Transportation Helps Our Region Compete
By Lyle Wray, Capitol Region Council of Governments and Oz Griebel, MetroHartford Alliance
Imagine for a moment what life in our region would be like if we couldn’t rely on key transportation networks such as the Interstate system, bridges over the Connecticut River and the network of streets that serve autos, freight and transit. Would we have anything like the economic success and quality of life we enjoy today? And if our economy struggles around flawed transportation, what would that mean for our state?
Now look into the future. We need to see transportation as an investment and not just an expense. How should we make prudent investments to improve our transportation network in order to strengthen our economic competitiveness? Certainly we should make improvements to streets, maintain our bridges, and expand transit and active transportation options. Investments like these not only will keep the economy functioning, but will also sustain our quality of life by managing traffic more efficiently, improving access to jobs and markets and spurring development throughout the region.
The 1.7 million person Hartford-Springfield metropolitan region and others like it across the country are the heart of the modern economy, and good transportation networks are the circulation system, literally and figuratively. In truth, our nation’s economy is only as strong as the local economies that make it up.
Our businesses can’t recruit and retain workers if their employees are forced to endure hours of congestion each day. They can’t attract young talent to regions lacking a range of appealing, affordable and convenient transportation options. And they can’t get freight where it needs to go on freeways clogged with commuters in ever-lengthening rush hours.
Our plans – and our local, regional and statewide success – hinge on promised contributions from the federal transportation program. Right now, however, those funds are threatened, because the trust fund that provides them is headed for insolvency as soon as August. The problem is the gas tax dollars that feed it are falling off as vehicles become more efficient and mileage driven has decreased. At the same time, inflation has eroded the buying power of a per-gallon fee that hasn’t changed since 1993.
The transportation fund actually began to run deficits five years ago, and over that time Congress has had to transfer over $50 billion from other areas of the hotly contested federal budget to plug the holes.
This time, the hole is too big. We either need to put more money into modernizing our infrastructure, or watch it crumble along with our economic prosperity.
That’s why it’s encouraging that several congressmen have introduced legislation to address the shortfall with sustainable revenue. Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a bill to increase the gas tax and index it to inflation. Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) has a bill to repeal the gas tax and replace it with a per-barrel levy on oil. It is widely recognized that the gas tax alone will not pay for our critically needed transportation investments and that nonstop electronic tolling, congestion pricing and other revenue sources and approaches will be required. At this point there is limited support for other such alternatives, thus requiring us to support the proposed gasoline tax increase.
Recently, Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn) proposed bi-partisan legislation to increase the gas tax, index it to inflation and permanently extend tax breaks for working families. These leaders should both be praised for showing political courage on a tough issue and proposing sustainable solutions. While we should applaud this very important step, more must be done in the future to ensure adequate and sustainable funding for our critical transportation infrastructure.
The gas tax issue isn’t the “third rail” that conventional wisdom would have you believe. Recent research conducted by Transportation for America shows that seven states have raised transportation taxes in the last two years with little fallout. In recent elections in two of those states, Pennsylvania and Virginia, 95 percent of supportive incumbents won their races, with little or no debate over gas taxes.
As a leader on this proposal, Senator Murphy has committed to addressing the funding shortfall in the long-term. He deserves our backing to seek a sustainable funding solution that helps us continue to invest in the critical transportation networks our economy needs to thrive. It is now up to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee and the collective body in Congress to ensure hardworking and innovative regions such as ours don’t fall behind our competition.
Lyle Wray serves as executive director of the 38-town Capitol Region Council of Governments.
Oz Griebel is president and CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, which serves as the economic development leader/driver for the Hartford Region and as the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
This piece was also published in the Hartford Business Journal.