Earlier this month, Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee attached dollar figures to their repeated refrain: “Do more with less.” The six-year, $230 billion proposal cuts existing federal spending levels by roughly one-third. Committee chair John L. Mica (R-FL) explained that “given U.S. House rules and budget constraints,” federal transportation spending would be limited to the revenues raised by the gas tax and other sources dedicated to the Highway Trust Fund. In addition to the expected “no tax increases” stance, House Republicans want to see an end to the repeated infusions of general revenue that have propped up the trust fund for the past few years. At a time when a wide range of experts and interests are pointing to a growing backlog of needed transportation investments, such drastic cuts in spending constitute a significant policy change.
A bipartisan group of Senators responded this past week to the House proposal with a first look at their own proposal. Confronted with the same revenue dilemmas as House Republicans, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, signaled that the solution is a shorter bill—only two years—that maintains existing spending levels at $109 billion.
Senator Boxer pointed to the Federal Highway Administration’s analysis that estimates that spending reductions in the Mica proposal would lead to the loss of around 500,000 jobs in just the coming year alone—a sobering number considering employment figures for June showed only an anemic 18,000 new jobs. With the economy still so fragile—and the 2012 elections right around the corner—now is not the time to make such radical reductions in funding levels or to find revenue sources to maintain a healthy six-year bill.
The current extension of the federal transportation authorization expires on September 30, meaning that the House Republicans and the Senate have limited time to bridge the gaps in their positions. If they cannot, the fallback option is another short-term extension of the current transportation bill, which first expired in September 2009. But there is growing consensus in Congress that just extending the status quo isn’t good enough. Other policy changes are gaining momentum.
In the House, Mica’s proposal (an actual bill has not yet been introduced) aims to set a “new direction” for federal transportation programs by consolidating and eliminating some 70 programs, streamlining project delivery and environmental review, and bringing maritime programs into the multiyear bill that also covers highways, transit, and railroads. The Senate EPW proposal, though still a brief outline, also seeks to consolidate many of the over 100 separate programs that crowd the current surface transportation law, and the Senators support accelerating project delivery while maintaining environmental protections.
Both the Senate and the House Republican proposals seek to stretch federal dollars through expanding and modifying the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program. TIFIA currently provides credit assistance in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees, and standby lines of credit to finance projects of national and regional significance.
Mica’s proposal also endorses the expanded use of tolls on interstates, albeit only for “new lanes,” as another method for “leveraging” Highway Trust Fund dollars. In testimony before the Senate EPW Committee, Susan Martinovich, director of the Nevada Department of Transportation and speaking on behalf of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), went even further, asking for the removal of “federal limitations on the ability of state and local governments to raise toll revenues and to apply such revenue to multimodal transportation projects and activities within the same corridor or region as the tolled facility.”
The existing small but effective programs supporting pedestrian and bicycle facilities, however, would be transformed under the House Republican proposal. Instead of dedicated funding, states would have the flexibility to spend federal dollars on such activities if they choose to do so. This is part of the Republicans’ endorsement of the use of formula funds to pass federal dollars directly to the states, instead of federal “discretionary” programs, such as the Obama administration’s TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants, that force projects to compete for funding.
Although the Senate outline did not directly identify pedestrian and bicycle facilities, Boxer has addressed the issue since the outline’s release, including at the Senate hearing. She reassured advocates that, despite “tough debates, giving here, taking there,” dedicated funding for pedestrian and bicycle programs remains in the Senate bill. The Senate bill also promises to improve transportation planning at the state and metropolitan levels through the use of performance targets.
Also this past week, the Senate Commerce committee held hearings on various proposals for an infrastructure bank, indicating that there may be efforts to get a bank, in some form, into the transportation authorization bill.
There is still a long way to go before there is a new transportation law, but with both the House and the Senate moving, come September it is possible that something more happens than just another short-term extension of current law and spending. Stay tuned.