Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Alfidi Capital Checks Out Mineta Transportation Institute National Policy Summit 2014

I attended the Mineta National Policy Summit for 2014 at the Commonwealth Club a few days ago.  More policymakers should follow the Mineta Transportation Institute's work on funding transit infrastructure.  Lobbying organizations for the transportation industry certainly pay attention, and that's why lobbyists' legislative agendas are enacted into federal appropriations.  I never turn down a free breakfast and the Mineta people paid for enough banana nut bread and coffee cake to incentivize my attendance.

The head of DOT's Federal Transit Administration spoke on federal policy and the status of the Highway Trust Fund.  I've read plenty of commentary about the Fund's stresses from lapses in funding, and the transportation sector is very willing to accept higher fuel taxes.  Trucking operators know the federal highway system's disrepair better than anyone.  The FTA adapted its MAP-21 program to incorporate the New Start / Small Start Capital Grant Investment Program.  Making a long story short means there's federal money available for municipalities to upgrade transit infrastructure.  My only concern about such spending is that the federal government should not fund transit projects that do not connect to national infrastructure.  I can understand a new light rail line that connects an urban core to a major airport, because that airport connects to the rest of the US.  I do not agree with federal funding for a local line from one end of a waterfront to another, or to a ballpark.  That's an issue for local voters to decide.  There's too much room for local boondoggles and politicking in those projects that is impenetrable to federal review.  She mentioned that the Grow America Act is supposed to fix a long backlog of infrastructure and workforce development projects.  It's good to know that this Administration is getting serious about fixing the failing grades in the ASCE Report Card for America's Infrastructure.

Mineta analysts published the results of their MTI Project 1328 survey linking tax options to transit funding.  Americans are more likely to cough up dough for safety and maintenance than for global warming.  The climate change alternative religion IMHO hasn't convinced everyone just yet.  The Mineta panelists noted that Americans' views of transportation funding have remained consistent throughout changing economic cycles, which is no surprise for a topic typically off the low-information voter's radar.  I support the Obama Administration's proposed repeal of the ban on interstate tolling, because travelers who use our national infrastructure should pay for it as they go in addition to paying fuel taxes.  The panelists mentioned the recent APTA 2014 International Practicum on Innovative Transit Funding & Financing in Montreal, where experts presented case studies on how transit enhances property values.  That is the kind of data-driven analysis that urban planners need when municipal finance offices assemble bond issues for projects.

The various presenters made good points that lead me to ponder some untouched issues.  The sharing economy is just taking off and it will eliminate demand for parking garages and lots at airports and other nodes.  Those lots will become excess infrastructure we don't have to repair or expand.  I predict major public policy moves in favor of infill development of unused parking lots.  There is still unresolved tension between car advocates who think reduced metering increases retail commerce and transit advocates who think smart metering (changing fares by hour, congestion, and vehicle emission standards) enhances commerce.  Let's put the data from each side up for comparison, for crying out loud.  I would also like to see transit advocates address the GAO's reviews of DOT's recent results.  The GAO-14-628R report from May 2014 found that DOT's documentation and internal controls for TIGER grants were inadequate.  It is very disturbing to think that billions of dollars in grant money have been wasted on unneeded projects for expedient reasons.  I have already revealed my bias against federal funding of transportation projects that have only local impacts.  Such projects contribute to overbuilt suburbs and unsustainable communities.  The last thing the federal government needs in an innovative transportation funding program is a repeat of the DOE's politically connected solar loan program debacle.  The US still needs a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to help vet these projects, because more transparency and review from the financial markets will help reduce the influence of political cronyism in infrastructure funding.

I attended the Mineta summit in 2013.  Compare my analysis at that link from last year to the article you're reading now.  The question I posed last year about whether California can sustain muni bond issuance in a difficult economic environment may soon find its answer in the markets.  I have recently noted the exit fees bond fund investors will likely face before the bond market collapses.  Muni bond fund investors will not escape their positions in advance of a bond market crisis.  Infrastructure awaiting funding will have to wait even longer while the bond market returns to historically normal conditions.  I think both the DOT and Mineta analysts should plan for transportation funding mechanisms that will survive a prolonged hyperinflationary depression.  Maybe user fees and gas taxes will have to adjust by the hour to keep up with inflation in a crisis.  I'll look for their solutions at next year's summit.