By Mark Holan, editorial director, ARTBA
Three statehouse leaders July 15 said that commuting and other social changes driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and fast-changing technology are challenging legislative efforts to provide adequate investment for transportation infrastructure construction and maintenance.
“The whole transportation funding stream will have to adjust much more frequently,” Virginia state Sen. David W. Marsden (D- District 37), chairman of the chamber’s transportation committee. “The transition is tricky, and probably will have to be adjusted every other year or so.”
Marsden commented during a virtual panel at the 7th Annual National Workshop for State & Local Transportation Advocates, a program of ARTBA’s Transportation Investment Advocacy Center (TIAC). He was joined online by Washington state Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D- District 37), and Connecticut state Rep.Roland Lemar (D- District 96).
Saldaña noted her state, which requires referendums to approve transportation funding, was buffed by 2018 and 2019 losses at the ballot box, before one of the nation’s earliest coronavirus outbreaks further decreased user revenues. She emphasized the importance of working with all segments of the community to develop new initiatives and long-term approaches to challenges such as income inequality and climate change.
“It’s not just, ‘What do things look like 10 years from now?, but 100 years from now,’ ” she said.
Lemar also encouraged transportation funding advocates to seek broad support and detail the benefits of transportation investment and projects, especially as opposition now is easily and effectively mounted from social media platforms.
“We have a challenge to confront what we (transportation advocates) think of as fairness, but most folks just hear as a tax,” he said. “We have to beat that easy narrative that we are just raising taxes.”
During another virtual panel, ARTBA Chief Economist Dr. Alison Premo Black said that highway and bridge construction work has grown during the March to May period compared to the same three months in 2019, but there is still uncertainty as state and local governments face revenue challenges from the pandemic’s economic slowdown. Nationwide, about $8.5 billion in projects have been halted or delayed. States have approved 13 transportation-funding related measures in 2020, but TIAC expects fewer ballot measures and legislative activity for the rest of the year.
“This is in part because it is an election year and state legislatures have shorter sessions, but also because of the uncertain economic environment,” Black said. “Federal investment and the conversation in Washington D.C. will have an impact on the market – and a robust increase in federal investment would help state programs and economic recovery.”
The House passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package and moves forward with FY 21 annual spending legislation, both of which include historic investment in federal highway and mass transit programs. Now all eyes are on the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) must negotiate a new coronavirus stimulus package and decide whether or not the chamber will consider a surface reauthorization bill.