Roads and Roadblocks Part 2: SAFETEA Extension and the Policy to Nowhere

Since I wrote my last post on SAFETEA-LU about a month and a half ago, I have been getting up to speed on the status of transportation issues in Congress, and wrote a paper on the subject for a grad school class that roughly mirrors this post. As transportation issues will remain salient and move quickly throughout the summer, there are a considerable number of important developments and dynamics that have taken place since late May and are worth sharing here as a building block for further analysis.

First, the transportation reauthorization package was released in the House in mid-June, and it looks very strong. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has primary jurisdiction over the massive funding package, and the key players look favorable to Carrots & Sticks transportation priorities, as laid out in this post from a couple days ago. They are already moving the bill through committee, having held a subcommittee markup on June 24th and have pledged to get a solid reauthorization package through the House by the time the current authorization expires at the end of September. Chairman Oberstar is somewhat of a transportation wonk, has been around for almost three decades and fervently wants to enact a reauthorization package with his stamp on it. In addition, according to Roll Call, Speaker Pelosi recently expressed strong support for a bigger, better transportation measure as providing much-needed economic stimulus. So as with most matters these days, the House is not the problem.

Unfortunately, both the Obama Administration and the Senate are not so eager to move on a massive expansion and realignment of transportation funding this year. Movement to that effect started when Transportation Secretary LaHood announced an administration proposal to extend the current authorization by some 18 months. In case you were keeping track, that would put it past the 2010 elections. The current SAFETEA-LU policy is downright terrible, and such an extension would lock it in for another year and a half, and run the risk of stifling reform down the line. That seems to me like an unecessarily risky proposition in case the Republicans do well in the midterms running on a fiercely anti-spending platform (which I doubt will happen, but ya never know).

To make matters worse, key Senate Environment & Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer has seconded the administration’s proposal (EPW has jurisdiction over the transportation reauthorization, not Commerce as I had said before). She obviously cares about sustainability issues and her state would benefit more than any other from short-term high speed rail investment. So, what’s up? A look at Boxer’s statement a couple weeks ago suggests it has to do with the gas tax increase that any real reform would necessitate, because a significant increase in the gas tax might consume much of the political oxygen necessary to get the energy & climate bill through. Remember, Boxer’s committee also has the first crack at the climate bill in the Senate. It stands to reason that both the White House and Boxer would prioritize energy/climate over transportation, and don’t want to risk the former in order to get the latter plan right this year.

Naturally, the House Transportation Committee is furious. Recently, they sent a letter to the administration expressing their disappointment with the extension plan, and it was signed by ALL 45 Democrats on the committee (when are Dems ever unified on anything?). This is a great sign that they plan to fight for their proposal, but it is far from clear whether they can hold their ground.

And Carrots & Sticks is fully behind the House’s position. Did I mention the current bill that the White House and Senate want to extend is a smoldering pile of garbage? Remember, this was the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” bill, and although that project was ultimately killed, the Road to the Bridge to Nowhere and thousands of other earmarks remained. Furthermore, the ratio of road money to non-highway transit project money was over 4 to 1, and that ratio is way too high moving into an era of expensive fuel.

So where does that leave us? Well, the Administration and Senate do have a point; increasing the gas tax would be politically very tough right now with so much else going on. But that obstacle certainly doesn’t justify doing nothing. If they choose to do an extension, either do it for six months and take a reauthorization up next spring, or pass an extension with some fundamental changes that can be made without any extra money. The changes directly advocated by Carrots & Sticks are a move toward greater asphalt/Amtrak parity, something along the lines of 2:1, and implementation of a comprehensive complete streets mandate.

To that effect, we will be pressuring the House to hold their ground against a clean extension of the Don Young-Jim Inhofe SAFETEA package. We will also be encouraging key Senators, especially the local ones, to push for the above reforms in any extension. We welcome your support in those efforts.

-Jeremy

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