By Angela Pavao, a Fall 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern
Last month, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report on the state of transportation funding, drawing much needed attention to an increasingly relevant issue. The report, “Intergovernmental Challenges in Surface Transportation Funding,” examines the current funding system for highways and public transit, notes a growing gap between available funding and existing needs, and looks at the potential of government policy going forward. Decreased funding poses a threat not only to balanced budgets but also to equity and civil rights. With large segments of the U.S. population already lacking access to transportation, progress towards transportation equity could easily be stalled or even reversed.
The report outlines the multi-layered transportation funding structure and looks at the contributions and roles of each level of government. Approximately 36 percent of funding stems from the local level, 40 percent from states, and 25 percent from the federal government. The current problem, and the driving factor for this report, is the decreasing funding available for transportation management and development on every level. All three levels of government have been forced to steadily cut back their transportation budgets over the past decade, largely due to declining revenue.
On the whole, transportation funding fell by $27 billion, which is approximately 12 percent, between 2002 and 2011. Funding has since plummeted further, as the Department of Transportation has run out of supplementary funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The situation is already dire: according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, “just maintaining the current performance of the highway and transit system would require at least $13 billion more per year.” Already, local and state governments are anticipating less reliable funding and foregoing important long-term projects.
Transportation inequity is a major civil rights issue that is often overlooked by those not directly affected. According to The Leadership Conference Education Fund, “transportation investment to date has often excluded or inadequately addressed the needs of low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, seniors, and many people in rural areas.” As other reports by The Education Fund have highlighted, those without access to transportation are often held back from employment, struggle to obtain routine or emergency medical care, and are severely limited in affordable housing options. To resolve an issue of this magnitude would require a focused increase in transportation investment.
Where, then, does a budgetary crisis leave these hundreds of thousands of individuals already lacking sufficient access to transportation? With resource cuts stunting the development of new initiatives and even current infrastructure threatened, it seems we may be heading in reverse – towards even greater inequity. One of the four key principles highlighted by the Pew report is that “falling revenue forces hard choices.” It is critical that these hard choices do not further isolate these underrepresented groups or deprive more individuals of access. Ideally, revenue sources will be adjusted and funding will return to previous levels. Regardless of specific numbers, however, the government must begin to prioritize equity in all transportation strategies they pursue.