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Transportation bill, not yet passed, already blasted by critics

House and Senate negotiators are considering how to mesh two very different transportation bills, but experts and lobbyists say neither bill addresses the fundamental problems.

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Another solution, perhaps even more promising to transportation experts, involves taxing drivers by the number of miles they drive – an idea known as a vehicle miles traveled system, or VMT. This ensures a stable funding stream even as drivers increasingly turn to hybrid and electric cars. 

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While there are many permutations of such a system, one method currently being piloted in Oregon will allow about 50 drivers to use a variety of devices to track how many miles they drive and charge them accordingly.

“The states as innovators will find the solution,” says Jim Whitty, manager of the division of the Oregon Department of Transportation group implementing the VMT pilot program this September, noting that Oregon was the first to pass a gas tax in 1919. “The key is to get the thing started” on the national level. 

Getting a VMT system up and running could take 15 years, estimates Mr. Atkinson.

“That’s why people like myself have been urging Congress to be more proactive,” says R. Richard Geddes, a professor at Cornell University who served on a commission preceding the NSTIFC focused on transportation policy. Some cities, such as Stockholm, Singapore, and London" have started, he said, "but there really is no federal leadership on this.” 

Still, the Senate bill sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D) of California and Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, which is touted as creating or maintaining as many as 1.8 million jobs, has merits, experts say.

  • It significantly consolidates federal transportation programs from roughly 100 to a third as many.
  • It speeds up the delivery of projects by cutting back on regulations.
  • It offers more flexibility to states to partner with the private sector on infrastructure projects, particularly tolls.
  • It eliminates the nearly 6,000 "pork-barrel" projects that riddled its most recent predecessor, among them the vaunted “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.
  • It heads off a massive downshift in federal aid for highway spending slated for the 2013 fiscal year, when funds would wither to $12.8 billion from $38.9 billion the previous year.

The shortfall is a parable of Congress's ad hoc approach to transportation funding.

Congress approved more projects than it could pay for in 2005, assuaging itself with a promise to consider how it could reform its transportation-funding mechanisms. No reforms followed, but a recession did, dramatically shrinking revenues in the trust fund. In 2008, Congress gave the fund a $35 billion infusion to keep it afloat, but that has now been chewed up, leaving the potential $26 billion shortfall next year. 

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