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Tolling Points

Transportation Funding Crisis Suffers from Fun House Mirror Perspective

Patrick Jones

Patrick D. Jones, Executive Director and CEO, IBTTA, responding to a blog post by Fawn Johnson with the National Journal. You can read Fawn Johnson’s article here, Potholes, Even Canyon-Sized Ones, Aren’t Political.

Fawn, congratulations on a terrific blog post to provoke a conversation about financing options for surface transportation. You ask “Are potholes an appropriate rhetorical device to talk about the lack of infrastructure funding? What are some other metaphors?”

A metaphor is a great way to simplify a complex set of issues to help us understand a particular situation and explain to others the need to do something. And, there’s nothing like the bone jarring, teeth rattling sensation of hitting a pothole at 60 miles an hour to help you appreciate the need for smart, targeted investment in our roadways.

But a metaphor can distort just as much as it clarifies. Think of looking into a funhouse mirror at the carnival. On one hand, the image looking back at us is a representation of who we are. But it’s a distorted one that’s fatter, skinnier, taller, shorter or more upside down than we really are. The funhouse mirror doesn’t provide a reliable representation of who we are.

The funhouse mirror that we as a country seem to be looking into right now is the one that says the federal budget is the same as a household budget. Using this metaphor, if our income is lower than our expenses, then we should tighten our belts and spend less. We should be thrifty and try NOT to spend more than we earn. But many, many economists say this is the wrong model for our national government right now. Now is a time to invest – BIG – in our infrastructure to lay the groundwork for a robust economic recovery. We need much improved roads, bridges, ports, waterways and other transportation infrastructure to support our economy when we finally experience the strong recovery. And when that happens, then we will have larger personal and corporate income to produce larger tax receipts needed to reduce government deficits. But not before then.

Fawn, you clearly define our national funhouse mirror in this passage: “Despite serious bipartisan efforts in Congress to update the surface transportation law before the highway trust fund money runs out this summer, legislation isn't looking too promising. Everyone knows the end is near. No one knows what to do about it. Thus far…the will has not been there to spend government money without offsetting it somewhere else.” That, in a nutshell is the funhouse mirror – the metaphor of a household budget – that prevents us from investing in infrastructure at a time when we need it the most. Until we stop looking into that distorted mirror and embracing that flawed metaphor, it will be very hard for us to make the vital infrastructure improvements we need to make.

Are you interested in learning more about solutions to our transportation infrastructure funding crisis?  Then join us at IBTTA's Summit on All Electronic Tolling, Managed Lanes and Interoperability July 20-22 in San Diego.


photo credit: MSVG via photopin cc


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