Washington Hesitates on the Next Transportation Bill

Secretary LaHood proposes SAFETEA-LU extension even as Representative Oberstar is expected to release draft of a new bill today

Yesterday, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced that he wanted Congress to consider an 18-month extension of SAFETEA-LU in order to ensure adequate highway and transit funding even as the nation considers a new approach for the financing and distribution of transportation dollars. Today, Representative James Oberstar (D-MN), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will release the outlines of his version of the next transportation bill. Is Mr. LaHood unable to believe that Mr. Oberstar is capable of moving his new transportation bill through Congress? Or he is simply responding to the fact that Congress is typically unable to move quickly in taking big steps, something that will be necessary if the United States is to have a well-funded ground transportation network over the next few years?

Though Mr. Oberstar’s draft has yet to be publicly released, Mr. LaHood’s statements indicate that the congressman’s bill is ambitious — too ambitious for Republicans in the Senate to assent to easy passage by September, when SAFETEA-LU expires. The administration’s priorities this year clearly aren’t in transportation, as a health reform bill will require the Senate’s attention throughout the summer. Let’s be honest here: President Obama is not going to expend his political capital on a major reform of the DOT this year.

Mr. Oberstar’s draft today will likely be exciting for alternative transportation advocates; we can expect an effort to use VMT to fund capital needs, significant alterations of funding in favor of public transportation, and advantages to dense, transit-oriented communities. But those efforts will take months to negotiate, especially considering that the road industry is likely to begin a major lobbying campaign in favor of highway construction over the next few weeks. The draft’s undoubted preference for development in urban areas will make passage difficult in the Senate, where rural states have a structural advantage. So Mr. LaHood’s preference for an 18-month extension of the existing bill makes some pragmatic sense. It just means that progressive hopes for major reforms of the DOT will have to be put off for a year and a half.

The administration, however, has a responsibility to stop stating its opposition to expanding the gas tax if it’s not willing to move the Highway Trust Fund’s revenue source to the general fund. The only feasible short-term solution to funding problems for transportation is an increase in the gas tax. We must push for that action, or there simply will not be enough money to continue building highways and transit; the Obama Administration must find the courage to admit that there’s no other realistic option.

Is Mr. Oberstar’s draft today a fleeting attempt to address a problem that will take a year to solve? Not necessarily — if the congressman is capable of rallying senators around his cause. But yesterday’s announcement by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that she’d work in favor of the 18-month extension will likely keep Mr. Oberstar’s draft in the draft bin. Ms. Boxer is the Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which plays a major role in the renewal of the transportation bill. If Ms. Boxer lacks Mr. Oberstar’s views on how to write the transportation legislation, the Minnesota congressman’s efforts are going nowhere.

12 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Rockfish

    The timing is interesting – it would allow them to stall until after the 2010 elections, which will no doubt be seen as a referendum on Obama’s progressive policies in general. Transportation appears to be an issue that will not help the Dems win seats, but could lose them seats. If they pick up seats in 2010, passing it after would be easier.

  • Adam

    Congress Daily has a good article out about the plan. It’s embargoed until 2 pm today, but apparently there’s a big bump up for all kinds of transit. If you include the HSR, it goes up to 150 billion over 6 years. With a completely separate title for HSR of 50 billion over 6 years. So an authorization of 8 billion per year. That would mean some serious progress on the HSR corridors. Makes you wonder if Obama should have stepped on Oberstar’s toes here since Oberstar is basically handing him his HSR legacy on a silver platter.

  • Kyle

    If those HSR figures are accurate, it makes me salivate.

  • Adam, do you have a link now? I peeked at Congress Daily but found nothing about HSR.

  • Sean

    The Senate sucks. That body is where good bills go to die.

    Obama’s policies are hardly progressive. Don’t let the GOP’s exhortations and whining convince you otherwise.

  • Adam

    I can post the link Alon but it’s behind a firewall. If you are at a .edu address it will show (if your school’s library subscribes to national journal).

    Here was the link location

    LINK

  • Adam

    Here you go,

    It’s in the executive summary on the T&I website (pdf).

    LINK

    Here’s the quote on page 4,

    In addition to this $450 billion investment, the Act provides $50 billion over six years to develop 11 authorized high-speed rail corridors linking major metropolitan regions in the United States. The high-speed rail initiative will provide greater consideration for projects that: encourage intermodal connectivity; produce energy, environmental, and other public
    benefits; create new jobs; and leverage contributions from state and private sources.

  • The act provides for $330 billion for roads over 6 years. That’s hardly a cause for celebration.

  • BLambert

    Alon – like it or not we still need an infrastructure between now and the indeterminate point in the future where we have a working passenger rail system. And, unfortunately, that means roads.

    Honestly, if you want to see near-term rail investment reduce the need to fund roads, you could do worse than to demand investment in freight rail infrastructure, such as the I-81 rail corridor upgrade, which would cost less than upgrading I-81 itself and run for half again as many miles, but still provide freight capacity.

    And that’s a point that I don’t see passenger rail proponents hammering with nearly the regularity that it should be: improvements to the passenger rail infrastructure are also improvements to the freight rail infrastructure, which is a direct benefit to everyone.

  • People don’t like change. And the new transportation bill would definitely annoy some people. It’s not surprising that they’re a little hesitant with it.

  • Tabitha

    I see the obstacles, but I don’t know if I see many of those obstacles changing over the next year and a half. I suppose Rockfish has a point with the next election, but I’m willing to bank on what those results will show. I suppose economic situations could pick up such that people would be more open to bringing up the gas tax, but I really don’t think a greater tax would be popular even with a massive upturn, perhaps even less so.

    Since a lot of mass transit systems are experiencing major cuts, I suppose it’s possible that the next year and a half could highlight the strife caused by poor transportation and make capital improvement a personal issue for more people…but likely not to the people with the most power. There might be more opportunity for rhetoric that claims transit is a failing system by its own virtue, or that operational funds won’t support new infrastructure once its built. I obviously don’t have a firm grasp on all the factors to be considered, but if I’m right that we’re likely to see the same results in 18 months, with necessary improvements falling by the wayside in the meantime, delaying the bill doesn’t sound productive.

  • Rockfish

    Called it:
    “Oberstar lashed out at a suggestion from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that Congress should hold off on action so that the expected vote on raising gas taxes would be delayed until after the midterm congressional elections.

    “We don’t have time [to wait] for eighteen months,” Oberstar said.”

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