Senator Boxer is Right: There is No Consensus in Congress on Funding

An 18-month extension on the transportation bill looks like the only solution for now.

Today at a hearing on the reauthorization of the transportation bill, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) made it quite clear that Congressman James Oberstar’s (D-MN) proposed legislation won’t make it through the Senate over the next few months. Ms. Boxer’s testimony indicated that she’d push for a no-changes “clean” extension of SAFETEA-LU over the next 18 months, as proposed by Secretary of Transportation of Ray LaHood. More serious reforms will have to wait. This means fewer than hoped for funds for transit and high-speed rail, as well as no substantive improvements in the manner in which federal dollars are distributed.

Congress’ problems are two fold: it has too many other projects on the near horizon and it has no consensus, even along partisan lines, on how to fund a major expansion in transportation funding. Today’s fuel tax, which provides the primary source of revenue for the Trust Fund, is out of cash and cannot fund the nation’s transportation needs alone. A relatively simple extension of SAFETEA-LU, bolstered by an infusion of general fund dollars into the Highway Trust Fund, is the easiest answer.

Though Democrats control large majorities in both the House and Senate, there is enough disagreement among their members to make the easy passage of either a health or climate change bill impossible. Those two pieces of legislation will be on the front lines for the next few months and will require serious negotiations between senators on both sides of the aisle and the White House. Ms. Boxer claimed that her advocacy of an 18-month extension has nothing to do with her party’s major policy objectives, but that statement seems disingenuous. Any major changes to transportation funding at the federal level will require weeks of debate, but there’s no time for that this summer.

More importantly, no one in Congress is being frank about raising revenues to support transportation. Mr. Oberstar’s bill left the funding sections blank, and Mr. LaHood has been openly lobbying against any increase in the gas tax. Ms. Boxer’s comments today reaffirmed her opposition to the same and expressed her unwillingness to support a VMT system, which she called “too intrusive.” No one on the invited panel at the hearing provided serious alternatives to those two funding sources, nor did any senator, though everyone seems convinced that a major program expansion is necessary. Funds from the climate change bill, which might incorporate a carbon cap-and-trade system, may come into play, but those dollars are far off and uncommitted for now.

Mr. Oberstar has been adamant in his desire to push forward the next transportation bill now, but this hearing made clear that the Senate is not going to play along. Ms. Boxer is chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, and her position will effectively block Mr. Oberstar’s bill even if that legislation passes in the House. Without the support of the White House, Mr. Oberstar is loosing ground. His inability to pinpoint a stable funding source is similarly problematic.

What hasn’t been suggested, but that which I will continue to bring up, is a simple abandonment of the idea that transportation must be sponsored by its “users.” We are all beneficiaries of a strong transportation network, and filling the Trust Fund mostly with general fund sources is a viable and long-term solution that would require none of the shenanigans that currently deteriorate efforts to raise the gas tax or impose a VMT. Whether now or in 18 months, we’re going to need something better than today’s non-proposals from Ms. Boxer.

14 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Sean

    Have I said that I HATE the Senate? That body is the biggest obstacle to progress in this country. I support a full cleansing of that body, starting with that spineless douchebag Harry Reid.

  • Daniel Krause

    Why not a 9 month to one year extension? By then Health Care and Climate should be completed and the democrats could get get a transport bill through with some real reform before mid-term elections.

    If the democrats lose seats in the mid-terms, it will just be that much more difficult to achieve real reform. And as the deficits continue to mount, there will be less and less political will to fund the proposed 50B for high speed rail and other funding increases for transit. We will likely end up with the same old crap with minor improvements, but nothing transformative.

    An 18 month delay is a mistake.

  • Sean

    Because the Dems are too chickensh*t to put forward radical and effective proposals when dealing with healthcare, the war in Iraq, and reducing the federal budget deficit, they are almost guaranteed to lose seats in Congress in 2010.

    This two year window is when the Democrats should be most aggressive in getting true reform passed, but alas, most of them are spineless establishment whores who like the status quo just fine and don’t give two sh*ts about the rest of us.

  • Sean

    Being so timid and cautious when it comes to issues such as transportation, healthcare, and the federal budget deficit is going to cost Democrats seats in 2010.

    If the Dems want to maintain and expand their grip on Washington, they need to be bold and risk-averse.

    Unfortunately, most Dems are chickensh*t finger-in-the-breeze types that are just fine with the status quo and don’t care at all about the people.

    We need to start a search party to locate Obama’s balls.

  • Daniel Krause

    I still don’t understand where Boxer is coming from these days. We had to fighter her pro-highway amendments to the stimulus and now she is on opposite sides from Oberstar. While it is reasonable to ask from some extra time given the crazy agenda Congress has right now, not wanting to get reform done in the first two years of a popular presidency with majorities in both houses shows a lack of interest and comitment to reform.

    I guess she doesn’t fully see the link between environment and alternative transportation.

  • Ditto on most of what has been said. I can’t wait to hear the floor speeches in the upcoming years when gas is back over $4 a gallon and the economy goes back down the toilet (if it gets any better anyway).

    There is no use to the Democratic party if they can’t come together on anything bigger and better than the Lilly Ledbetter whatever her name was Act.

    I am about to fully resign to my uber-pessimistic stance (that I put on hold for Obama + Co) that in order for anything to happen in the way of progress we really really need to fall right off the cliff fast and hard.

    Where is Palin?

    We need absolute failure in order to realize the way forward. In 2012 I’m voting for the stupidest person so it’ll make it hurt the most. Then maybe everyone will snap to once and for all.

    As if over $4 a gallon gas wasn’t a clue in 2008. As if nearly 10% unemployment wasn’t a clue. As if Foreclosure Acres and Default Lakes (the development built recently near you) wasn’t a clue.

    And we just give in. Really? That is what we are to do? Give in? Just say okay 18 months whatever? I’m not quite ready to give in and let our “ITS TOO HARD” legislators pass over this opportunity.

    Pardon me for my hyperbole, I’m just fed up with the people that are supposed to be better than the folks that just got kicked out of power.

  • Wad

    In about 18 months, Zimbabwean-style hyperinflation is bound to set in, rendering the whole debate pointless.

  • Lively comments!

    I’m disappointed in Barbara Boxer too, but as a transit advocate I wouldn’t put our issues in front of heath care or even emissions trading (though I would fight hard to keep it linked to the latter).

    Remember that most voters understand that health care and climate change are national issues, but most of them think that transportation is a local issue. All the outcomes of a transportation bill are going to be filtered through local government, so local politicians will get most of the credit. So it’s not surprising that this is hard, and Yonah’s reading of it seems pretty right-on to me.

  • In about 18 months, Zimbabwean-style hyperinflation is bound to set in, rendering the whole debate pointless.

    Only if you believe the Austrians, or some of the equilibrium theorists. Krugman and his ilk are a lot more afraid of deflation at this stage.

  • Well I didn’t expect them to assign a lot more fundings but still. This is kinda annoying although I can understand them with the recession and everything…

  • Wad

    Alon Levy wrote:

    Only if you believe the Austrians, or some of the equilibrium theorists. Krugman and his ilk are a lot more afraid of deflation at this stage.

    Or, the really scary thing is that we may see something unlike anything before that no economic school can adequately explain or remedy. That is what happened with the stagflation during the 1970s. This is what is probably happening right now with Bernanke in charge.

    He is a scholar of the Great Depression, but he is working to prevent the last disaster and not the next one.

  • No, the current disaster has already happened, twice – once in the Great Depression, and once in Japan in the 1990s. The problem is exactly the same, the political issues are similar, and even the original cause of the recession is the same.

  • Mason Hicks

    Ironically, this delay could be even be helpful in one way. As you all are I’m sure aware, we, in Georgia are governed in the state by a posse of State Legislator’s fro the more rural areas of the state, who couldn’t care less about Atlanta’s traffic mess or the fact that we have the only rail-based transit system in the country which recieves no state support for operations. One Representative from South Georgia spelled it out this way; “I’m closer to Disney World” than I am to any MARTA train!” All this despite the statistical fact that the majority of Georgians now reside within the Metro Atlanta region.
    Back to the point; Our state DOT has been sitting on $87,000,000.00 in Federal grant money to start our first commuter rail line towards the City of Macon, for over eight years now.We do not have trains running only for the failure of the state to commit USDOT has stated that all unused grant money out there will need to be return. This delay gives us one last possible opportunity to make this good, and get going down the rails. That is the one and only possible reason to be happy about the T-Bill’s being postponed.

  • Nathanael

    Agreed with Sean. Can we abolish the US Senate yet?

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