EPW Hearing Review: Is The Transpocalypse Near?

In the shocker of the new millennium, Sens. Boxer (D-CA) and Inhofe (R-DeNial) actually agree on something! For a change, Senate Democrats and Republicans in the usually hyperpartisan Environment and Public Works committee are unified in their support for action on infrastructure investment. While I wouldn’t bet my life on it, it may even be possible that the renewed push for a comprehensive and transformative surface transportation reauthorization bill can get it done this year.

Today’s hearing was the first in a series of many EPW will be holding leading up to a markup of a reauthorization of the package currently known as SAFETEA-LU. There’s good news and bad news for sustainable transportation supporters. The good news, and certainly big news is that a realistic roadmap to reauthorization seems to be emerging. Elana Schor at Streetsblog has some detail:

The Senate today took its first steps towards voting on a new long-term federal transportation bill, with environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) vowing to take up a successor to the 2005 infrastructure law before 2011 and indicating she would use the House’s already-introduced version as a framework.

Boxer described today’s hearing in her panel as “the kickoff” of the upper chamber’s drafting of new legislation governing U.S. road, transit, bridge, port, and rail policy. “Our intention is to hold a series of hearings and write the bill while you are still here and while Senator [George] Voinovich [R-OH] is still here,” she told Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO), who will retire at the end of the year.

“We’re going to take their bill and work from it,” Boxer said of the House, which has proposed a $500 billion plan that streamlines 108 categories of formula-based federal transportation spending into four and includes dedicated funding for metropolitan area priorities.

The hearing took place as the House prepares to vote as soon as tomorrow on a $15 billion jobs bill, already cleared by the Senate, that would extend the 2005 transport law until year’s end. Boxer and fellow senators asked the witnesses to underscore the importance of that 10-month extension in conversations with the House, where some Democrats remain reluctant to embrace the upper chamber’s jobs package.

Elana is always a great read and her blogging is highly recommended if you care about reforming the way we travel and getting off our fossil fuel addiction in America.

It was really refreshing to see committee Republicans really “rail” against inaction to fix our crumbling infrastructure. Even notorious curmudgeon Inhofe acknowledged that Groucho Bunning’s recent hold that shut down federal transpo funding for a day served to expose a growing problem of funding instability for our highways, bridges and transit systems. So maybe they’re ready to get on board with the arduous process of hammering out a full five-year reauthorization.

And make no mistake, the December deadline the Senate is now pushing is a huge plus. The White House has been advocating a wait until Spring 2011, when the Recovery Act is phasing out and the economy will hopefully in better shape. Problem is, a whole host of other obstacles would likely be present at that point. First, the economy may be in slightly better shape by then, but the chances for dramatic improvement are minimal at best. Second, Republicans are likely to pick up a substantial number of seats in the midterms, meaning it will be much more difficult to enact comprehensive reforms promoting multimodal transportation development. Meanwhile, a necessary revenue-raising measure is probably not feasible as we enter a tough campaign season for incumbents of all stripes. So what does that leave us with as the best option for action? Lame duck. A December 31st expiration would “pave” the way for such a scenario.

Despite the rarely unified tone on behalf of the committee, it wasn’t all strawberries and sunshine for sustainable transpo advocates. Most notably, all of the witnesses represent establishment state DOTs and traditional road and other asphalt interests. Nobody from the sustainability or even public transit communities. So it’s not clear whether the warm and fuzzy atmosphere of the hearing will continue once these crucial pieces of the puzzle are re-introduced into the conversation. The focus by especially Inhofe and Bond on roads and bridges, quite clearly omitting rail, bike/ped and the rest on purpose, only served to reinforce that concern. Furthermore, the gaping differences over the effectiveness of stimulus infrastructure spending, which was tilted towards those non-asphalt priorities like high speed rail, portend a rocky path ahead.

-Jeremy

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