The nation's transportation system is broken, agreed a panel of transportation wonks gathered in downtown Baltimore on Thursday, but they could not agree on how to fix it.
"Transportation is broken. There's no way to fund it. America is one big pothole," said Ray LaHood, a former U.S. transportation secretary. "It will be up to the American people to say enough is enough."
Opinions for fixing it at the Greater Baltimore Committee's seventh annual transportation summit ranged from increasing federal investment in local infrastructure projects that would help address broader issues to cutting all federal investment in such projects to focus on national highway needs instead.
LaHood called for a higher federal gas tax to pay for projects across the country.
In Maryland, federal transportation funding is used for a variety of major projects, including continuing efforts such as dredging the port of Baltimore's channel and long-term projects such as the Red Line light rail in Baltimore and the possible replacement of the Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel under Baltimore, which is a bottleneck for Amtrak and MARC traffic.
The U.S. Infrastructure Crisis summit also featured a pitch from Rep. John Delaney, a Potomac Democrat, for what has been his signature legislative effort since being elected in 2012: a bill that would allow American companies to repatriate cash tax-free if they invest in infrastructure. Many large companies hold billions of dollars overseas because they must pay corporate taxes on overseas earnings before returning them to the United States.
"There's no question that every company would be willing to pay something to bring their money back" if taxes didn't present an economic disincentive, Delaney said.
His bill would create an American Infrastructure Fund, paid for by $50 billion in bonds sold by the Treasury Department. Companies that bought the bonds at auction would be entitled to tax breaks on cash they bring home from overseas.
The fund would offer loans, bond guarantees and equity investments for local and state infrastructure projects in transportation, energy, water, communications and education.
Delaney, who called infrastructure investment a "foundational block" in a new path toward global economic competitiveness, said the Partnership to Build America Act enjoys bipartisan support and would provide $750 billion in infrastructure investment, while bringing more cash into the national economy.
He said the bill — which he promoted in campaign ads that ran this summer — will soon be introduced in similar form in the Senate, with a provision directing funds to cover the shortfall in the Transportation Trust Fund for several years as well.
Other panelists spoke in broader terms about reversing years of degradation to the nation's transportation infrastructure in ways that would simultaneously spur economic growth.
Most spoke of public-private partnerships that tap private investments to facilitate public projects, something Maryland plans to use for projects such as the proposed Red Line.
Beth Osborne, vice president of transportation and development of Transportation for America and a former U.S. assistant secretary of transportation, said a national transportation funding system with a user-funded mechanism — such as the current federal gas tax — is necessary, but innovation is needed because the current system relies too heavily on gas-guzzling cars and long commutes for sufficient revenue.
"That's not good for sustainability," she said.
Stephen Sigmund, executive director of public affairs consultancy Global Gateway Alliance, stressed the need for investment in new technologies, such as a long-delayed GPS-based aviation system to replace 1940s-era radar, and an increase in private-sector investments in infrastructure.
Emily Goff, a policy analyst at the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy at the Heritage Foundation, suggested the federal government stop funding all local and nonessential projects and remove regulations that slow major projects, including environmental impact reviews.
Alan Pisarski, a transportation consultant, said the federal government should "focus on what's truly national" and stop allowing the federal transportation budget to be used as "a local slush fund" by legislators eager to bring projects home.
"The concept of spending only the money you have," he said, "passes for radical in Washington."