AASHTO Journal, 26 June 2015
The chief executives of state departments of transportation in Iowa and Colorado told congressional panels that states need Congress to soon enact long-term, well-funded legislation to invest in highway and transit infrastructure.
At a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing June 24, Iowa DOT Director Paul Trombino was among witnesses there to testify about “meeting the transportation needs of rural America.”
Trombino, who is also vice president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, urged Congress to take “prompt action on a well-funded, long-term surface transportation bill that clearly reflects and serves the national interest, in rural parts of the country as well as in our urban centers.
“No matter the geographic region, the simple unifying fact is that America needs a federal transportation program that provides robust investment levels coupled with long-term funding stability that serves our national priorities,” he said.
Trombino also said lawmakers “should continue to provide states with flexibility by streamlining regulations and program requirements, while not diminishing the percentage of funds distributed by formula.”
But he emphasized that “enacting this well-funded, long-term federal program with flexibility for states is absolutely critical if we are to address significant transportation challenges, and, thereby, strengthen every part of the United States and its economy.”
He described Iowa’s rural transportation needs as part of national supply chain system for distributing farm commodities needed across the nation. Trombino noted that changes in the 2012 highway/transit bill reduced federal funding for rural transit buses and bus facilities, so that many Iowa rural transit buses are running beyond their useful life standards at a time of growing demand.
Separately, Shailen Bhatt, executive director of the Colorado DOT, told a June 25 Senate Finance Committee hearing on innovative project financing – such as more use of public-private partnerships – that “Congress can’t fix a funding problem through financing. I cannot emphasize enough that critical point: Financing mechanisms cannot correct what is essentially a funding problem due to revenue shortfalls.”
Bhatt added: “Our nation’s highways need a stable funding source first and foremost if we want to move ahead in transportation. I believe it is critical we address these infrastructure improvements not only in Colorado but nationally … I implore you to find a way to secure a stable, long-term revenue base for a robust, six-year surface transportation bill this year.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who chairs the committee, said in his opening remarks that “I want to make sure it is clear that, while they are important, these financing alternatives and ideas are not meant to address the immediate shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund. As long as our federal highway program is based upon reimbursements to states made on a formula basis, there is no workable substitute for federal funding.”
Hatch said the options can help states finance construction projects and give states more flexibility to obtain capital to build them quickly. “However, we should also remember that financing carries with it the expectation of repayment and future return,” he said, and is not to be mistaken for a new source of revenue.
“That is important to remember,” Hatch said. “Pulling taxes and other revenues from the future into the present does not create new resources.”
Bhatt detailed some use of P3 financing and cost-saving construction methods by CDOT, but returned to his main point.
“Colorado certainly needs to step up and do our part, and we are,” he said. “But our transportation system has federal interests, including interstate commerce and quality of life of all citizens, and we need to continue to have a strong federal partner in transportation.”