CHICAGO -- With motor fuel tax revenues in a long-term slide, transportation advocates need to get better at convincing the public and elected officials about the link between infrastructure and regional economic health, speakers at the Bond Buyer’s Transportation Finance/P3 conference said.

“The days of money raining down on us from Washington are over,” Randall Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, said Thursday. “We have to think about new and innovative ways to leverage government money in ways we haven’t thought of.”

Raising new revenue -- either with public-private partnerships, managed lanes, or congestion taxes -- needs to be on the forefront of officials’ minds as they plan for the next 20 years, panelists said.

“It’s not just the roughness of the roads or the congestion,” Blankenhorn said. “If we make this investment, how does it create more long-lasting jobs, how does it meet the goals of our community and of our state? The stuff people care about, that’s really hard to measure and we’re not very good at it and we have to get better.”

Linking infrastructure projects to economic development could also pave the way to a new source of revenue from the areas where the highway or project is located. Setting up tax increment financing districts or special assessment districts and tapping some of the incremental property tax revenue could prove a key funding source for projects, panelists said.

“It’s a hard sell to local officials but it’s a way for the public sector to get something back from the investment they’re making,” Blankenhorn said. “It’s real money and we in Illinois haven’t done a very good job of figuring out how to [tap] that.” 

A public-private partnership is too often the easy way out for elected officials reluctant to do the hard work of raising new money, said Robert Stevens, president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“P3s have had some impact, but not as much as many of the elected officials would like to have happen,” Stevens said during a luncheon speech. “It’s an easy way to get out of doing the job that the elected officials need to do, which is: Give us more money that we need to maintain and improve our infrastructure.”

People need to tell elected officials to support new funding, said Stevens, who noted that ASCE’s new report card gives the country’s infrastructure a dismal grade of D-plus. “They need to hear from us in great number,” he said.

Texas is reaching its peak in terms of the amount of fuel tax revenue it can expect to see, and will soon start to face growing demand with diminished dollars, said Robert Farley, researcher for the Texas Transportation Institute.

“The new trends are eating away at our collective purchasing power,” Farley said, referring in part to federal fuel efficiency standards, which are estimated to lead to a 30% drop in motor fuel tax revenue over the next 20 to 25 years.

“The size of this gap is getting to be something that’s not sustainable,” Farley said. “We’ve really got to be agile in coming up with pricing strategies, if not home runs at least doubles, to get us out from behind this ever-growing albatross.”

In addition to public-private partnerships, new-revenue raising trends including congestion pricing, high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes will be used increasingly, panelists predicted.

But tolling on most major roads could end up being one of the few choices left, experts said. 

“We have to move away from the gas tax eventually but it’s a transition,” Blankenhorn said. “Our position is that Congress either needs to give us money or step out of the way,” he said. “The question we struggle with here is how are we going to ever have enough money without tolling our expressway system?”

Farley agreed. “There’s a certain inevitability of that,” he said.

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