As Congress Approves Another Extension for Transportation Programs, Mica & LaHood Address Plans for a More Permanent Solution

Congress this week approved and the President signed legislation to extend federal highway and transit programs for seven months as Washington appears ready to get to work on a new multiyear reauthorization of those programs that officials hope to have in place later this year. Meanwhile, we learned a bit more this week about the shape reauthorization might take from the man in charge of a key House committee and from the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. And just in time for the debate in Congress, a number of organizations and individuals are offering reauthorization resources and once again weighing in on what the legislation should include as well as the future of transportation policy.

The seven-month extension, HR 662, will fund highways and mass transit at FY 2009 levels. It includes $53 billion in funding for this year, with about $42.5 billion of that total funneled through the Highway Trust Fund. It extends until the end of the federal fiscal year the 2005 authorization law commonly known as SAFETEA-LU. It marks the seventh short-term extension of SAFETEA-LU, which was originally scheduled to expire September 30, 2009. The extension will allow time for what is likely to be a protracted debate over future transportation policies and funding.

U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, back in Washington after a series of field hearings and listening sessions around the country last month, spoke Wednesday at a meeting hosted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). He promised state DOT leaders he would deliver a six-year reauthorization bill, rather than a shorter-term bill some have advocated.

“Anyone who talks about anything less than a six-year bill, I’ll take you outside and beat the crap out of you,” he reportedly told the group in jest.

State transportation officials and the transportation construction industry both prefer a long-term bill to ensure greater certainty that the money will be there to complete projects so they can keep workers on the job and continue with equipment and materials purchases.

Mica wasn’t able to offer any estimates on the monetary size the bill might take. He promised a multi-modal bill, not one just targeted at highway programs, because, he said, “we’ve got to improve all the elements of infrastructure.” He promised the process of crafting the legislation would be both bipartisan and bicameral. The recent series of field hearings included a joint hearing in Los Angeles with Mica’s committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Mica later told reporters following the AASHTO meeting that his committee will start work on the bill at the end of this month. He hopes that Congress would be done with the legislation before the next budget year begins in October (as the latest SAFETEA-LU extension is expiring).

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who also addressed the AASHTO meeting this week, repeated his hope that a final bill would be on the President’s desk before Congress takes its August recess. LaHood said his department is working with the Office of Management and Budget to craft the administration’s own draft bill, that will flesh out the $556 billion six-year authorization plan included with the FY ’12 budget proposal.

“If we don’t get something significant done this year, I think it will be very difficult,” due to 2012 electoral politics, LaHood said.

LaHood was also on Capitol Hill this week to testify before the Senate Budget Committee about President Obama’s reauthorization proposal.

Both LaHood and Mica reiterated this week that a federal gas tax increase is off the table.

“At this point, the president just believes with the economy where it’s at, and so many people out of work, that it’s very difficult to be proposing a gas tax (increase),” LaHood told the AASHTO meeting.

Republicans on the Budget Committee reportedly took LaHood to task for not offering a plan to fund the huge proposed transportation investment.

“If you can’t tell us what kind of tax you think would fund this and aren’t prepared to defend it, I think there’s zero chance of us passing a bill like this,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) at the hearing.

But a national survey issued last month by the Rockefeller Foundation indicated that declining to support a gas tax increase might be a wise political choice. It said that while most Americans support more investment in highways, bridges and transit systems, they are solidly opposed to raising the gas tax. Survey respondents preferred more private investment as a mechanism for raising more money for transportation.

LaHood has said he would leave the funding discussion to Congress and told lawmakers this week he and his staff are willing to “sit down together and figure it out.”

LaHood said at the AASHTO meeting that one thing his department does support is easing federal restrictions on states placing tolls on existing roads to help finance new construction. The secretary indicated the administration does not favor a complete repeal of the federal prohibition on tolling interstate highways built after 1956 however.

“We believe in tolling,” he said. “I think if states come to us with good plans for tolling, we will look at them very carefully … You can raise a lot of money with tolls, and if states decide that’s the way they want to go—as long as (they’re) building more capacity—that’s really what we’re going to look at.”

Mica told Streetsblog Capitol Hill this week that he wants to have four “measures of value” associated with his authorization bill that may have an impact on its overall monetary size.

“One would be what’s in the (Highway Trust Fund) and stabilizing that,” he said. “The second would be any money that we can find that hasn’t been used in any previous authorizations or appropriations and move that. The third would be looking at programs where we could leverage funds, like public-private partnerships, bonding. And the fourth area that I would like to count would be speeding up the process.”

The impact of federal regulations on the speed of project delivery was a consistent theme at many of the recent field hearings and listening sessions.

“So those are the measures that would get me to a total figure,” Mica told Streetsblog. “And I would like the size bigger rather than smaller. We’ll see what we can do.”

Mica also said that given the make-up of Congress, he would expect federal transportation spending to stay at something close to the traditional 80/20 split between highways and transit in the next authorization bill.

Further reading: “President’s Signature Extends Highway & Transit Programs for 7 Months.”

“Many Questions, Few Answers About Paying for Obama’s 6-Year Plan.”

 AASHTO Journal Weekly Transportation Report 3/4/11

Reauthorization & Transportation Policy Resources

Reauthorization and the future of transportation funding and policy are the focus of numerous reports that have come out in recent weeks. Here is a sampling:

  • Just in time for the reauthorization debate to finally get underway, the Washington, D.C.-based coalition Transportation for America has a new report out called “Transportation 101: An Introduction to Federal Transportation Policy.” It’s a handy 84-page primer and reference guide that examines the history of federal transportation policy, funding and revenue collection and distribution, how the current federal program works, how federal transportation policies are implemented at various levels of government, the reauthorization process and the future of federal transportation policy.
  • A report issued last month by the Washington, D.C.-based clean energy advocacy group Security America’s Energy says that any future transportation policy should aim to reduce oil consumption and that more public transit and congestion-reduction measures should be major parts of the next authorization bill. The group proposes that as much as 25 percent of transportation funding be dedicated to reducing highway congestion and building alternative transportation systems, including transit and high-speed rail. The report says it could all be funded through eliminating waste and consolidating duplicative existing federal programs. The group believes a transition from the outdated and outmoded gas tax to a tax based on vehicle miles traveled is critical for the long-term survival of transportation funding and is ultimately a fairer way to fund transportation. More dynamic tolling and congestion pricing mechanisms could also help reduce oil consumption, the report said.
  • U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, introduced legislation last month that proposes the establishment of a “clear and unified mission” for the federal surface transportation program. Included in that mission would be the goals of a 40 percent reduction in transportation-related carbon dioxide levels by 2030, a 10 percent bump in the use of non-highway methods for freight transport by 2020 and an annual increase in total use of public transportation and rail. The legislation instructs the secretary of Transportation, state governments and labor organizations to develop a plan to meet the goals. The U.S. DOT would also be responsible for assessing the overall performance of the transportation system and creating a performance-based metrics system to track progress.
  • A new report from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project argues for a new framework that would shift the focus of infrastructure spending toward the maintenance of the existing system and toward ensuring that new infrastructure is priced more efficiently and fairly. The report’s authors, Matthew Kahn of the University of California and David Levinson of the University of Minnesota, propose a three-step prioritization to help preserve, develop and enhance highway infrastructure: “fix it first, expand it second and reward it third.” Among their recommendations: redirecting all revenues from the existing gas tax and tolls from new construction to repair and maintenance needs, creating a Federal Highway Bank to allow states to fund new and expand existing roads (with funding contingent on the projects meeting strict performance criteria), and the creation of a Highway Performance Fund that would provide interest rate subsidies for new and expanded transportation infrastructure that exceeds performance targets (including on-time completion or congestion and pollution reduction).
  • Brookings also has a somewhat controversial report out called “State Transportation Reform: Cut to Invest in Transportation to Deliver the Next Economy.” In it, Senior Fellow Robert Puentes argues that state transportation funding sources are shrinking and investments are not being made in a sufficiently strategic, economy-enhancing way. To address the situation, he proposes the use of transportation dollars to leverage other state investments and the strengths of metropolitan areas as well as the creation of new public-private institutions. Puentes says transportation projects should go through a cost-benefit analysis and those selected should be those that provide a strict return on investment. In addition, the report recommends prioritizing repair over expansion, focusing on reducing oil dependency, and including social equity as a central goal. He recommends that state governments follow the lead of California and Massachusetts (as well as the Obama Administration) in creating inter-agency partnerships that bring together transportation, economic development, commerce, housing, land conservation, and non-transportation related infrastructure interests to create policy. Puentes highlights State Infrastructure Banks and public-private partnerships as good ways to fund transportation projects, arguing the time is now to reach out to the private sector. “Private corporations are ready to invest in U.S. infrastructure… But they’ll bypass the U.S. and go to Europe and other places that have the same amount of need,” he writes. AASHTO Executive Director John Horsley took issue with some of the report’s assertions in today’s AASHTO Journal Weekly Transportation Report.
  • Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, former Pennsylvania Governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and former Comptroller General David Walker have an essay on Politico this week in which they offer four guideposts they believe policymakers should embrace to ensure infrastructure investment dollars are not wasted. They include:          transportation investments must help expand the economy, not just provide short-term employment. Also, energy security must be a central focus of transportation investment. Every dollar contributed toward transportation performance should count. This, they write, means making the Congressional ban on earmarks permanent and putting all transportation funding into a unified fund, with transportation projects subject to rigorous analysis. Finally, the entire transportation program, regardless of the exact level of federal investment, should be managed on a pay-as-you-go basis, the authors write.
  • A lengthy new Government Accountability Office report says the U.S. Department of Transportation suffers from a “fragmented approach” to carrying out its mission that hinders the agency’s decision-making capabilities and ability to find solutions to complex challenges. This fragmentation manifests itself in several ways. The federal government lacks mechanisms for providing support to transportation projects that span multiple jurisdictions or encompass more than one mode of transportation. And while the federal-aid highway program’s provisions give states a great deal of discretion in pursuing their own priorities, they also impede the targeting of funds toward specific national objectives. GAO has previously advocated for a reappraisal of federal policies including a more goal-oriented approach, increased accountability for results, and the dismantling of modal “stovepipes.” President Obama, in his reauthorization plan outline released with the FY 2012 budget, called for the consolidation of 55 transportation spending programs into five.
  • A new Rand paper examines the key issues associated with using a percentage tax on crude oil and imported refined petroleum projects to fund U.S. transportation infrastructure. The paper identifies the decisions Congress would need to make in designating such a tax and outlines some of the likely implications of adopting one.