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.