Photos by ARTBA’s Luiza Carson.

By Eileen Houlihan, senior writer/editor, ARTBA

The importance of building powerful coalitions and targeting messages that focus on safety were key themes shared July 17 at the ARTBA Transportation Investment Advocacy Center’s (TIAC) 6th Annual National Workshop for State and Local Transportation Advocates. The day-long event drew more than 80 attendees from 26 states to Washington, D.C. for the Center’s signature program.

“The importance of this event likely isn’t lost on anyone here,” ARTBA President and CEO Dave Bauer said during his welcome remarks. “While 31 states have increased their gas tax since 2013, the federal gas tax has not been increased since 1993. Congress and the Trump administration are now facing an $18 billion average annual shortfall between incoming trust fund revenues and the amount needed to preserve current surface transportation investment levels. Absent congressional action, states could face a 40 percent cut in investment beginning in 2021,” Bauer added.

A State Gas Tax Increase Roundtable included representatives from Alabama, Arkansas, Ohio, and Illinois, all sharing their keys to successful funding campaigns. But the successes took time and sometimes came with failure on the first try. Alabama Road Builders Association Executive Director Tom Layfield said it took four years of coalition building, and finding a supportive governor was a secret weapon that helped in the end. He and co-campaigner Drew Harrell, executive director of the Alliance for Alabama’s Infrastructure, said they worked hard at making sure all state legislatures understood the topic and that the messaging changed from early ideas that supported economic growth to those that focused on the importance of funding for safety reasons.

Illinois Road & Transportation Builders President Mike Sturino agreed with messaging about safety. His association placed a billboard near a bridge saying, “Drive at Your Own Risk.” “The Illinois Department of Transportation was not happy, but it certainly got attention. It also helped to have a new governor with an aggressive agenda that included funding infrastructure,” Sturino added.

But several states lacking the political will to raise taxes or fees are exploring options to increase revenue through tolls or alternative funding mechanisms. A panel, including immediate past ARTBA P3 Division President Jennifer Aument of Transurban, discussed the benefits and challenges of tolling and congestion pricing.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, express toll lanes are used by more than only the nation’s wealthiest drivers. They are also young families, with two jobs, two children. We put them in the same type of people who use Amazon Prime and have groceries delivered to home. They earn less than $100,000 per year,” said Aument. “People are weighing being able to pick up your kid from kindergarten on time versus the cost of the toll,” added Craig Covil, chief development officer at Itinera Infrastructure & Concessions.

Many of the workshop panelists and speakers told advocates to emphasize the diversification of projects, including transit and ports to road and bridge improvements, and to talk about the impact they will have on local communities.

That certainly helped in California, where advocates helped pass a 2017 measure that included $5 billion annually in new investment for the state’s highways and local streets, bridges and transit systems. ARTBA produced six regional reports that showed the added investment would generate between $9.7 billion and $34.5 billion of additional economic activity and user benefits in California’s major regions over the next decade. The law was preserved last year with a 57 percent vote against a Republican-led repeal effort.

Emily Cohen, executive vice president government relations, public policy and political advocacy at United Contractors, worked closely with other advocates in California to pass the transportation funding legislation and against the repeal. “It’s safe to say the anger about the gas tax increase was less than the anger at what was happening in Washington, D.C. People turned out to vote their frustration,”  Cohen said during a panel on how national politics can impact the local vote.

Despite the continued action at the state level, ARTBA Chief Economist Dr. Alison Premo Black emphasized the importance of the federal piece of transportation funding. ARTBA data shows that federal funds provide an average 51 percent of annual state DOT capital outlays for highway and bridge projects. “It’s a partnership. It’s not an either or,” Black said.

And what is the federal reauthorization picture looking like? ARTBA Senior Vice President of Congressional Relations Dean Franks said in his 13 years in D.C. this is the “closest this town and the leadership has been at being in a position to solve the Highway Trust Fund problem.” Franks and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Transportation Infrastructure Ed Mortimer said progress on the scheduled 2020 reauthorization of the current surface transportation law, the FAST Act, must include finding a permanent revenue solution for the Highway Trust Fund.

“We need to show the rest of the world we’re serious about infrastructure. If we’re going to have a 21st Century economy we have to have 21st Century infrastructure,” Mortimer said.