Surface Transportation Policy
Federal surface transportation policy is finally on the national agenda, with the House and Senate considering major policy bills. Early votes have been taken on both the House and Senate floors, and more high-level political maneuvers are likely to come in the next few weeks.
Dealing with the Highway Trust Fund in the House and Senate
While Urban Land in the summer and fall covered what the House and Senate proposals had in common, it is the differences that are defining the current debate. One of the biggest differences is in the approach to dealing with the painful fact that the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which holds revenues dedicated to surface transportation (mostly taxes on motor fuels), is not keeping up with current spending levels, let alone able to fund maintenance and construction backlogs.
The solution offered in the Senate is to act incrementally. With strong bipartisan support, leaders have proposed a two-year, $109 billion authorization (expiring September 30, 2013) with a modest boost to existing spending levels, and have cobbled together about $10 billion in Band-Aids for the HTF.
Republicans in the House precipitated a political storm with their solution to the HTF dilemma, released in early February; the high winds, according to recent reports, are causing House leaders to shift course. Because H.R. 7 respected the tradition of a longer, multiyear authorization, to maintain existing spending levels for the five-year, $260 billion bill, House leaders had a bigger funding gap to fill. In addition to a controversial measure propping up HTF with revenues from expanded oil and gas drilling, the House redesigned the HTF, which has included transit since the Reagan Administration and currently supports multimodal surface transportation systems. H.R. 7 dedicated HTR revenues to highways only.
Although H.R. 7 has its defenders, including respected transportation consultant Ken Orski, Republicans from transit-rich metropolitan areas balked. House Republican leaders are now signaling that they will propose a shorter or perhaps smaller authorization that maintains dedicated funding for transit.
Policy in the House
While H.R. 7’s trust fund maneuvers have gotten most of the attention, the transportation advocacy organization Transportation for America has compiled a list of other items in the House bill that might raise red flags for members of the transportation community. H.R. 7 also drew a rare veto threat from the Obama administration, which said in a policy statement “this bill jeopardizes safety, weakens environmental and labor protections, and fails to make the investments needed to strengthen the nation’s roads, bridges, rail, and transit systems.” Whether House Republicans will reach out to House Democrats or the Senate on any of these other issues is not yet clear.
Policy in the Senate
In sharp contrast with the House, bipartisanship continues to define the Senate’s path to new surface transportation legislation. The bill sailed through its first test, cloture for the highway title, MAP-21, which passed on an 85-11 vote. In the next weeks, the Senate will work to stitch together the work of its four transportation-related committees, three of which unanimously approved their bills. Only the Senate Commerce Committee split along party lines, but subsequent negotiations have brought leading Republican critics on board. A long list of proposed amendments, including some that have little to do with transportation, could slow the Senate effort.
As currently written, the Senate legislation makes significant changes to the organization of federal funding programs, metropolitan planning, and support for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. It expands the TIFIA credit assistance program and includes national transportation objectives, in addition to objectives and performance measures for the major components (highways, transit, and freight). This tracker summarizes some of the issues still under debate.
The current extension to federal surface transportation legislation, which formally expired September 30, 2009, ends March 31. Will the country have a new surface transportation law by then? Stay tuned.
White House Proposal
The White House included its own proposal for a six-year, $476 billion surface transportation authorization in its fiscal year 2013 budget, a move that was widely seen as an election-year statement. The budget maintains the White House’s commitment to improving performance through competitive programs and continues to promote sustainability and livability programs and high-speed rail. President Obama proposes to pay for this significant increase in funding through a “peace dividend” from drawing down overseas military operations.
Infrastructure 2012 will be released at ULI’s Spring Meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina in May. The sixth in an annual series of reports exploring infrastructure investment and trends around the world, Infrastructure 2012 will explore how federal, state, and local leaders are making infrastructure projects happen in a constrained funding environment.
Highlights of the report:
- A special section exploring the growing use of ballot measures to fund roads, transit and open space projects
- Case studies highlighting how new technology, regional cooperation, and state efforts are moving infrastructure projects forward
- Analysis of emerging approaches to infrastructure funding and financing
- A comprehensive overview of the current state of infrastructure in the U.S., Canada, China, India, Brazil, the Middle East, and Europe.
For more information on the Infrastructure 2012 report and speaker series, contact [email protected] or (202) 624-7120.
Financial Times/Citi Ingenuity Award
The Financial Times and Citi are seeking to recognize individuals who are contributing solutions to urban problems including mobility, pollution, and infrastructure provision. Submit applications for the FT/Citi Ingenuity Award by March 31, 2012.
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