Connaughton: Fed programs hinder states
The U.S. government should place more emphasis on freight policy and give states more flexibility to use transportation dollars to address infrastructure and other local needs, according to Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton.
Officials in Washington focus too much on commuter issues and not enough on infrastructure and programs that support commerce, he said in March at an informal forum on maritime transport convened by Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., and in a June 10 address to the National Industrial League's spring conference outside Washington.
'Freight should be the No. 1 policy goal,' Connaughton elaborated in an interview. 'Commuter issues are critical, yet they are of a local and state significance. For us, the federal government needs to put a lot more effort into freight policy because that's what leads to economic development and enhances our competitiveness.'
The $1.5 billion TIGER grant program included in the 2009 Recovery Act was lauded in many quarters for attempting to award money based on merit and impact to the economy. The U.S. Transportation Department is administering a $600 million competition with money from the regular 2010 appropriation process.
But Connaughton expressed frustration that the program rewarded states and regional partnerships with new projects more than those that already had made investments.
Rewarding areas that have used their own capital for innovative projects would motivate other entities to take the initiative on transportation infrastructure, he argued.
'What we'd like is some recognition and support for governments that already put money forward,' he explained later.
Virginia, for example, has committed tens of millions of dollars in recent years to the Heartland Corridor and National Gateway, two public-private partnerships for improving the efficiency of intermodal freight rail. Those projects received TIGER funding, but not as much as requested.
Connaughton shares the concern of many other transportation experts, industry leaders and public transportation advocates about the lack of a long-term, national transportation strategy that addresses the infrastructure investment shortfall and national mobility issues in a coordinated fashion. Governments at all levels are struggling to find alternative sources of revenue as fuel tax receipts decline in the face of slower economic activity and the use of more fuel-efficient vehicles.
States, therefore, need the ability to raise money from new sources and use federal dollars where the needs are greatest instead of following general rules about how formula grants must be spent, Connaughton said.
Virginia Department of Transportation
|'Freight should be the No.1 policy goal' For us, the federal government needs to put a lot more effort into freight policy because that's what leads to economic development and enhances our competitiveness.'|
Virginia is considered a donor state that only receives 92 cents in aid for every dollar in federal gas tax revenue it collects.
One way to untie the hands of state transportation departments is to give them greater authority to toll and use tolls collected on interstate highways for transportation improvements anywhere in the state, Connaughton said. States are not allowed to implement tolls on existing interstates except under some limited programs that require U.S. Transportation Department permission. They can impose tolls on any new roads built within their jurisdiction. Federal rules stipulate that states must use toll receipts to improve highways on which the tolls were collected and not for other roadways, transit or other purposes.
Virginia officials say they want tolling rules to be loosened to increase the areas where they can toll and speed up the fairly lengthy approval process so revenues can be collected, and improvements made, as quickly as possible.
'We want the ability to find ways to use the money and toll elsewhere for infrastructure,' the former federal Maritime Administrator, said.
Gov. Bob McDonnell's administration also favors loosening restrictions on commercializing rest areas along interstate highways. States are only allowed to provide vending machines at rest stops and cannot sell merchandise or food from storefronts.
The Virginia Transportation Research Council is conducting a study to determine the best way to operate retail concessions if the state had the authority to do so, Matt Strader, assistant secretary of transportation, told American Shipper.
'With as many people that visit rest stops we think there's an opportunity to generate some more revenues for transportation in Virginia,' he said.
Changes to toll road and rest stop rules are part of a list of 60 ideas for potential legislative fixes at the national level that state agencies, stakeholder groups and legislators have come up with at McDonnell's request to quickly bring funding to bear on projects. The groups have also compiled 135 ideas for streamlining regulations at the state level ' such as an employer tax credit for teleworkers ' to move transportation more efficiently.
Other ideas compiled for changing the state code:
' Reduce the minimum level of cash or in-kind matching contribution from 30 percent to 20 percent for short line rail projects supported by the Rail Preservation Fund because small railroads have limited cash resources.
' Establish an Intermodal Container Rail Freight and Container Barge Freight Trade Incentive Fund to help divert trucks from road to rail on short-haul moves by offsetting the extra handling costs.
' Create a $50 tax credit for importers and exporters that utilize intermodal rail or barge service instead of trucks to move containers through the Port of Virginia.
' Change the law so the Department of Motor Vehicles must only notify localities rather than get their acquiescence before issuing an oversize/overweight permit for cargo transport on specified primary highways that cross the local jurisdiction.
State DOT officials are gathering comments from boards and commissions that oversee transportation, as well as outside groups, to see if consensus can be generated to turn any of the ideas into legislation later this year or next, Strader said.