The annual National Conference of Regions (NCR) met in Washington, D.C., this week, bringing together regional leaders from around the country, who focused on economic growth, infrastructure, and resilience – common issues for most regional bodies, large or small. It was merely a coincidence that the Trump Administration released its infrastructure proposal the same morning as the NCR’s opening session, during a panel discussion that included U.S Chamber of Commerce staff. Surprisingly, I thought, the chamber representative advocated for a 25-cent increase in the gasoline tax, over a five year period, as one long overdue funding mechanism.
Many regional councils, like the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), are responsible for regional transportation planning, so it was unhappy news that the administration’s infrastructure initiative identifies no revenue source, and actually proposes flipping the current 80 percent federal/20 percent state and local funding formula to 20 percent federal and 80 percent state and local. Local governments, and their taxpayers, simply cannot shoulder the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure from constrained local funds. There must be significant support from federal partners, and not just lip service. One brighter spot offered in the proposal was a potential reduction in the time it takes to obtain federal permits, as little as 12 to 24 months. Would that make up the loss of the 80/20 funding formula? Probably not.
Here in the National Capital Region, it’s no secret that a major infrastructure need is more funding to restore and maintain the Metrorail system, but transit almost anywhere is an important component of economic health. Businesses chart the accessibility of public transit in siting new facilities, and need to make sure that their workers can get to the job. For many workers, automobiles (and parking) are expensive and time consuming, so taking bus or rail is a welcome, and necessary, alternative. In some rural counties, transit may take the form of smaller buses that transport senior citizens from their homes to activities, not unlike Fairfax County’s FasTran system. Without appropriate federal support for such investments, local economies can weaken, and individual independence will wither, as well.
The infrastructure proposal also suggests selling National and Dulles airports, Tennessee Valley Authority transmission lines, and other infrastructure assets that have long been owned by the federal government. Does the term “oligarch” ring a bell? After the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, infrastructure there was privatized by rich Russian businessmen, and added to already inflated portfolios. The Russian oligarchs and their questionable business dealings should be a big red flag (no pun intended) as Congress debates the infrastructure bill. Also suggested by several panelists was a return to “regular order” for congressional consideration. Regular order includes committee hearings and scheduled debate, a more sustained, and necessary, approach to enacting good, solid legislation, unlike the spectacle last week of a brief government shutdown, and congressional voting in the middle of the night. If legislating is like making sausage, then the meat wasn’t properly prepared and the seasonings were a muddle. Whether it’s digestible remains to be seen.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.