Putting Local Leaders in the Driver’s Seat for Transportation Needs

July 24, 2014

Signs of disrepair can be seen across the country. Roads and bridges in rural, suburban, and urban areas are in desperate need of maintenance and upgrades. Continuing to ignore the need for these improvements would seriously compromise America’s public safety and economic competitiveness.

The reauthorization of federal surface transportation programs is a vital component of investing in our country’s future. Over the coming weeks, lawmakers are expected to debate the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act,” or MAP-21, which provides a long-term national plan for funding transportation priorities. Authority to finance these programs is set to expire at the end of September, and if that happens, critical public infrastructure projects will be thrown into question.

As a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, I am encouraged by the committee’s unanimous passage of MAP-21 in May. There is strong bipartisan support for addressing America’s backlog of transportation needs and a widespread awareness that this infrastructure plays an integral role in our communities.

Poor infrastructure and a congested transportation network have far-reaching consequences. Disruptions in commerce force businesses to pay more in transit costs, ultimately hurting both workers and consumers as the prices of commodities rise. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, inadequate public infrastructure could cost the United States 3.5 million jobs and nearly $1 trillion in business sales by 2020.

MAP-21, however, is in need of key reforms, which I look forward to addressing during the reauthorization process. Aging transportation systems are a persistent challenge for local officials, who face the need for improvements on a daily basis but have restricted resources to pay for them. Budget constraints and fewer competitive federal funding grants have left local leaders without the tools to advance strategic projects. Cities and counties have access to less than 15 percent of all authorized highway funds and only a single grant program for infrastructure priorities. To make matters worse, this grant program is both underfunded and overwhelmed by requests.

Instead of being forced to the sidelines, local officials deserve to have a direct role in developing solutions for the transportation needs in their communities. It stands to reason that the leaders of America’s cities, towns, and suburbs would be better decision-makers than federal bureaucrats who dole out funding formulas for transportation projects.

As the Senate debates MAP-21, I intend to join Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in offering legislation that would give local officials more control over the transportation planning process. Specifically, our bipartisan measure would allow states to allocate federal funds on a competitive basis. Local jurisdictions, metropolitan planning organizations, transit providers, and others could develop projects for consideration. A panel of local stakeholders would then decide which projects to approve based on how the project could improve the transportation system, promote innovation, and spur economic development.

These competitions promise to foster the most targeted and cost-effective solutions to meet unique and urgent infrastructure needs. At a time when budget restraint is a necessity, they would help ensure taxpayer dollars are used wisely and efficiently.

There are a number of proposals in my state of Mississippi that could benefit from competitive grant funding. A proposal to reestablish an abandoned railway corridor, for example, would draw jobs to an area of the state with chronically high unemployment. Another proposal would establish an additional emergency evacuation route along the Gulf Coast.

Local control of funds would give these projects a fighting chance. Moreover, decision-making authority at the local level offers officials confidence that their most important projects will be addressed despite funding fluctuations in Washington. Lawmakers have a responsibility to find a long-term solution to modernize America’s infrastructure, and these efforts should put the needs of communities and residents first.

These days, the word “investment” gets tossed around carelessly whenever public spending is discussed, and policymakers have a troubling tendency to label every cause a federal priority. However, America’s surface transportation policy is a federal matter. If shaped by local leaders who know the true needs of their communities, national policies can better serve the requirements of the taxpayers who finance them.

This op-ed appeared in the Washington Times on July 23, 2014.