WASHINGTON — State transportation agency officials are working together to develop strategies aimed at making investment in infrastructure more palatable to the public, as their fears of a growing investment gap meet public concerns about issuing more long-term debt.
The thoughts and strategies of 24 state department of transportation members are documented in a new report released late last week by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Compiled from presentations submitted by state DOTs around the country during a June gathering in Irvine, Calif., the report reveals a pressing need for state officials to overcome the public's reluctance to pay higher taxes or support new bond debt.
"When public resources are stretched and funding priorities are being set, transportation agencies need to help their communities understand why investments must be made," said Kirk Steudle, AASHTO president and director of the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Although politicians on both sides of the aisle have trumpeted the need for new investment in roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure, new sources of revenue to replace the ailing highway trust fund have been slow to gain widespread acceptance. Federal lawmakers were unable to do more than fund transportation programs at existing levels during legislative wrangling earlier this year. Proposals for a national infrastructure bank and tax-credit transportation bond legislation sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. have not gained headway.
On the state level, resistance to additional funding mechanisms can also be high, even if the public seems to understand the need for more investment. New programs to toll Interstate 95 in North Carolina and Virginia have met some fierce resistance from both the trucking industry and civilian activists, and many people are supportive of only very small gasoline tax increases, if they support them at all.
"Affordability is a concern, so a fuel tax increase of only two or three cents seems manageable for most," according to a Colorado Department of Transportation memo included in the AASHTO report. "Support seemed to level out at about 10%, which is an additional 2.2 cents to the existing 22 cents per gallon for state fuel tax. Even with this, there was still a significant amount of hesitation, especially in rural areas."
A major takeaway from the meeting and subsequent report is that public support for more transportation investment, including new debt issuance to support that investment, is reliant on the public's realizing a visible benefit to the new spending.
"Because bonding was used to fund most of the projects, future revenues became a concern as debt payments increased," Missouri Department of Transportation customer relations director Mara Campbell declared in an explanation of MoDOT'S efforts to gain public support for a 10-year investment initiative. "Any revenue increase will have to passed by a ballot, so residents must see the needs and benefits if they are to support it at the polls."
Brian Peters, assistant secretary for finance and administration at the Florida Department of Transportation, suggested making toll projects more acceptable by closely tailoring them to specific regions.
"Although there is still some resistance to tolls, given the widespread media coverage, the public is no longer surprised by the idea that tolls are necessary for new projects," his presentation stated. "The message is tailored to the region — bringing specific regional project needs to the forefront."
Steudle said he hopes the report will be a useful tool for DOTs facing an increasingly tough time.
"This report will help agencies to adopt a more strategic approach to communications and give the public a greater appreciation for the investments being made nationwide," he said.