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Published: Sunday, 9/9/2012

COMMENTARY

New law serves area's transportation needs well

BY WARREN HENRY

The new federal transportation law enables local governments and agencies, elected officials, and the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments to make long-term decisions and plan more confidently.

The law will allow planning and design of our region's key highway construction projects to move ahead. They include preliminary engineering for the second phase of the I-75/I-475 interchange in downtown Toledo, and the widening of I-75 from the I-280 interchange in Toledo to Findlay.

The measure continues to fund a balanced transportation system that also serves the needs of non-drivers. Public transportation will get about the same amount of financial support it has now.

In a new category called transportation alternatives, bicycle and pedestrian paths will compete for funding with projects such as Safe Routes to School. The latter program has helped pay for sidewalks, signs, and other changes to improve safety near schools in Oregon and Whitehouse.

As we plan bicycle facilities, we want to take the next steps to improve the Westside Corridor, an 11-mile multiuse path in Lucas and Wood counties.

The law places greater, and welcome, emphasis on freight transportation. It establishes a national freight policy and offers local financial incentives for freight planning.

Ohio has led efforts to ensure that freight is considered in long-term national programs. Several regions of our state have completed freight studies and include freight-industry officials on planning teams.

Northwest Ohio has long recognized that freight has a vital role within the transportation system. Freight and logistics are critical to manufacturing, which is fundamental to our region's economic well-being.

Less positively, the new transportation law, like the measure it replaced, is funded with taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel. This system is not sustainable.

The national highway trust fund is intended to cover expenses authorized by the law. But because fuel taxes alone have proved insufficient, Congress has had to shift money from the federal general-fund budget to keep the trust solvent.

The per-gallon fuel tax no longer works for several reasons. The federal gas tax last rose nearly 20 years ago, while the cost of construction materials has increased. As cars get more fuel-efficient and use less gas, tax revenue collected per mile driven drops. Even when gas prices rise, the fuel tax remains constant.

A tax that is tied to volume rather than the cost of fuel or highway construction will continue trust-fund deficits. As our infrastructure ages and traffic volume grows, Congress must address this shortfall.

We need new funding mechanisms. Some analysts propose a tax tied to miles driven rather than fuel consumed, but there is no consensus on how to monitor mileage and collect such a tax.

The transportation legislative agenda prepared by TMACOG, working with economic-development agencies, county engineers, trucking associations, research institutions, and advocacy groups, offers other suggestions. They include developing user-based fees such as tolling and creating public-private partnerships.

Normally, the federal transportation law has a four-year life. But the new law will expire in October, 2014, even though taxes for it will be collected for two years after that. This timetable offers breathing space, but just sets the stage for the longer-term measure that will follow it.

Still, it is gratifying that Congress and the White House have enacted a transportation law at a time when national politics are so polarized. It's reassuring to see that lawmakers understand the importance of funding critical services to Americans.

They should start now to do the hard work and make the tough decisions ahead on the next transportation bill.

Warren Henry is vice president for transportation of the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments.



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