» The loss of the Democratic Senate supermajority will make any attempt at developing a new transportation funding source all the more difficult.
Republican Scott Brown’s win over Democrat Martha Coakley in yesterday’s Massachusetts special election for the Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy could not have come at a worse time for Democrats already perplexed by their inability to come together to pass a health care bill — despite their large majorities in both houses of Congress. The loss of the 60th seat in the Senate keeps the party in decisive control of the legislature, but what has become clear over the past year is that mainstream Democrats lost their confidence in using government as a positive tool for social improvement years ago. The result is a party afraid to govern.
If the recession spurred a strong Democratic response early in 2009 with the passage of the stimulus bill, both the insufficient size of that measure and the continued reluctance to follow up with another law designed to encourage job creation have demonstrated that neither the Obama Administration nor the Congress are fighting to bring about a modern-age New Deal. The refusal among moderates in the party to move forward seriously on developing new funding sources for important policy measures — added to the steadfast refusal from Republicans to compromise on almost any issue — shows that there is little progressive resolve here.
There are clear disagreements on the causes of Ms. Coakley’s loss yesterday, but it is clear to me that one significant reason for voter disapproval of the Democratic candidate was the fact that the party simply hasn’t been able to get much done since it took power.
If the Democratic Party cannot govern effectively, it will not maintain its control over Washington, and the consequence will be the corresponding rise of Republicans. If the Senate continues to rely on a 60-seat majority to pass anything, the GOP has already taken back at least some sway: note the immediate willingness among moderate Democrats to cave to Republican demands on health care following Mr. Brown’s win, in spite of Mr. Obama’s still-positive approval ratings. At least as implied by recent candidates in state and federal races, that means a drastic step backwards in terms of funding for sustainable transportation alternatives and infrastructure in general.
Republican John McCain, of course, ran for president as a noted rail opponent — he has repeatedly fought against aid for Amtrak and he has ridiculed high-speed rail investment as “pork.” Though opposition to fast trains seems to have calmed a bit in his party’s circles, in the three most recent high-profile races, the Republican candidate has put himself in stark contrast to the Democrat in terms of transportation, and the comparison doesn’t look good. Massachusetts’ Mr. Brown ran as an opponent of Governor Deval Patrick’s (D) proposed gas tax increase. In Virginia, Democrats lost their grip on the Governor’s seat when Creigh Deeds, who had a thought-out platform for transportation, lost to Bob McDonnell (R), who said virtually nothing on the matter other than that he was against more taxes, no matter their benefits. Willing to support an augmentation of the fuel tax, former Governor of New Jersey Jon Corzine (D), lost his fall 2009 reelection bid to Chris Christie (R), who from the beginning ruled out the policy, in favor of undefined cuts elsewhere to pay for transportation improvements.
In states with major economic difficulties, the GOP has shown itself willing to sacrifice the needs of transit users for the benefit of drivers. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has recently proposed emptying state reserves designated for transit and using them for road expansions instead. Senate Republicans have universally voted worse on important infrastructure-creating legislation than their Democratic peers, according to my analysis.
Democrats, of course, are not great either — Governor David Paterson of New York announced yesterday a planned further $104 million in cuts to the already aggrieved Metropolitan Transportation Authority. This is the fundamental problem: neither party — even the supposed “tax and spend” one — is willing to take the steps necessary to raise revenues to sponsor increased funding for transit, even though the country is in desperate need of more investment.
The transportation bill, which is supposed to define federal spending on surface transportation over a six-year period, was supposed to be passed into law last year, but Democrats have been unwilling to compromise on any of the major alternatives for funding its expected cost of $450 billion, including an increase in the fuel tax, a potential tax on vehicle miles traveled, congestion pricing, or even an oil-trading surcharge. There has been no consensus in Congress on moving forward on transportation funding at least since last June — and with Mr. Brown’s win, there is no reason to expect that situation to change in the short term.
Congress will get around to funding a new transportation bill at some point, but in the meantime it will continue to fill the Highway Trust Fund (which sponsors road and transit projects) with general revenues to make up for the ever-increasing deficit in gas tax revenues. There is at least a political imperative to keep transportation spending at the status quo — even though doing so requires digging deeper in the expanding debt of the U.S. treasury. The stimulus relied entirely on those general revenues, as would any potential job stimulus that Democrats now seem interested in promoting.
While still in power, Democrats must push for the creation of a sustainable, reserved funding source for transportation with a major portion of revenues dedicated for transit, biking, and pedestrian-oriented communities. Their fear of raising taxes may make that impossible, but GOP leadership won’t likely result in any improvement, since it would probably mean cutting spending on infrastructure, or at least not maintaining it at inflation-adjusted levels.
Nonetheless, the current situation, in which income tax-sourced dollars are being used to create new infrastructure, has its merits. As I detailed in an article for Dissent Magazine this month [ Cars, Highways, and the Poor* ], there are significant advantages to using the general fund for spending, rather than relying solely on transportation-related financing. The general fund is redistributive, unlike the gas tax, the vehicle miles traveled charge, or congestion fees. Its use seems particularly relevant considering the increasing presence of poverty in car-dependent suburbs; public transportation is simply not an option for a huge percentage of the lower-class population in the immediate term, so the truth of the matter is that the law must take their commuting needs into account, even if they’re moving about by car.
This is not to defend pro-automobile policy-making, but to suggest rather that there may be good reasons for Congress to delay action on choosing a funding source for the next transportation bill. While there is nothing great about the government’s inability to take a step forward to paying for essential infrastructure, the government can do a better job in orienting transportation planning towards more sustainable choices even as it fights to ensure equitable taxation policy.
Democrats, even with their diminished majority, have a chance to do just that this year. Will they find the courage to do so?
* The Dissent article, as per agreement, cannot be copied on to other sites; please do not copy it or link directly to it from elsewhere. Of course, please link to the piece on The Transport Politic if you’d like.