Federal government must have role in surface transportation

I appreciated the Review-Journal’s June 23 editorial for bringing to the forefront issues concerning a fuel tax increase, state control of fuel tax dollars and the use of fuel tax money to pay for mass transit.

I disagree with some of the newpaper’s assumptions. As someone who has worked for more than two decades in the transportation funding and programming arena, I’d like to offer a different perspective.

The newspaper called for states to control federal fuel tax dollars. But if the federal fuel tax were returned to states, we would no longer have a national highway system; we’d have 50 fragmented systems with no common goals and objectives. We have to remember that President Dwight Eisenhower initially envisioned the Interstate Highway System as a way to mobilize the military for national homeland security. That requires a national system.

Take Interstate 15 between Mesquite and St. George, Utah. The 29 miles of Interstate 15 that cross Arizona are not a priority for the state of Arizona, which typically values the major metropolitan areas of Phoenix and Tucson, and even Flagstaff. If there were no federal program, the three bridges along Interstate 15 in Arizona would not be under repair right now.

A state-by-state system would let governors prioritize projects, and in many cases rural parts of a state would go unmanaged and underinvested. This would hurt interstate commerce. This would damage our economy and cripple our military.

The Review-Journal argued against raising the fuel tax, but an increase in the federal fuel tax is long overdue and is vital to ensure that our country can continue to develop economically beneficial infrastructure projects.

It was 1992 when Congress last raised the fuel tax. At that time, it was used for deficit reduction. It wasn’t until 2005, when Congress appropriated that increase to the Highway Trust Fund, that it was used for surface transportation.

Our infrastructure is eroding and failing. As Americans, we need to step up and lead, bite the bullet and do what’s right. That means raising the fuel tax while simultaneously looking at a long-term solution. Devolving gas tax dollars to states doesn’t change the fundamental situation: There’s less and less gas to tax as Americans switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

In Nevada, we’ve seen a substantial increase in fuel-efficient vehicles, too. In fact, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles, from 2009 to 2012, the number of hybrids in Nevada increased from 12,116 to 17,957. As we begin to see more fuel-efficient vehicles coming online, local and national fuel tax revenues will continue to lag. Devolving control of fuel tax dollars from the federal to state level doesn’t solve the long-term problem.

The Review-Journal also called for Congress to stop approving Highway Trust Fund dollars for mass transit. Such a position ignores that mass transit is a smart investment. Forcing people into cars is not sustainable and economically viable, and today’s millennial generation workforce wants transportation options. Other modes of transportation are critical to moving 330 million people in this country.

As I’ve written before, millenials aren’t buying cars. Therefore, we need to invest in transit. Our surrounding competition of Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other Western cities all have transit systems that connect the workforce to the workplace. Las Vegas lacks this competitive advantage. We’re losing out on attracting some of the best and brightest, and we’re losing some of our best and brightest. It’s a hard realization that Americans are moving differently. We’re playing catchup.

While I do agree that there are flaws in Washington, D.C., on many levels, reducing or eliminating a strong federal role in surface transportation would not be good for Nevada. While I tend to agree with many of the Review-Journal’s editorials, this time I must respectfully disagree.

Tom R. Skancke has spent the better part of 24 years in the transportation infrastructure business. He served on former Gov. Kenny Guinn’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Transportation and was appointed to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. His views do not represent the opinions of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, the Nevada Department of Transportation or other organizations he is affiliated with.

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