growing portions of the national transportation network and an important way to tap into metropolitan-led global economic growth," the report says. Imagine if such an argument were applied to the highway system, the electricity grid, or the postal system--all of which are based on universal utility in rural and urban areas alike.
I can hear the howls from rural representatives on Capitol Hill (and from K Street) about the federal recommendations in this report:
* Calibrate Airport Improvement Program payments to the passenger flow, rather than retaining funds for smaller, less trafficked airports and private planes.
* Scale back the Essential Air Services rural subsidies to communities that are at least 300 miles from a small to medium hub airport, which "would provide at least some modicum of relief to major metro areas and make EAS a more efficient use of taxpayer money."
* Raise the cap on the $4.50 per passenger that is collected by public commercial airports to facilitate their upkeep.
These programs traditionally have been negotiated by lawmakers who want to make sure small and large travel areas get their fair share, regardless of how much business they conduct. Still, it's worth considering how federal infrastructure dollars can be better attuned to the actual flow of traffic. At a minimum, investing more heavily in high-traffic areas ensures less dire consequences if some part of the apparatus fails and backups occur.
What are the advantages of tailoring aviation investment to the areas with the highest traffic? What are the disadvantages? Can the ideas for aviation be replicated in surface transportation? What protections need to be in place for underserved? How do these ideas impact the notion that all citizens should have access to public transportation?
There is nothing that gets regular people more riled up than airlines' checked bag fees, increased tolls, or sudden hikes in gas prices. They hate spending extra money on travel, especially when they feel they have no control over the seemingly random price. Unfortunately for the expert commenters on this blog, this type of grumbling represents the lion's share of the general public's experience with transportation policy. The area man only notices infrastructure when it hurts him.
Consumers see the transportation system in a way that the industry doesn't, as Innovation Briefs Publisher Ken Orski pointed out in his comment last week. They don't see crumbling bridges. They see a line of cars in front of a toll booth to cross that bridge.
Here are a few examples of how the public interest in transportation issues is sparked by consumers' wallets:
* In Virginia, there are squabbles over Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposal to put new tolls on Interstate 95 to pay for reconstruction of U.S. highway 460. Republican senatorial candidate George Allen has also expressed concern that the Northern Virginia's Washington-Dulles Toll Road will be saddled with huge increases to pay for a new metro rail line.
* My colleague Niraj Chokshi moderated a panel last week sponsored by the Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, where consumer advocates and independent air travel sellers argued for new rules requiring airlines to include ancillary fees in prices listed independent web sites. It's a hot issue for passengers, but it's more complicated than it appears on first blush. The airlines say that such regulations would tie their hands in terms of offering package deals customers and quash the industry's ability to create new, potentially market-shifting travel experiences like plush seating.
* President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney went deep into energy issues in last week's town hall debate. They talked about new drilling and clean energy. But let's not forget how they got there. The question was actually about gas prices, specifically whether the government should try to lower them. Even the experts can't agree on the government's role. Obama and Romney answered the question by talking about oil drilling (Romney) or clean energy (Obama)--things that have little direct connection with the price at the pump.
Does it make sense that consumers are often the last to find out about government policies that impact their own finances? How can the link between consumers and infrastructure wonks be drawn more closely? Are there layers of complexity that make a consumer-friendly dialogue impossible? How do airlines, toll booth and turnpike operators, or transit authorities respond to their customers' discontent? Is it worth it to try to engage them about broader transportation policy? If so, how?
I once received a lesson in light travel packing from a former military guy: Put everything you need in a pile. Then ask, "What do I really need?" Remove half of your stuff. Then ask again, "What do I really need?" Remove half your stuff again. Now you're ready to hike Pikes Peak.
It seems like similar questions are being asked of infrastructure. Do we really need bike paths? Do we really need to spend above the highway trust fund? NextGen's not really in trouble, is it? It's as if the pencil pushers want to freeze every road, bridge, runway, and railway in place until they are ready to handle them. Compared to the fiscal cliff or the debt ceiling, the need isn't immediate. So infrastructure simmers on the back burner while policymakers put out the bigger fires.
There has not been a scintilla of conversation in the presidential election about infrastructure, unless you accept the tangential debate over the auto bailout. The possibility of an automatic cut in discretionary spending looms over big chunks of the Transportation Department, but nobody is paying attention. (It's hard to yell that the infrastructure sky is falling when everyone else is making the same claim about their issue.)
No one disputes that infrastructure development will be a critical component of economic growth over the next several decades. The problem is, the people who run the show just can't deal with it yet.
So here is the existential question: What do we really need? Where should we focus our efforts, given the limited attention span of the federal government? What should we be talking about? Technology? Private-sector involvement? What are the big ideas? And how can we shrink the big ideas into a backpack that we can carry to the summit?
With spending cuts looming and lawmakers eyeing major entitlement and tax reform in the coming months and years, no sector--transportation included--can expect to be spared the budget axe.
The nation's mayors have warned that the $1.2 trillion in automatic year-end spending cuts under sequestration will particularly affect "investments in infrastructure, education, transportation and public safety" and numerous groups have warned about the impact to TIGER funds, Amtrak and other services. The Highway Trust Fund makes no appearance in the administration's sequestration plan, but even that doesn't necessarily mean it won't be subject to the whims of Congress.
Even if sequestration is avoided, transportation won't likely be spared. Last week, the budget watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense outlined a $2 trillion sequestration alternative--a set of cuts to programs that they deemed to be an "inefficient, ineffective, or wasteful use of taxpayer dollars." Over the next decade, they propose a $188 billion cut to transportation funding, with $110 billion coming out of general revenue transfers to the Highway Trust Fund. Similarly, they proposed a $50 billion cut to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund and a $22 billion cut to Airport Improvement Program grants.
But even the TCS proposal is blunt. Transportation funding will likely suffer cuts, but some are better than others. Are there obsolete programs more worthy of the axe? Or, more positively, do some programs deserve more funding because they offer a better return on investment? What can transportation advocates do to mitigate the impact of what are sure to be painful cuts?
No one can replace Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, our favorite moderate Midwestern Republican who has passionately told us not to text and drive and also made sure Congress caught hell when the Federal Aviation Administration was facing a partial shutdown. However, unless President Obama has convinced LaHood otherwise, he plans to step down from his post at the end of the president's current term. (In his typical straight-talk manner, he casually mentioned his plans to a Chicago reporter last year, causing an unintended news-cycle firestorm.)
Obama will need a replacement, so it's time to play the parlor game of who the next head of DOT will be: If Obama wins, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been mentioned as a candidate. There is also former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. How about former House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn? What about another moderate Republican in Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio?
If Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wins, LaTourette could also be on the list. (Hey, why not?) What about retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas? One college blogger from NextGen Journal thinks LaHood could be a possibility for Romney. He's a Republican after all. That's doubtful, however, considering the disdain LaHood has shown for Republicans in Congress.
For you experts, I have some more substantive questions: What are the biggest challenges for the next Transportation Secretary? What qualities would get that person to advance the ball on infrastructure? Where should LaHood's replacement have expertise? In business? In surface transportation? In aviation? In Congress? And while we're at it, why don't all of you throw any names into the hat that I haven't thought of.