Transportation: Are We Moving in the Right Direction?

By Maura Carroll

Transportation affects all of our lives in myriad ways. Former Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray liked to refer to transportation as the “game board" upon which all other aspects of life are played. She made that observation because transportation affects our overall economy, our tourist industry and our education, recreation and health care systems. Without an ability to be mobile, our quality of life can diminish as our options to participate in events or to satisfy the basic needs of everyday life become limited. Often we think of transportation as a “background" issue and take for granted that we can get to work or to the grocery store when we need to do so. Transportation isn’t the total focus of our thoughts because it is not the end result. It’s the process we use to accomplish an end. We don’t always think specifically about the road. We think about where the road takes us.

Transportation typically hovers in the background and remains something we take for granted unless something goes wrong and makes news headlines, or when something truly innovative happens. Witness in our neighboring state the tragedy of the falling tiles in the Boston tunnel and the fanfare surrounding the opening of the Zakim Bridge. Or consider the tragic reports surrounding the bridge collapse in Minneapolis versus the heralding of the building of the “Chunnel" connecting Great Britain to the continent of Europe. The media marks triumph and tragedy, with little mention in between.

Today’s Transportation Headlines

Probably the most compelling headlines today reflect the lack of revenues available to maintain and improve our transportation infrastructure in New Hampshire. What are the causes of this funding shortfall? First, costs have skyrocketed. A traditional 2-3 percent increase in construction costs per year has jumped to an increase of over 45 percent in the last three years. That is reflective of what is happening in the world market of materials and petrochemicals, as well as issues of political instability. Second, there has been no increase in the gas tax in over 16 years. That means that the revenues from the gas tax have not kept pace with inflation or the rising cost of maintaining our infrastructure. Third, there has been no significant increase in federal highway moneys available to assist the State with infrastructure costs. The federal highway trust fund is expected to be in deficit by 2009. Fourth, there is an ever-increasing demand for repair, replacement and expansion of our roads and bridges. Add to that a demand for alternative transportation modes such as rail and other mass transit. While in the long-term these alternative modes may save transportation costs, the initial investment to develop these options is considerable. Fifth, some state highway fund money is “diverted" to other state agencies to fund other programs. While the argument is that these programs are related to highway safety or have some highway connection, money is or has been appropriated to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Safety, the Office of Information Technology, the Board of Tax and Land Appeals, the Department of Justice and the Department of Environmental Services. As a result, the Department of Transportation (DOT) transferred almost $75 million of highway fund revenue to other agencies in 2006 alone.

Over the years, the physical condition of bridges has periodically been the subject of discussion in New Hampshire and elsewhere. We’ve heard about “red list" bridges and the admonition of Transportation Commissioner Charles O’Leary to pass over them quickly without looking back. Red list bridges are those having one or more major structural elements rated as “poor" or worse and those with load restrictions. New Hampshire has 142 state-owned, one county-owned, three federally-owned, three privately-owned and 356 municipally-owned red list bridges. It would cost a total of $600 million (in 2007 dollars) to repair these bridges.

In addition to these red list bridges, New Hampshire now has identified “pink list" bridges, referred to as “near" red list, or those that, if not maintained or repaired, will become red listed in the not-too-distant future. More specifically, pink list bridges have one or more major structural elements rated “fair," indicating that they may be only one cycle away from being placed on the red list. There are 264 state-owned, nine privately-owned and 282 municipally-owned pink list bridges. In total, these red and pink list bridges represent 28.2 percent of all bridges in the state of New Hampshire.

This is not just a New Hampshire problem. Based on a report in the August 27, 2007 edition of Nation’s Cities Weekly, a publication of the National League of Cities, there are an estimated 590,750 bridges in the United States of which 160,570 were rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete as of 2003. In addition, it is estimated that between $75 billion and $92 billion will be needed annually at all levels of government just to maintain the existing highway system, with a whopping estimate of between $106.9 billion and $125.6 billion needed to improve the highway system.

New Hampshire’s Ongoing Transportation Process
The Governor’s Advisory Commission Intermodal Transportation (GACIT)

The GACIT process has just completed the biennial round of hearings on the “Ten Year Transportation Improvement Plan." Earlier this year, Commissioner O’Leary reported that the existing $4.1 billion 10-year highway plan will take 35 years to complete. If $1 billion worth of projects were removed, the plan would take 22 years to complete. It is hard to deny the magnitude of the problem. Accordingly, “business as usual" is not an option. During this year’s GACIT hearing process, the DOT representatives discussed the more credible reality of a six year prioritized list of immediate and short term projects that might reasonably be completed in a ten year span. As a practical matter, that means that 29 years of projects get removed from the existing list. It is an attempt to deal with the certainty that the revenues are not available to meet the needs in the current plan and reflects a focus on preservation and maintenance of the current infrastructure rather than on building new roads, highways or other transportation infrastructure.

The members of the Executive Council are members of GACIT and will be reviewing the plan presented by DOT, weighing the public comments received at the thirty-three GACIT hearings and recommending a plan to the Legislature. The Legislature will adopt the next version of the 10-year highway plan during the 2008 legislative session. In the meantime, there are legislative study committees devoted to reviewing the 10-year highway plan process and the existing revenue streams available to fund the operations of the DOT and the projects outlined in the highway plan.

State Long Range Transportation Business Plan/Community Advisory Committee
In the fall of 2004, then-Commissioner Carol Murray of DOT created the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) for the New Hampshire Long Range Transportation Business Plan, chaired by Lewis Feldstein of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. The Committee comprised approximately two dozen people representing a wide variety of interests concerned about transportation in the state, including the New Hampshire Municipal Association (NHMA) and municipal government officials. The purpose of the Committee was to help DOT develop a Long Range Transportation Plan.

The CAC met extensively for more than a year and a half, working closely with DOT staff and several outside consultants and presented a report to the DOT in May 2007. The CAC held more than 19 public meetings throughout the state, and heard comments and concerns from the public.

The Committee drew the following conclusions from those comments:

1. People spend a lot of time thinking about transportation and how it affects them personally and within their communities.

2. People are frustrated in their belief that little is being done to address the effect that congestion, sprawl, and traffic is having on their communities and their personal lives, especially the threat it poses to individual health and to a collective sense of community.

3. Despite the pervasive impact transportation has on the quality of life, people perceive that they have fewer and fewer transportation choices.

4. Generally, people are doubtful that anything will be done to make the situation better.

The Committee learned a number of things from the process, some of them seemingly simplistic yet important to note:

1. Transportation is a complicated issue, and it requires leadership to appropriately address the challenges facing the system.

2. Developing partnerships is a key piece of this equation, and it means that representatives of the many different groups that depend on the transportation system, such as non-drivers, the elderly and the disabled, have to be included in this partnership process.

3. Transportation needs to be addressed as a system, not approached as a disjointed series of project-by-project tasks.

4. Transportation is a community asset.

5. Transportation and land use planning must be coordinated.

6. There is little local or regional funding to accomplish transportation goals.

The CAC offered several recommendations, which included key municipal concerns:

1. Design transportation solutions in traditional municipal centers and downtowns to fit the context of the community, so-called “context-sensitive" solutions.

2. Create incentives to coordinate land use and transportation at the local level.

3. Increase local technical assistance.

4. Develop a truly comprehensive, statewide transportation plan that serves a broad vision for the state.

5. Develop new performance measures for transportation health.

If Nothing Changes…
Right now, New Hampshire’s cities and towns receive 12.5 percent of the revenues from the gas tax. In the past, that has assisted municipalities in planning and executing local public works projects and maintaining local infrastructure. Since the revenues are relatively flat and are predicted to remain that way, this will translate into a loss of purchasing power at the local level. That can lead to an increase in property taxes to make up the difference and keep up with the demand for maintenance. In the alternative, delay or elimination of projects could occur, leading to further deterioration of infrastructure and increased costs to complete a project if it is re-scheduled. Delays can also lead to increasing concerns about the safety of roads and bridges and worry of higher liability costs for local government.

Commissioner O’Leary has stated that without an increase in highway fund revenues, he would need to lay off 25 percent of the current operations workforce by the end of the biennium, and he stated that the numbers on the construction (projects) side of the budget look worse than that. “Operations workforce" includes maintenance crews and plow truck drivers. So, if the funding picture doesn’t change, the situation may become even more critical.

Funding and Available Revenue Sources
In order to address all of these transportation issues, more funding is clearly necessary, and there are several revenue sources that have been traditionally linked to payment for roads and bridges. They include the turnpike tolls, which could be increased; motor vehicle registration fees; the gasoline tax; indexing the gasoline tax to inflation factors, which some states have adopted; and bonding some or all current projects. There may be innovative alternatives to these sources and a legislative commission is currently meeting to do the following: (a) review both the 10-year highway plan and the corresponding revenues used to support the plan; (b) make recommendations relative to the state maintaining its highway infrastructure as outlined in the 10-year highway plan; and (c) review and recommend alternatives for future highway funding and changes to the 10-year highway plan to make the plan fiscally sound and viable. The deadline for the report of the commission is November 1, 2007.

But the transportation discussion in New Hampshire is about more than just money. It is about rethinking the approach to transportation issues. By ensuring that projects are designed to fit within the character of our municipalities and landscapes, by improving land use planning and connecting it directly to transportation issues, and by improving links between transportation modes, we can make better use of our existing highway system and reduce project costs. Reducing costs in some areas can result in greater efficiencies and better use of the funds expended. And by focusing on the system of transportation, not just the funding for discrete projects, we can make better decisions about the future of the state’s transportation needs.

What Can You Do?
The most critical thing everyone should do right now is to get involved in the issue by getting educated about the current state of transportation, the problems as well as the successes, and by exploring solutions with the many groups now focused on transportation. These groups include the SB 103 Study Commission referenced above; legislators studying the retained SB 84, which would establish procedural requirements to improve implementation of the 10-year highway plan; and the ad hoc transportation group hosted at the Local Government Center (LGC) and consisting of representatives of the Regional Planning Commissions, the Associated General Contractors, the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, the Business and Industry Association and the NHMA, currently meeting on a monthly basis. It is also always important to keep a close eye on—and become more involved in—the legislative process. Stay tuned to updates from LGC/NHMA and media reports covering the ongoing transportation issues in New Hampshire.

Maura Carroll is General Counsel for the New Hampshire Local Government Center.