Business, community leaders urged to demand federal transit funds

By Megan Poinski

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, an outspoken advocate for infrastructure funding, told hundreds of business leaders in Baltimore to take the direct approach to get more federal dollars and funding avenues for the state’s roads, bridges, rails and mass transit.

“Beat up these guys, the men and women serving in Congress, about transportation funds,” Rendell said. “And stop giving them campaign contributions. Because politics only works when there are consequences.”

Rendell and three other transportation funding advocates – U.S. Transportation Department Deputy Secretary John Porcari, CSX President Michael Ward, and American Road and Transportation Builders Association President Pete Ruane – spoke to a packed house at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s annual transportation summit on Wednesday.

All four speakers urged community and business leaders to get involved in lobbying for infrastructure funds and support – and got enthusiastic applause in return.

The nation’s transportation infrastructure, Rendell said, is vital to the country’s future prosperity and economic development.  The American Society of Civil Engineers has projected a $2.2 trillion gap in U.S. infrastructure – and Rendell said that’s what the nation needs to spend to maintain what it already has. While there is already a mounting federal deficit and nobody wants to add more to it, Rendell said that there are some creative ways to try to raise some money – such as making it possible for tolls to be collected on interstate highways, a move Rendell said would be akin to charging user fees.

But Rendell said there is no way to do all the work that needs to be done solely through new revenue sources, and money will have to be borrowed. However, he pointed out that transportation is a good investment; about $1 billion came into Pennsylvania’s economy for materials ordered to do projects with funds from the federal stimulus bill. In turn, that created about 25,000 jobs.

The federal government allocates transportation improvement funds in six-year intervals, and the last interval expired last year. Right now, federal funds have been extended to cover 2010. Ruane, whose group is the nation’s oldest advocate for national transportation construction-related issues, said that another six-year block must be passed early next year. If it is not, lack of long-term funds to plan federal transportation projects would be “a disaster,” he said.

Porcari said that President Obama announced earlier this month that appropriating these funds – plus adding $50 billion for more projects – is one of his priorities.

“Transportation is an enabler for future economic growth and quality of life. A means to an end,” Porcari said. “We need to be thinking about how it fits into the long-term competitiveness of America.”

In order to best take advantage of the nation’s transportation options, Porcari said that funds should go to improve infrastructure for not just roads, but freight rail, passenger rail, mass transit, and air travel as well. Obama’s plans for the next six-year block of transportation funds include building 50,000 miles of roads, 4,000 miles of railroad tracks, and 150 miles of runways, Porcari said.

CSX, the railroad corporation, has been putting money into making infrastructure repairs every year for the last three decades, Ward said. Forty percent of CSX revenues goes into maintaining the infrastructure. It is important for the public sector to put that much emphasis on keeping the nation’s roads, bridges, and other transit options up to par.

“We are living off of what was built a generation ago,” Ward said. “It is tough to maintain, and we’ve just been patching our systems and deferring the real work for the future. Well, soon the time will come when the future is now.”

In a separate conference on health care issues, well-known local economist Anirban Basu of the Sage Policy Group renewed his criticism of the $787 billion federal stimulus program and its failure to spend more money on new infrastructure, such as a high speed rail line between Baltimore and Washington or fixing the nation’s air traffic control system. Instead, less than 10% went to transportation projects, and much of that was spent on road resurfacing. A much larger portion went to help state and local budgets.

“We’ve allowed the state budget to be larger than it should be,” Basu said.

The state’s new Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding begins meeting next week.

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