The only place the federal government seems to fund the transportation of the future is in and around Washington, D.C. The District has a superb commuter rail system that is being extended to Dulles Airport as we speak, plus excellent buses and great biking trails, and is even getting a new downtown trolley.
So, Uncle, how about the rest of us?
The vision for a nationwide multimodal transportation system certainly did not shine forth from the $105 billion surface transportation bill passed by Congress and signed into law last week by President Obama. The best that can be said about it is that it could have been worse. A compromise between a good Senate bill and a terrible House proposal, the bill provides essentially level funding for roads and transit when both are in dire need of much more funding.
But Congress can't make a larger commitment because the Highway Trust Fund is going broke and Congress has neither the foresight nor the fortitude to either raise the federal gas tax, which has been at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, or find some other way to pay for transportation.
So we have a bill that reduces environmental protections by easing regulations on certain projects, cuts funding for pedestrian and biking projects and — incredibly — gives a smaller tax benefit to commuters who use transit than to those who park. Don't we want people to use transit?
The bill has some positive aspects; states will be able to continue road and bridge projects, and the federal approval process is streamlined. But the bill is still a disappointment, a missed opportunity, as some critics charge. It took three years to pass this bill and it only runs for 27 months, so Congress had better start work on the next one. Hopefully it will be an improvement.
Meanwhile, Connecticut, which has relied heavily — perhaps too heavily — on federal highway funds in recent decades, better start thinking about raising more of its own transportation funding. Until Congress starts treating the rest of the country like it does Washington, it's going to be a challenge.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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