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.