The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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From the Director

by Dave Clarke, P.E.

As I write this, I've just returned from the Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board (TRB). This year, some 11,500 transportation professionals and students from throughout the world attended. It's quite a production, and well worth taking in. I've been making the journey to TRB since 1979, and I never cease to be amazed.

The TRB meeting always attracts luminaries, and this year was no exception. I was privileged to hear presentations by several. The first was Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who was featured in a day long workshop on high-speed rail (HSR). The Secretary is obviously an HSR proponent, as is his boss, President Obama. He gave a thumping good speech praising the attributes of HSR and outlining a vision of connecting American cities by such systems. Secretary LaHood touted the Obama administration's unprecedented support for HSR projects. The audience received these comments enthusiastically. Subsequent speakers echoed the general message.

I support rail as part of a balanced transportation system. However, I left this workshop thinking that there was a sad disconnect between the HSR vision and fiscal realities. While it is true that President Obama directed $10.1 billion towards HSR, much of this actually went for studies or small projects to aid conventional rail passenger services. The sad reality is that the amount allocated just isn't sufficient to develop an actual HSR system, and thus far Congress has not authorized any additional funds. By world standards, the U.S. is a non-player in the HSR arena, and this isn't likely to change soon. Consider that China will spend nearly $104 billion in railway vehicles and infrastructure in 2013 (a 30 percent increase from 2012). The Chinese already have nearly 5,800 route-miles of HSR in operation. The U.S. has no revenue stream to dedicate to HSR, and there is little probability that this will change soon.

On another front, I heard an interesting speech by retiring AASHTO Executive Director John Horsley. In keynote remarks at the TRB Chairman's Luncheon, Mr. Horsley discussed the need for additional revenue to support the nation's highway system. The Highway Trust Fund faces an impending "fiscal cliff", with insolvency looming in late 2014. Unless addressed, the funding shortfall could reduce federal highway and transit investment by over 70 percent. Mr. Horsley proposes replacing the present motor fuel tax with a fuel sales tax. Properly structured, such a tax could provide $350 billion over the next six years compared with the $236 billion generated by the present excise tax. He projects an additional average cost to the highway user of one dollar per week per vehicle. In these times of tax phobia, it is uncertain how Mr. Horsley's proposal will be treated, but I think he has a good idea. Before we can ask citizens to dig deeper into their pockets, however, we need to make sure that every cent we need is justified.

The perception of government waste is one factor inhibiting popular support for revenue issues. We are fortunate in Tennessee to have a culture of thrift and good stewardship of the public's money. I hope we can keep it that way.

Well, that's about it for this issue. As always, if we can help, please don't hesitate to call or email. TTAP looks forward to assisting you. Be safe!


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