A Bumpy Road to Transit Reauthorization

Well, Wednesday is the poorly-timed deadline. SAFETEA-LU expires at the end of September. So in case you thought Congress had enough on its hands, they have to figure out what to do about this ticking time bomb that could halt construction projects nationwide if handled poorly. Naturally, it looks like they will be taking the path of least resistance:

House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and most members on his side of the Capitol contend that a three-month extension is needed to spur an agreement on a long-term infrastructure bill before year’s end.

But given Senate Democrats’ preference for an 18-month delay, the two chambers soon could add a one-month extension of existing transport law to the spending bill that Congress must pass by next week to keep the government funded.

Such a move would effectively postpone until October 30 the deadline for the House and Senate to reach an agreement. Oberstar, speaking on the House floor yesterday, was unmoved by the Senate and White House’s call for a long delay in reforming transportation spending.

Good for Oberstar, digging in his heels. He is fighting an uphill battle against the overwhelming power of inertia, but as a general rule on the Hill, those who yell the loudest tend to get their way sooner or later. And he is clearly yelling the loudest right now.

And like clockwork, House Republican leadership came out in full-throated opposition to the extension, blithely claiming Oberstar is just trying to buy time to build consensus on a gas tax increase. Nevertheless, the three-month extension passed the House by a whopping 335-85 margin. It looks to be DOA in the Senate, but it at least forms a decent starting point in the negotiation process. Where we go from here is anybody’s guess.

The financing piece seems to be the major stumbling block at the moment. Nobody really wants to raise the gas tax, but it is currently being seen in the conventional wisdom as the only viable option in the short term. Granted, the gas tax does solve a lot of problems: easy to administer, discourages use of inefficient vehicles, relatively stable throughout the year, and can be thought of as a user fee. Problem is, as people drive less and drive more efficient cars, they inherently consume less gas. This is clearly a desirable goal, but it also means highways don’t get repaved and rail lines don’t get built unless we find another way to pay for them.

Carrots & Sticks strongly supports consideration of alternative financing mechanisms such as Rep. DeFazio’s tax on oil speculation. We are continuing to get the word out about this idea around the Hill, and I am consulting with a handful of transportation finance experts to examine other possibilities. A visiting professor of mine at George Washington University, Swiss Transport Economist Franziska Borer Blindenbacher, has graciously agreed to share her thoughts with policymakers and relay the European experience in developing innovative transit funding sources.

In other news, the Boxer draft of the climate bill will be released on Wednesday, and we are very concerned it will follow the House bill’s lead in drastically shortchanging clean transportation as a use of cap-and-trade allocations. We will be pushing for adoption of the Carper-Specter CLEAN TEA proposal, a measure that would set aside 10% of carbon revenues to fund transportation projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and we have recently added this vital provision to our list of transportation objectives.

-Jeremy

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