The US Congress is getting a reputation as the place where good ideas go to die. Although currently held by the Democratic Party, the real power lies with center-right Democrats who are generally skittish about significant change, and certainly wary of either spending money, finding new revenues for programs, or both.
We can see this in the health care and the climate change bill - but we can also see it in the discussion of the reauthorization of the Transportation Bill, due in 2009. In the House, Jim Oberstar has been pushing to produce a bill that would better fund public transit and shift the government's priorities away from roads and sprawl. Transportation for America has an analysis of his efforts here - it's a mixed bag so far.
But the most contentious aspect of all is the matter of how to fund the federal government's transportation obligations. The US highway trust fund has been on the verge of insolvency for a while now, dating back to the early Bush Administration. When then-Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta proposed a gas tax increase to fix the problem, President George W. Bush said no, as Mineta recounted earlier this month:
In 2001, knowing the next highway reauthorization was set for 2003, we developed a six-year funding mechanism that called for a 2-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase in the first year, a 2-cent-a-gallon increase in the third year, and another 2-cent-a-gallon increase in the fifth year. As I recall, that would have been a $330 billion proposal and left us with a $7 billion unobligated trust fund balance after six years. We went to the Oval Office, and after we went through the entire presentation, President Bush takes a marker, circles the gas tax increases, and says, "Norm, I don't want any of those tax increases. Get those out."
So we went back and put a CPI inflator on the gas tax in the fifth year. Keep in mind that the gas tax had not been raised since 1993. We returned to the Oval Office, went through the presentation, and afterward President Bush said, "Norm, that's a tax increase. Get that out."
Bush may be gone, but his attitude now dominates a Democratic Congress. As Yonah Freemark noted over at The Transport Politic, there is no consensus on how to fund transportation, and Barbara Boxer suggests the most likely outcome is an 18-month extension of the existing transportation bill, which would push the issue out to beyond the 2010 midterm elections. To Freemark, the problem is that Congress isn't willing to face up to the revenue problem:
More importantly, no one in Congress is being frank about raising revenues to support transportation. Mr. Oberstar’s bill left the funding sections blank, and Mr. LaHood has been openly lobbying against any increase in the gas tax. Ms. Boxer’s comments today reaffirmed her opposition to the same and expressed her unwillingness to support a VMT system, which she called “too intrusive.” No one on the invited panel at the hearing provided serious alternatives to those two funding sources, nor did any senator, though everyone seems convinced that a major program expansion is necessary. Funds from the climate change bill, which might incorporate a carbon cap-and-trade system, may come into play, but those dollars are far off and uncommitted for now.
Mr. Oberstar has been adamant in his desire to push forward the next transportation bill now, but this hearing made clear that the Senate is not going to play along. Ms. Boxer is chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, and her position will effectively block Mr. Oberstar’s bill even if that legislation passes in the House. Without the support of the White House, Mr. Oberstar is loosing ground. His inability to pinpoint a stable funding source is similarly problematic.
What hasn’t been suggested, but that which I will continue to bring up, is a simple abandonment of the idea that transportation must be sponsored by its “users.” We are all beneficiaries of a strong transportation network, and filling the Trust Fund mostly with general fund sources is a viable and long-term solution that would require none of the shenanigans that currently deteriorate efforts to raise the gas tax or impose a VMT. Whether now or in 18 months, we’re going to need something better than today’s non-proposals from Ms. Boxer.
I wholly agree with these statements, and it is certainly time to provide general fund support for transportation projects. Infrastructure, especially mass transit infrastructure including high speed rail, is at the center of this nation's economic recovery effort and our 21st century prosperity. Unfortunately, Congress seems to have totally abandoned any interest in economic recovery or long-term planning, and is instead dominated by obsolete 20th century concerns about the politics of taxes and user fees.
Barbara Boxer's reluctance to propose revenue solutions, and her desire to kick the can down the curb, is part of a growing trend in her approach to policymaking that is much more risk-averse and centrist than we are used to seeing from the more liberal of our two senators. Facing re-election in 2010, Boxer appears to have concluded that she needs to play to an assumed political center, seeking bipartisanship (with James Inhofe? ha!) and avoiding anything resembling a tax increase for fear of how it would play with California voters.
These concerns are misplaced. Californians have shown they will support raising revenue for sustainable transportation solutions, as the November 2008 election made clear. Not just in the passage of Prop 1A, which after all was a bond, but in the passage of outright sales tax increases in Los Angeles, Santa Clara, Marin and Sonoma counties. Those counties have nearly 15 million residents, and over 67% of voters in those counties supported the concept Yonah Freemark described above, of asking everyone to subsidize mass transit, not just those who use it.
Boxer's unwillingness to lead is sadly being matched by President Barack Obama. Over the first six months of the Obama Administration a disturbing trend has made itself clear. Obama likes to talk a big game, and will make public statements promising a new era, broad reform, and an embrace of policy change. He then leaves all the details up to Congress, refusing to get involved in the nitty gritty of the negotiations. As a result Congress's natural tendency to either do nothing or do the wrong thing is asserted, and we get outcomes like an 18-month postponement.
How this affects HSR is unclear. High speed rail will be a part of the new Transportation Bill. How it will be funded remains totally unclear. Obama wants to see a long-term HSR program come out of Congress, but as with so many other aspects of his agenda, Obama is going to have to learn that if he wants Congress to do something, he is going to have to force the issue and make it happen himself.
Until Obama does, the US Congress will remain a graveyard for common sense and smart, proven, effective policy.