Funding crisis creates opportunities to re-orient transportation spending

Lower-cost upgrades to Route 29 in Charlottesville avoided construction of an unneeded and costly bypass by improving existing infrastructure to keep traffic flowing on a busy route lined with businesses. (© Jack Looney)

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam recently finished a 15-city tour highlighting a challenge common across the country: Federal and state transportation funding—largely dependent on gas taxes—is not keeping pace with infrastructure needs.

“We can't keep going like we are now,” Haslam said. “It's real simple. Vehicles get about twice as good mileage now as they did the last time we addressed this 26 years ago. Yet maintaining and paving roads costs three times as much. That doesn't work forever."

Tennessee is not alone in this struggle as transportation funding has been a hot topic of debate throughout the Southeast. Members of a transportation committee in the Alabama House of Representatives just passed a bill in September recommending an increase in their state gas tax. Meanwhile, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia all recently passed major transportation funding legislation. In addition, both North Carolina and Virginia have introduced new project-ranking systems designed to improve the quality of proposals moving forward.

In each of these states much of the debate around this issue centers on where to find more money, too often neglecting to ask how the money could best be spent.

“We need to stop spending the money we do have on the outsized priorities of the past and start focusing scarce resources on transportation solutions that will serve the diverse needs of our growing populations for decades to come,” explained SELC attorney Kym Hunter.

To that end, SELC advocates:

  • scrapping costly and destructive highway boondoggles that are far too common in our region,
  • increasing the efficiency of existing infrastructure,
  • adopting a “fix it first” approach that prioritizes maintenance, and
  • creating processes to evaluate and prioritize project proposals.

A balanced reconsideration of funding and spending also means moving beyond an emphasis on new and expanded highways that has dominated transportation programs in the Southeast. Instead, we need to provide a greater range of transportation choices, such as trains, express buses, bike paths, and light rail. As states grapple with these funding challenges, they need to seize the opportunity to move beyond expensive, unwarranted highway projects towards a more financially and environmentally sustainable transportation approach.

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