Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Crisis in Transportation, Part Two

A flatlining economy. Intolerable and worsening traffic congestion. Falling transportation revenues. Maryland has all of these problems. So does Oregon. The difference is that Oregon’s political leadership is doing something about it.

In December 2007, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski (D) saw all of these problems coming. He convened an advisory panel of business leaders, labor leaders, transportation advocates and state and county politicians to recommend the best way to deal with the state’s economic, budgetary and transportation officials. Their report, delivered just this month, contains these findings:

1. The Challenge
The report defines Oregon’s challenge this way:

Oregon’s transportation system is not currently equipped to respond to the needs of a global economy, increases in population, rising energy costs and the obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change. As Oregonians begin to drive fewer miles in more fuel-efficient vehicles, the revenues from the gas tax and related fees will continue to be less than necessary to meet needs. In fact, ODOT predicts that, within the next few years, revenues will decline in real as well as relative terms. This reduction, combined with the rapid increase in the cost of construction, severely limit Oregon’s capability to maintain and preserve existing infrastructure. Further, the economic slowdown the country is facing reduces reso-urces even more. Oregon’s challenge is to find a sustainable way to fund a transportation system that supports a vibrant economy, creates jobs and offers safe, efficient options for travel.
Every word of that statement applies equally well to Maryland.

2. Recommendations
Among many other things, the committee recommended:

A. A dedicated fund for non-highway investments.
B. Studying per-mile road user fees like vehicle mile taxes (VMTs).
C. Implementing a pilot congestion fee project.
D. Creating regional transportation utility commissions to collect and distribute revenues to projects in those regions.
E. Implementing variable first-time title fees to give buyers of fuel-efficient vehicles lower rates than buyers of gas guzzlers.
F. Providing tax incentives to promote alternative vehicle technologies (like plug-in hybrids).
G. Providing incentives for clean diesel technologies.
H. Supporting “pay-as-you-drive” insurance policies, which would tie premiums to actual auto use.
I. A finance package combining increases in registration fees, title fees and a two-cent gas tax hike resulting in $499 million per year in new funding for transportation.

The report estimated the revenue increases would cost motorists $85-265 per year. It also estimated that poor road conditions cost motorists more than $400 per year in additional vehicle maintenance.

After receiving the report, Governor Kulongoski incorporated many of its recommendations – including the $499 million annual financing package – into his Jobs and Transportation Act of 2009. In proposing the act, the Governor said:

One of the most important investments we can make during a slow economy is in public works projects, such as transportation... We have a long bipartisan tradition of investing in transportation in good times and in bad times. Building roads, bridges and public transit is good for the economy and our citizens by putting people back to work.
The Governor estimated that the transportation program would create 2,100 construction jobs every year and called it “the most robust, sustainable, strategic and green transportation package in Oregon history.”

Will Oregon’s Governor get his way? Democrats control 18 seats in the 30-seat Senate and 36 seats in the 60-seat House. The legislation should also receive significant business support since the advisory committee included 25 business representatives among its 69 members. So while the package will perhaps be tweaked in the legislature, some version of it may very well become law. And Governor Kulongoski will be hailed by business and labor alike for creating jobs during a recession.

So what of Maryland? We will conclude in Part Three.