Wednesday, September 2, 2009

OKI director offers idea for transportation funding

Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) executive director Mark Policinski offered a new idea for better funding our nation's transportation infrastructure during this year's Transportation MATTERS annual meeting in Columbus on August 19.

"At a time when the emerging global economy requires an infrastructure network that puts a razor's edge on our competitiveness, at a time when market forces have integrated to foster all modes of transportation, at a time potential safety failures mushroom due to the age of our infrastructure and at a time when the public finally gets the critical, causal nexus between infrastructure and jobs…at this precise time in history when these factors are finally aligned, our country is flat broke," Policinski said.

Policinski said that raising taxes to cover transportation infrastructure is always unpopular, and increases in the gasoline tax are not likely to ever happen.

Funding through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 was "just a sliver of what it should have been", he said.

"Add in the 'shovel-ready' requirements and the tight time tables and the impact on the economy has been slight to date," Policinski said. "We can only fervently hope that as more stimulus money is pushed into the economy, jobs will be created and the recovery will begin in earnest. However, because the stimulus did not deliver the economic jolt that was predicted, the chances of a second stimulus package aimed at infrastructure does not have political backing."

To garner revenue, Policinski offered an idea that he said "bypass traditional thinking", Regional Infrastructure Improvements Zones (RIIZ)

RIIZ would involve a change in the federal tax code that would allow businesses and individuals to receive a tax deduction for contributions to the cost of a public good, such as transportation infrastructure improvements.

Multi-jurisdictional planning bodies such as OKI would determine if the proposed project has local support and is part of the regional long-range plan, with final approval coming from the planning organization's board of directors.

"I believe that such a change in the tax law would direct substantial new dollars to infrastructure improvements," Policinski said. "Importantly, these new dollars come from a new source — the private sector."

He said that this change could significantly impact areas of heavy congestion, such as Tylersville Road, Colerain Avenue, Dixie Highway, and Beechmont Avenue.

"Commercial activity is lost because customers cannot get to businesses," Policinski said. "Under RIIZs, businesses would be able to contribute to a solution that provides a public good, such as left hand turn lanes, and receive a tax break. Local government would have local match to make the improvement in congestion management. With more local funds, land use could be landscaped into these solutions."

RIIZs would also help create the required local match that could leverage federal funds, he said.

The idea is already building support from regional and national governments, non-profits, and planning organizations.

"Our years of hard work on this matter will bear fruit next month when legislation establishing RIIZs will be introduced by Senator Specter of Pennsylvania," he said. "We also anticipate original co-sponsors to the bill from across the political spectrum."

Policinski said that the change is needed because the current system of funding is inefficient and wasteful, and cited as an example the Brent Spence Bridge replacement, a project that could take up to twenty years from planning through completion.

Every year of delay means that tens of billions of dollars are lost, he said.

"The entire federal highway system was built in about 35 years," Policinski said. "We will be lucky to build one bridge in half that time in southwest Ohio. Another perspective that is startling is, when necessary, the process can move at lightning speed. Consider when the Highway 40 bridge in Oklahoma tragically collapsed that its replacement took 59 days to build. Certainly, there were great differences between that bridge and its circumstances and the Brent Spence Bridge, but, just as certainly there must be a worthy compromise between 59 days and two decades, that is, between 59 days and 7,240 days."

According to Policinski, Americans must place efficiency in building things in this country on the same level as they do safety.

"If that sounds harsh to you, I maintain that new competent process is far more protective to citizens than the current system that allows dangerous conditions on our roads and bridges to exist for decades all in the name of this flawed process," he said. "Unless the process is fixed, there is no reasonably expected amount of federal dollars that will yield a competitive infrastructure grid. We will be wasting or allowing inflation to erode most of any new infrastructure funds. And, we will continue to expose citizens to unsafe transportation."

The more than 50 attendees also heard presentations highlighting the American Society of Civil Engineer's Infrastructure Report Card; the federal view of transportation reauthorization from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association; and a panel discussion on economic competitiveness, retaining talent, world-class mobility and quality-of-life issues, and maximizing funding through Vehicle Miles Traveled pilot funding programs.

Cincinnati City councilmember Roxanne Qualls, who serves on the Transportation MATTERS board of directors, also was in attendance.

Previous reading on BC:
Cincinnati supports Transportation MATTERS (2/24/09)
Transportation task force wants your input (5/27/08)