A majority of the nation’s mayors want the new highway bill coming from Congress to emphasize streets and bridges over highways and to provide financing tools such as Build America Bonds, TIFIA loans or a national infrastructure bank.
“If you don’t want to add to the federal credit card,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, then this kind of innovative financing, using low-interest loans from the federal government, would be far cheaper than the standard matching-grant programs.
Reed spoke at a news conference Tuesday morning at which the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a survey of 176 cities.
Almost all the mayors, 93%, want reforms in federal transportation programs to give metropolitan areas a bigger share of federal money directly.
The problem with the current process in which city transportation aid normally flows through state legislatures, Reed said, is that they are dominated by rural interests.
As a result, urban areas are underfunded relative to their economic importance and population.
Financing tools such as BABs, Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loans, or a new national infrastructure bank would allow more projects to be developed and completed faster, according to 75% of the mayors.
As an example, the report points to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s America Fast Forward proposal.
As he did with a TIFIA loan to Los Angeles, a low-interest loan would be backed by local sales or gasoline taxes as collateral.
“Dollars delayed ... are dollars that don’t create jobs,” Reed said. And since the last highway bill expired in 2009, he has complained that cities have been “without a partner” in planning as well as paying for their infrastructure projects.
Highways should be a low priority, according to 80% of the mayors. Given continuing deterioration of their infrastructure and the increasing costs of state-of-good-repair maintenance, more than three quarters of the mayors said existing roads and bridges should get the highest priority funding.
The per-gallon gasoline tax is no longer providing enough revenue to finance federal transportation aid at the same level as in the last highway bill, which expired in 2009.
There is little appetite in Congress for raising the tax, so financing the new highway bill has become one of the toughest issues on Capitol Hill.
Some lawmakers are proposing a two-year bill instead of the traditional six-year highway bill. The mayors would prefer six years but “two years is better than what we have now, which is nothing,” according to Reed.
Without a larger share of funding going directly to cities, only 7% of the mayors surveyed said they would support an increase in the federal gas tax. If federal surface transportation aid is distributed by the same formulas it is now, 56% would oppose an increase in the federal gasoline tax.
If the federal aid programs are reformed as the mayors would like, then 89% of them said they could support a higher gas tax.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors survey covered more than 100 cities and was co-sponsored by infrastructure firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.