Friday, April 22, 2011

Tranportation Funding: lean times call for thinking outside the box - unless that means sprawl.

State governments are hard pressed to provide adequate funding for new transportation projects, let alone, fund the necessary maintenance to existing infrastructure. But this is a funding issue that is of critical importance and must be adequately addressed in order for states, and the country as a whole, to remain competitive within the global market. In order to maintain a competitive advantage, spur economic development and growth, and ensure the efficient movement of people and goods, it is necessary that we maintain and improve our transportation infrastructure and networks. Minnesota has started looking at alternative methods for funding transportation improvements. The state has taken a two pronged approach: one, by changing the taxing scheme by which we raise revenue; and two, by finding new sources of capital other than bonding or increasing tax revenue. While Minnesota might be on the path to finding innovative ways to financing transportation, this new approach could also inhibit sound planning.

A bill making it's way through the Minnesota House proposes two innovative solutions for funding transportation projects: one, transitioning from a gasoline tax to a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax; and two, prioritizing projects where local governments or private parties provide the funding.

The VMT tax has been identified as a more effective methods of taxing the use of infrastructure. However, the Federal gas tax hasn't increased since 1993. At the same time, fuel efficiency in autos has nullified the ability of the gas tax to provide sufficient funding for transportation improvements. Raising the necessary funds to "maintain constant revenue per vehicle mile would require [increasing the] cents-per-gallon fuel tax rates..." and taxing "some technologies (e.g., electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles) [that] do not consume the fuels that are now within the highway user tax scheme." Ultimately, drivers spend less on fuel tax per mile traveled than anytime since the 1970s. That is why "a miles tax could capture revenue lost from more fuel-efficient vehicles while continuing the principle of using motorist fees to pay for most highway work." The more miles you travel on Minnesota roads, the more your civic responsibility for maintaining them!Assuming that the state takes extraordinary caution to protect private travel data, recording miles traveled seems like a fair and equitable method of funding transportation projects.

The second approach being considered seems to be a more questionable method of funding. The newly controlled Republican Minnesota House has put forth House File 1378 that permits "local governments or private parties to essentially front the money for a project that is on MnDOT’s long-term to-do list." It can be assumed that some projects are prioritized because they are in the public's interest, while other projects are given less priority because they serve more narrow needs. If a local government or private entity can provide the necessary funding to push forward a transportation project, regardless of the planning implications, won't speculators and myopic municipalities usurp the planning priorities of state, or regional, planning authorities? It's also important to point out that this is part of a larger battle in the Minnesota House to reduce funding for public transportation since "the House omnibus bill would cut $138 million from transportation funding... with $129 million of the reduction coming from state appropriations to the Metropolitan Council, a regional transit authority and the administrator of Metro Transit." That appears to be a blatant attack on Minnesota's principle urban planning authority.

The Minnesota State Legislature is right to look at new and innovative ways to finance our transportation infrastructure, but we need to be vigilent about who are the biggest benefactors. Charging drivers for their use of roads seems appropriate; giving preference to infrastructure projects that are financed by third parties and serve narrow interests, but receive tax payer dollars, seems questionable. If this pilot program moves forward, there should be adequate over site to make sure that private or local interests don't override considerations for the greater common good. If planning authorities intend to have any control over transportation and land-use plans, then the legislation needs to provide provisions that ensure that alternative infrastructure funding is consistent with long term planning goals.

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