The road ahead
Susan Binder is nothing if not realistic about the chances for change in transportation funding on the federal level. When Maine Trails caught up with her, it was less than a week out from the presidential election and pundits were calling the race too close to call. Still she cautioned strongly against putting too much hope in either candidate – or in the ability for the U.S. Congress to address the nation’s transportation infrastructure needs.
“Don’t wait for Washington to fix it. That’s a fool’s errand,” said Binder. “The answer has to come from the state and local level.”
Binder’s pessimism about federal lawmakers agreeing on a bipartisan solution that would increase funding for the nation’s aging infrastructure is founded upon experience. Currently a senior associate in Cambridge Systematics’ Transportation Planning and Management Group, Binder spent a good portion of her more than 30 years in the transportation industry working in the nation’s capital. She knows about past well-meaning efforts to find bipartisan solutions on the federal level. She served as the former deputy associate administrator for policy and governmental affairs at the Federal Highway Administration during the Bush administration. She also headed the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission that issued its seminal report to Congress in 2008, calling for a substantial overhaul of the federal Highway Trust Fund, including in how we fund and deliver transportation infrastructure and services.
If there’s any hope for a solution, said Binder, “it’s going to bubble up from people outside the Beltway.”
Binder is coming to Maine on December 6 to deliver the keynote address at the 62nd Maine Transportation Conference in Augusta. She said that after MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes asked her to speak, she settled on “The Road Ahead” as her topic. And that road, she believes, follows a route where local and state innovations will be the most likely sources of innovation, setting the standard for a new national transportation policy.
She also believes that rethinking user fees will be key, whether it is re-evaluating the excise tax on gas and diesel fuel or transitioning to new vehicle-based mileage fees or alternatives including open road tolling. And she said, that change will have to happen incrementally.
The first innovation will be in how transportation projects are delivered – an essential step to regain public confidence in government’s ability to spend its transportation dollars wisely. She said that recent efforts to streamline project design and delivery will need to continue.
“We need to show the public that we can squeeze every bit out of a buck and that goes hand-in-hand with accountability,” said Binder.
Binder also advocates for alternative methods, including public-private partnerships, to enable states and local governments to tackle needed infrastructure improvements. Binder noted that the U.S. is not the only country faced with these choices. Europe, too, is struggling with an aging infrastructure system, but has an advantage because their population and manufacturing centers are more concentrated, enabling them to keep their transportation costs down. Ultimately, she said it is about communication and building consensus among the electorate that transportation should be a priority.
“It’s about explaining what’s at risk if you don’t increase the fuel surcharge,” said Binder. “People have no clue what is going on. They bought into the idea that a freeway should be free.”