State leaders must take the wheel of transportation infrastructure reform

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A few weeks ago I found myself in a room full of fellow transportation geeks (a term I use with great respect) at the annual American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Washington Briefing.  One panel in particular really got the room buzzing with talk about the transportation fiscal cliff we are getting ready to drive over.

As car manufacturers continue to improve fuel efficiency (which is a good thing for the environment and my wallet, but a bad thing for the highway trust fund which derives revenue from gas taxes) and infrastructure funding remains a hostage to the Federal morass, transportation geeks are left wondering how to find the dollars needed to simply maintain what we have?  Furthermore, how can we tell the transportation story to elected officials and road users (tax payers) in a way that interests them and helps communicate the dire situation we face?

Financially strapped state departments of transportation can only put the brakes on the slow decline of the transportation system so much.  The money isn’t there to make major improvements and you can forget about building new roads.  All they can do is fill potholes, which is kind of like putting a Band-Aid on a severed limb.

The good news is that transportation funding issues were highlighted in the majority of speeches governors made to their state legislative bodies in early 2013.  The signals that state governments will most likely be the entities that drive the solution to the transportation funding challenge.

One example is in Virginia, where Governor Bob McDonnell proposed an aggressive legislative package designed to piece together funding sources to make needed infrastructure investments.  That Northern Virginia is one of the regions most crippled by a crumbling road system that cannot support growing demand was certainly a factor in Gov. McDonnell’s decision to move so aggressively.  The other reason is that the old way of doing business simply isn’t going to cut it.

State DOTs have recognized this for quite some time.  They have sought out innovative approaches to conducting day-to-day operations and long-term planning.  And as they face the future, they are open to looking at new ways of doing business.

As Governors make the move and commitment to make infrastructure improvements, they recognize that effective communication is a key to the success of the overall plan.  Any increases in taxes and fees, and how that new money will be spent, will need to be effectively communicated to the average road user, freight companies, and policymakers.  Transparency and accountability will be important.

One panelist urged state DOT leaders to use the tons of transportation data to tell their story and make their case. That will be the topic of my next post.

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About Author

Melissa Savage

Sr Industry Consultant, State and Local Government

Melissa Savage is a subject matter expert with SAS Institute, Inc. focusing on transportation issues facing state and local governments. Prior to her position with SAS Institute, Inc. Ms. Savage was a Program Director at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in the Energy, Environment & Transportation program. During her 13 years with NCSL, Ms. Savage authored several publications on transportation issues, testified before state legislative committees and represented NCSL and the interests of state legislatures before national transportation organizations and working groups on a variety of topics. Before working at NCSL, Melissa worked in the Office of Legislative Legal Services at the Colorado General Assembly. She received her master’s degree in public administration from the University of Colorado and her bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University.

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