Congressional Inertia on Transportation Reform Persists

Published January 17, 2010

Shortly before the scheduled December 18 expiration of the third temporary extension of the federal government’s surface transportation program, the House and the Senate passed another short-term extension, this time through the end of February 2010. Further legislation is pending, and the congressional action underscored once again the continued inability of the Congress to agree on a plan addressing the long-term transportation needs of the nation.

Before adjourning for the holidays, the House also passed, by a vote of 217 to 212, a second job stimulus bill (H.R. 2847), which included transportation money.

The $154 billion measure, endorsed by Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, allocates $36.7 billion in additional funds for highways, transit, and Amtrak; extends the surface transportation authorization through Sept. 30, 2010: credits the Highway Trust Fund with $19.5 billion in foregone interest payments; and allows the HTF to accrue interest in the future.

Criticized as Short-Term Fix
Environmental advocacy groups, while supportive of the measure, expressed disappointment the House failed to focus on long-term transportation reform or include a National Infrastructure Bank. Even Rep. John Mica (R-FL), ranking member of the House T&I Committee, who generally supports Chairman Oberstar, was moved to criticize the House measure.

The “Son of Stimulus,” Mica wrote in Roll Call, will be no more successful in creating permanent new jobs in the transportation sector than was the first stimulus bill, because the dollars are being spent on short-term transportation enhancement and road repaving projects that provide jobs only for a few weeks or months.

In short, the transportation community sees the latest House action as another example of Congressional equivocation, extemporization, and inability to come to grips with the nation’s long-range transportation needs in a substantive way.

‘Is Anyone Listening?’
At the Transportation Policy & Finance Summit held by the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) on December 14-15, the sense of frustration with the legislative inertia was palpable.

“Is anyone listening out there?” asked Steve Heminger, executive director of the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission and moderator of a panel session on the future of distance-based charging. His fellow panelists—Jack Schenendorf, Kathy Ruffalo, and Emil Frankel, all of whom, like Heminger, served on commissions that recommended significant program reforms—agreed there is no appetite in Congress to tackle long-term transportation reform.

There is no political will in either party to raise taxes for transportation infrastructure, and the alternative—distance-based charging of road users—raises a host of contentious issues that will need to be answered before Congress considers VMT (vehicle miles traveled) fees as a serious financing option.

Regarding how to overcome this inertia, panelists’ answers had a familiar ring: “The program has to be given a real sense of purpose,” “Congress must come up with a bold vision.” “There must be stronger leadership on Capitol Hill.” “People must be convinced that the money is wisely spent.” “We must inform and educate the public that doing nothing is not an option.”

Public Unconvinced
The dilemma facing transportation advocates is that these warnings fall on deaf ears among the general public and many elected officials. People do not sense an impending crisis, nor are they alarmed about the deteriorating state of infrastructure. Toll road operators attending the IBTTA meeting informally told us their customer surveys show a high degree of satisfaction with the quality of service and the physical condition of their facilities.

Collapsing bridges are happily few and far between, and the focused attention state and local highway agencies devote to repair and maintenance of their assets keeps signs of aging infrastructure largely hidden from view.

Another transportation problem—traffic congestion—is highly visible, however, and public dissatisfaction with it is well-documented. But the driving public has grown skeptical toward the idea more money or program reform will bring effective congestion relief. This may suggest an understanding of the transportation experts’ maxim, “you cannot build your way out of traffic congestion.”

In addition, traffic congestion leaves vast stretches of rural and small-town America (and their elected representatives in Congress) unaffected. Although it is a source of great concern in many urban communities, it does not seem to be perceived nationally as a crisis warranting congressional intervention.

C. Kenneth Orski ([email protected]) is editor/publisher of the transportation newsletter Innovation NewsBriefs, where an earlier version of this article appeared. Used with permission.