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Former federal transportation official calls for fully-funded infrastructure bill

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Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Most people understand that in order for a business to exist, let alone thrive, it needs infrastructure to support it.

But while the nation’s bridges and roads are crumbling, where is the money going to come from to fix them?

That has been the crux of the issue that’s plagued political discussions about funding infrastructure and it’s created a sense that a new, well-funded national infrastructure bill is stalled.

But by raising the gas tax, investing in public/private transportation partnerships and adding tolls to roads, among other measures, that money could be used to fund infrastructure improvements, according to former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

LaHood, a former Republican U.S. congressman for 14 years, served as the guest speaker at an event sponsored by Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, which hosted the event at the State Theatre Easton Hospital Gallery in Easton on Wednesday afternoon.

“Our country’s frankly falling apart,” LaHood said. “America is one big pothole. In states where they have raised the gas tax, politicians haven’t been thrown out of office.”

The gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993 and LaHood said by raising the gas tax 10 cents a gallon and indexing it to the cost of living, it could help fund these needed improvements.

The nation has 60,000 deficient bridges, he added.

States such as Pennsylvania and more than 20 others are doing more in their efforts to fund transportation needs than Washington, D.C., LaHood said.

LaHood left the Department of Transportation after serving one term under former President Obama, who signed a transportation bill into law several years ago. But now, more funds are needed as the current bill is set to expire in 2020.

However, LaHood does hold out hope that the current administration will pass a new, well-funded infrastructure bill.

“I think there will be a very spirited debate,” LaHood said. “I think there will be a bill. They haven’t been able to come to grips with how to fund it.”

BILL NEEDS AT LEAST $500B

However, the bill would need a minimum of $500 billion to adequately fund the nation’s infrastructure needs, whether they be improvements or new construction, according to LaHood. Also, it would require a combination of strategies to generate the necessary funding.

Raising the gas tax would provide a proven pot of money dedicated to infrastructure.

Aside from raising the gas tax, which Pennsylvania has done, other solutions include using public/private partnerships and a national infrastructure bank, which would offer opportunities for guaranteeing loans and offering bonds.

According to the bill for creating an infrastructure bank, introduced in the Senate in May, the legislation would allow an independent (non-federal) finance authority the ability to offer loans and other forms of financial assistance to fix and build bridges, roads and other infrastructure improvements.

Another solution is adding tolls to roads, which can relieve congestion and provide funds for infrastructure, LaHood added.

“We know what the problems are in transportation,” LaHood said. “Frankly, politicians in Washington don’t want to raise the gas tax.”

LaHood said he thought President Trump was going to approve a transportation bill, but now, the year is almost over.

Meanwhile, in places such as China, construction workers are building mass transit systems and bridges on a large scale.

“If a business comes to a community, the one thing they look at is transportation,” LaHood said. “We need you to encourage your federal legislators that the problems are there. I think, if there’s real leadership from the White House, there’s a chance. It takes leadership from the White House, leadership from the local community. We just haven’t reached the crisis point with people in Washington.”

PROMOTE ALTERNATIVES

He also spoke of the importance of funding bike share programs and projects that enhance or promote walking trails and alternative modes of transportation.

“A lot of young people that live in the cities don’t own cars because there’s good alternatives to transportation,” LaHood said. “This is what communities want now.”

On a local level, the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission is involved in its $458 million Transportation Improvement Program, which it manages every four years, said Becky Bradley, executive director. The program lists the highway, bridge and transit projects proposed to be implemented with federal assistance.

“We need to add and grow our infrastructure in a responsible way that also avoids the overdevelopment of farmland,” Bradley said.

The key is balancing that intense development pressure from the warehousing and logistics industry but also with the amount of housing being built, particularly as Lehigh and Northampton counties has seen higher population growth, she added.

“It’s good that we look at our priorities and where we are going to fund,” Bradley said.

In terms of alternative modes of transportation, she said her organization is hoping to launch a transportation funding program in January that will create a bike and pedestrian master plan to determine the best use of those trails.

“Our hope is that with our plans, that it gets invested,” Bradley said.

Locally, Northampton County officials have created a public/private transportation partnership called a P3 to pay for the repair or replacement of 33 bridges by using a state law that allows transfer of ownership of the county’s bridges to a municipal authority.

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Brian Pedersen

Brian Pedersen

Reporter Brian Pedersen covers construction, development, warehousing and real estate and keeps you up to date on the changing landscape of our community. He can be reached at brianp@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4108. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLehigh and read his blog, “Can You Dig It,” at http://www.lvb.com/section/can-you-dig-it.

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