Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN)
Rep. John Mica (R-FL)
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR)
Rep. John Duncan Jr. (R-TN)
|On Friday, chairman Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) and ranking member Rep. John Mica (R-FL) of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure issued a press release and held a news conference on their blueprint for the next federal surface transportation program, described in a new committee report. They were joined by chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and ranking member John Duncan Jr. (R-TN) of the subcommittee on Highways and Transit.|
The event represents the kick-off for drafting the next iteration of the surface transportation bill, which typically sets priorities and secures funding for public works projects for a period of 5-6 years. Traditionally, it has also been a vehicle for members of Congress to "bring home the bacon" to their districts. This time, Oberstar and his colleagues want to use the opportunity to move away from prescribing specific projects (aka earmark pork) and toward a meritocratic system in which USDOT is instructed to evaluate competing grant applications. Those will have to be integrated into six-year strategic plans developed by the department and its counterparts at the state level, with annual performance metrics for each major project or program of smaller ones. It remains to be seen if members of the full House and Senate will be prepared to support this new philosophy.
In the hope that they will, the report details substantial reorganization objectives for USDOT such that it can execute evaluate programs and award grants according to legally binding procedures. For example, it calls for a new infrastructure bank within USDOT endowed with at least $50 billion for the six-year period that the new bill is supposed to cover. This money would be used to support strategic, sustainable investments in transportation systems, specifically High Speed Rail and (connecting) local transit. This would segregate public transportation funding from that reserved for highways, at least at the federal level. This new mechanism could essentially solve the federal component of funding California's HSR project. In addition, there would be a new Office of Project Expediting and also an Office of Livability, presumably charged with enforcing appropriate environmental mitigation for affected residents.
Secr. of Transportation Ray LaHood would like to focus his department on executing oversight of stimulus-related projects. He therefore asked Rep. Oberstar to extend current arrangements for 18 months by plugging a growing hole of at least $13 billion in the Highway Trust fund. However, Oberstar and his colleagues are unwilling to wait because they have concluded that the current system is broken.
The report's authors claim that over the past 30 years, many states simply haven't stepped up to the plate to fund their 20% of highway projects, never mind the 50% required until recently for rail and transit projects. As a result, available federal funds were not fully utilized. Perhaps the unspoken fear is that with the 2010 midterms approaching and the 2012 presidential election after that, any delay would make it even more difficult to pass legislation for a root-and-branch reorganization of USDOT. Of course, much the same is true of health care reform, financial re-regulation etc. The President's domestic agenda is already full, yet transportation infrastructure is a high priority in Congress.
The committee report calls for a total spending volume of $500 billion through 2015, of which 10% would go into the aforementioned infrastructure bank. Federal and state governments combined currently spend around $85 billion a year on transportation infrastructure, a sum the committee says is too small to maintain and expand the nation's aging systems and structures. It would like to see the number ramped up to $225 billion and then held at that level for the next 50 years. To fund the federal portion of this substantial expansion, the report calls for both federal and state gas taxes to be roughly doubled. Republicans in particular will presumably resist legislative efforts to implement that, though they may soon face a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the US Senate.
Note that raising gas taxes to help fund rail and transit infrastructure construction is reasonable in that it reduces the pressure to keep adding lane-miles highways which are more expensive per passenger-mile of capacity, require far more land and lock in the country's arguably excessive dependence on oil.