Leslie Blakey, a principal at Blakey & Agnew, a Washington public affairs and communications company, is executive director of the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors, which lobbies for continued federal funding of surface-transportation programs. She helped form the coalition in 2001, as Congress began preliminary work to reauthorize the highways and surface transportation law. The coalition has more than 30 members representing motor carriers, railroads, ports and freight corridors.
Q. Why was the coalition formed?
A. One of the things we noticed in (previous transportation) bills was that there was not a great deal of emphasis on freight and goods movement. There wasn't very much money for actually building projects that were needed to move freight.
Q. How difficult is it to make the case for public financing of freight infrastructure projects?
A. For people willing to look at the big picture, and the overall good of the country, the case almost makes itself. In order to grow in the world economy, we've got to be able to keep jobs in the U.S., produce more jobs in the U.S., and those jobs have got to produce goods and services that can be moved in and out of the country. We also depend very heavily on products that are made overseas that help keep our cost of living within a range that Americans find acceptable. For the overall economic good, it's clear that we have to provide the facilities and transportation infrastructure. A lot of what we call for is the government funds to be leveraged by using private dollars. It's not a question where anyone feels we're just looking for a free ride.
Q. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century established the Borders and Corridors program, and authorized funding at $140 million annually. What are you looking for Congress to do this time around?
A. The goal is to get at least the level of funding available to the states and the regional authorities and localities that is commensurate with the demand that was established seven years ago, when the borders and corridors program was established. Requests for grant funding under that program came in at $15 for every $1 that was authorized to be spent. We felt at least if that was the demand seven years ago, it certainly is justified now for six years going forward. We can't just stand still.
Q. Should Congress have raised the gasoline tax to provide additional funding?
A. Congress has to look for ways to come up with money to pay for transportation projects. Transportation projects are worth it. They increase quality of life by improving mobility for both people and goods. One of the most worthwhile areas that Congress can devote funds is to the public good of transportation. This is not a place where they should be skimping.
Q. How do you think the general public would react to a gasoline tax increase?
A. Would the public pay more for transportation infrastructure? I think when the public feels their money is being well-spent and they can see a benefit, the public is willing to spend. It's when they feel that their money is being ill-spent that they start to pull back. Everyone in the general public recognizes that we've got tremendous congestion problems and we've got tremendous needs in terms of transportation. Even in small communities.
Q. What about alternative financing methods?
A. We have taken no position on how to raise the money for these projects. There are a number of creative ways to look toward, and for different purposes there are probably different ways to try to create the funds to do that.
Q. Are all the projects authorized by these bills necessary?
A. We think the House has done a very good job in creating some real important programs that will service the country quite well: the intermodal connectors, the emphasis on the freight connectors, the corridors. There has been a great deal of good that's been done in this bill.
Q. What about all the projects earmarked in the House bill?
A. There's no question there's been a tremendous increase (in earmarked projects) from previous bills to this one. This is the sort of thing that feeds itself. But I hasten to add that in the course of all that earmarking, there probably are many worthwhile and deserving projects that have to go and try to get earmarks just like some of the ones that aren't deserving. So you can't lump the whole group in and say this is a terrible thing.