Bob Alger, left, testifies at July 16 House hearing. (Luiza Carson photo)
By John Schneidawind, vice president of public affairs, ARTBA
ARTBA Chairman Bob Alger July 16 told a congressional hearing that the best way to increase investment in mass transit and other transportation options is to provide a permanent revenue solution for the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF). His remarks drew praise from the top Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.
Alger, chairman of Connecticut-based Lane Construction Corporation, represented ARTBA at a hearing on “Oversight of the Federal Transit Administration’s Implementation of the Capital Investment Grant Program.” That program has been under attack by Democrats in Congress who blame budget cutbacks by the Trump Administration for delays in CIG funding of mass transit systems across the country.
While voicing support for the CIG program, Alger emphasized: “Congress’s chronic failure to fix the Highway Trust Fund program threatens all federal surface transportation programs, including transit projects.”
In response, Subcommittee Chairwoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) praised Alger for momentarily departing from the hearing’s topic. “It’s a well-placed critique of Congress,” she said. “I couldn’t agree more with the fact that you detoured from your testimony to discuss the Highway Trust Fund. I think it sends a message to this committee about how important it is to get something done in raising the gas tax.” Norton’s panel is a subcommittee of the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which will play a key role in moving any infrastructure legislation through Congress.
Alger reminded the subcommittee that the next trust fund crisis looms shortly after the 2015 FAST Act surface transportation law expires in October 2020. He noted Congress and previous administrations had initiated more than $140 billion dollars in General Fund transfers and budget gimmicks to prop up current federal highway and public transit investment levels.
While the CIG program is traditionally supported with general revenue dollars through the annual appropriations process, continued uncertainty or disruption to HTF program funding will adversely impact all federal surface transportation programs, including CIG. As an example, during the lead up to the FAST Act, such uncertainty about future federal investment and HTF solvency caused seven states in 2015 to delay roughly $1.6 billion in planned transportation projects.
Alger highlighted three key options that Congress should consider to permanently fix the HTF: 1) raise the federal gasoline and diesel user fee rates; 2) apply a freight-based user fee to heavy trucks; and 3) institute a fee to ensure electric vehicle users also help pay for the system from which they benefit.
In a recent comprehensive 32-page report with legislative recommendations for reauthorization of the FAST Act, ARTBA called on Congress to boost investment in the CIG program beyond the current $2.3 billion annual level.
Ranking member Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) also praised Alger and ARTBA for its leadership on the Highway Trust Fund issue and pointedly asked Alger: “How do we get to a bipartisan solution to reauthorize the FAST Act? What’s the next step?”
Alger responded that talk of a $2 trillion infrastructure package is “making this thing way too complicated. I almost think we need to take smaller bites of the apple,” he said, by tackling one revenue raising approach at a time.
Alger’s testimony also addressed the need for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to improve its regulatory and project delivery process so that projects can be completed on time and within budget. According to FTA’s Capital Cost Database, which compiles as-built costs for 54 federally funded transit projects, average costs for delivering these projects increases an average of five percent annually. As a result, a project that costs $100 million in 2019 would cost $163 million to build in 2029, or more than twice the rate of general inflation.
Another key factor that can keep transportation construction projects on schedule are the use of dispute resolution boards. Such entities should include members recommended by the project owner, contractor or industry and should set up quick and efficient timelines so that members can carefully follow its progress, Alger said.