Genevieve Giuliano, senior associate dean at the USC Price School of Public Policy and director of the Metrans Transportation Center, discussed changes in federal transportation policy during the Eno Center for Transportation’s 15th annual policy forum in Denver on Nov. 14.
The Eno Center is a nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based think tank that promotes policy innovation and provides professional development opportunities in the transportation field. Giuliano joined the Eno board of advisers earlier this year. She is the only college professor on the board, which is mostly comprised of leaders from industry and government.
Giuliano participated in a panel discussion moderated by Norman Mineta, U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush. The discussion also featured Tyler Duvall, former assistant secretary for transportation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation; David Plavin, former president of the North American region of Airports Council International; and Deb Miller, former secretary of transportation at the Kansas Department of Transportation.
“The federal role is changing in really fundamental ways, and I’m not sure this is being done in any deliberate way,” said Giuliano, who holds the Margaret and John Ferraro Chair in Effective Local Government.
“It’s just sort of happening, and the consequences are not being thought through,” she continued. “How we cope with these changes and address transportation issues at the metropolitan level hasn’t been worked out yet.
“My talk was about how we need to pay attention to what these changes really are and where we seem to be headed.”
For years, Congress has delayed addressing the problem with the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) that finances the national highway system and supports mass transit. The HTF is funded mainly by a gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, which has been unchanged since 1993. As the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks has improved, vehicles pay less fuel tax per mile. The effect is more use of the highway system but less revenue to the HTF.
Since 2008, the HTF has run a deficit each year, and Congress has moved billions of dollars over from the general fund as a temporary solution.
Without an increase to the federal fuel tax, Giuliano fears the fiscal and debt crises will lead to pressure to remove transportation expenses from the general fund, causing even further reductions in federal money for transportation. Not only will the federal government be unable to maintain the highway system at the same level, but it will have less funding for important public transportation projects and less ability to influence state and local transportation decisions.
“The influence of the federal government dissipates as funding goes away, abandoning the commitment to some sort of common level of transportation service across the country,” Giuliano said.
Giuliano would like to see an immediate five-cent increase in the federal gas tax. It’s an optimistic amount, as the tax has never been raised by more than five cents at a time. But she pointed out that, given the volatility in gas prices, a five-cent increase wouldn’t be very noticeable to consumers. However, with politicians focused on not raising taxes on the middle class, it would still be a difficult sell.
In the long run, the method for funding federal transportation projects must be overhauled. Giuliano would like to see a shift away from the gas tax and instead implement a tax based on the number of miles an individual drives each year.
“In a 10-to-20 year time frame, that is where we should be,” Giuliano said. “A mileage-based tax will provide a more stable revenue source for basic transportation infrastructure that is actually critical to the operation of the economy and critical to our daily lives.”
In addition to attending the forum, Giuliano has been a popular target for media seeking comments from a transportation expert.
In recent weeks, she has done interviews with The New York Times, KCRW public radio’s Which Way, L.A.?, Al Jazeera and the international newspaper The Epoch Times. The recent experiment with high-occupancy toll lanes on the 110 Freeway has the transportation spotlight once again on Los Angeles.
“Southern California is always a magnet for transportation news,” Giuliano said. “Los Angeles is the great sprawled metropolis with the worst congestion of any metropolitan area in the U.S.
“It also has a reputation for innovation,” she added. “Many of the strategies and proposals adopted around the country and sometimes around the world started here in Southern California.”