Increased fuel efficiency over the past few decades is inarguably good for the environment, consumers, and businesses. It’s hard to find a downside to cleaner air and cost savings.  However, along with these benefits, increased fuel efficiency has created a challenge for the nation’s roads and highways: how to make up for lost gas tax revenues, particularly in light of increasing construction costs.

Dr. David Ellis, a research scientist and senior economist with the Texas Transportation Institute and a visiting associate professor of Landscape Architecture & Urban Planning at Texas A & M University, says part of the challenge in obtaining adequate funding for infrastructure projects is in effectively communicating transportation issues to the public.

In the interview that follows, Dr. Ellis explains these issues, and why it is so important that the public understands them.

MuniNet: Why the urgent need for infrastructure investment?

Ellis: Texas, like many other states, has experienced increases in population, registered vehicles, and miles travelled. At the same time, the number of state-maintained roads has remained relatively constant. This mismatch has created a situation where demand exceeds supply by a continually larger margin. The result is that we need more and better roads at a time when, right now, we can least afford them.

Increased fuel efficiency – a clear gain for the environment and for individuals’ wallets – has eroded a major source of infrastructure funding: the gas tax. At the same time, the taxes that are being collected have lost their purchasing power, as construction costs continue to rise.

The implications of this gap in infrastructure funding are wide-ranging, yet the public is lacking in its understanding of the gravity of the problem. The truth is: While citizens don’t want to pay for infrastructure improvement funding, there is a high cost associated with doing nothing.

MuniNet: How does the public show its support (or lack of support) for infrastructure improvement?

Ellis: The public shows its support by encouraging elected representatives – members of Congress, state representatives, mayors, city council members – to engage in conversation about transportation-related issues. Elected officials represent the people’s interest as they understand them. Generally speaking, the public has made it pretty clear that they aren’t in favor of paying for infrastructure improvements. While many people recognize growing congestion and an increasing number of roadways are in disrepair, voters have repeatedly rejected measures to approve spending to fix the problem(s).

As an example, Texas residents were recently polled to see whether they would approve a $50 per year increase in vehicle registration fees if they were assured that all the proceeds would be used for roadway improvements. An overwhelming 70 percent of those polled said they would not support the increase. That sentiment has been echoed in states and cities around the nation.

“Infrastructure improvements require funding, but as a nation, it will cost us more to do nothing and risk our competitive edge.”

It used to be the case that people trusted that government does what it says it intends to do. But times are changing, and many people have lost faith in government leadership – at the federal, state and local levels, in many cases.

MuniNet: How can government leaders regain that lost trust, and get residents on board to support transportation funding?

Ellis: Among most leaders – government and otherwise – there is a natural desire to “lead the parade.” But to do that, they have to know where the parade is going. What we really need to do at this crossroads is begin to form the parade at the local level so our leaders can lead it. In other words, we need to demonstrate to them there is public support for infrastructure improvements.

The other issue is the public’s trust in government. Government, at all levels, has to do a better job of telling the people what they’re going to get for their money – and then do it – on time and within the budget. Trust can be regained, but in most cases, that needs to be done “from the bottom up.” Much like a local city council election campaign, respected community leaders need to get out there and clearly communicate the message in a context that is relevant to citizen’s lives.

In Texas, the last time a gas tax hike went into effect was in 1991. The process for gaining public support was a slow one, spanning over two years. Community leaders spoke at every public gathering they could find – from Kiwanis Club meetings to church gatherings. Once people understood the need for the increase, they were more apt to lend their support for the measure.

MuniNet: How can community leaders help the public understand the need for infrastructure improvement investment?

Ellis: Historically, the public has been spared a meaningful explanation of why infrastructure investment is so important. Rather, a lot of big numbers get thrown around for policy makers to analyze and discuss. Those numbers don’t have relevance to most citizens. When the failure of infrastructure investment is put in terms of what is meaningful in people’s everyday lives, it begins to make sense. People understand that it’s burdensome to leave home a half hour earlier than they did two years ago because of increasingly heavy road congestion. They feel badly that they miss their child’s soccer game because they got caught in traffic.

In addition, when the story is explained right, people understand that infrastructure affects their local economies – through the cost of consumer goods, access to jobs, ability to attract a talented workforce, tax revenues, and overall quality of life.

MuniNet: What about the “that’s-not-my-problem” mindset, where people who live in rural areas argue that congestion is a big-city problem for which they don’t want to pay?

Ellis: In Texas, the rural population now accounts for roughly one third of the total state population. Rural areas have similar needs for infrastructure improvement, though they may be different in scope than those in the larger metro areas. Many rural communities have a need for making roads safer, or for maintaining roads that may be deteriorating in condition due to age. Again, conveying the message in a way that is meaningful to the audience is a key factor in making the message heard.

Second, the economy within any given state is the product of the sum of its parts – large and small cities, urban and rural areas. Rural areas are affected by urban cost efficiencies, which, in turn, affect the economy of the whole state.

MuniNet: Earlier, you referred to the “high cost of doing nothing” … can you explain? 

Ellis: The nation’s transportation system is not infinitely scalable. Today’s infrastructure is aging; it is no longer state-of-the-art, and its capacity is being challenged. The U.S. cannot afford to lose its competitive edge; rather, we have to continue to excel in the areas of innovation and efficiency in our transportation networks. Infrastructure improvements require funding, but as a nation, it will cost us more to do nothing and risk our competitive edge.

About the Expert:

David Ellis is a research scientist and senior economist for the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) and a visiting professor of Urban Planning in the College of Architecture at Texas A & M University. His research focuses on transportation finance, congestion cost, and the economic impact of transportation investment.

Dr. Ellis has over thirty years of experience in urban planning, government/public affairs, transportation and demographic analysis, socioeconomic impact analysis, and economic policy analysis.

He received a Ph.D. in Urban & Regional Sciences, a master’s degree in Urban Planning, and bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics from Texas A & M University.