President, Democratic Senators Call for Transportation Authorization Extension, Warn of Consequences from a Lapse in Funding

As President Obama prepares to deliver a major jobs speech next week, he and two key Democratic Senators are warning that not extending transportation programs by the end of the month could compound America’s already significant job losses. This just as the federal government announced today that employers added no net jobs in August. There are also items this week about the impact of potential transportation funding cuts to states, the condition of U.S. infrastructure, alternative funding options, public-private partnerships, climate change and freight transportation.

The President this week called on Congress to pass a “clean extension” of the surface transportation authorization to ensure there’s no interruption in federal funding for transportation projects when the latest extension expires at the end of the month as lawmakers debate a longer-term bill.

He also called for an end to the age old practice of transportation project earmarks. “We need to stop funding projects based on whose districts they’re in,” the President said Wednesday. “and start funding them based on how much good they’re going to be doing for the American people. No more bridges to nowhere, no more projects that are simply funded because of somebody pulling strings.”

The President directed federal agencies to start drawing up lists of “high impact, job-creating infrastructure projects” that are shovel-ready and could be fast-tracked through permitting and review processes.

The has a list this week of “10 Important Projects Obama Should Back.” Their number one project: The Northeast Corridor Rail Upgrade, which is estimated to create as many as half-a-million jobs.

Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic blog meanwhile argues that: “If President Obama is serious about investing in a proposal that not only increases the number of jobs available but produces a valuable benefit for the public, a focus on paying for transit service rather than infrastructure could arguably be the best approach. By ensuring that public transportation agencies are able to provide adequate, day-to-day bus and rail operations, the federal government would be not only guaranteeing fewer job losses in the public sector (local governments have lost about 500,000 jobs since the official end of the recession) but also making it more feasible for the average person to rely on transit, since increasing frequencies makes it far more appealing.”

President Obama will deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress next week that is expected to outline his plans for reviving the nation’s flagging economy and creating new jobs. The Associated Press reports that among the things that could be part of the President’s jobs package is a long-proposed national infrastructure bank, which would help transportation projects attract private investors. But in the article, Janet Kavinoky of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce cautions that such an infrastructure is unlikely to be a big job creator in the short term. Count Ron Utt of the Heritage Foundation as another of those down on the concept of an infrastructure bank. He has a new Web Memo just out entitled: “Obama’s Peculiar Obsession with Infrastructure Banks Will Not Aid Economic Revival.”

In a letter to their Senate colleagues this week, Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer and Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee Chair Tim Johnson provide state-by-state numbers showing how many jobs would be lost if the current surface transportation authorization bill is not extended by September 30, when the latest extension expires. Overall 1.8 million jobs are at stake nationwide, the Senators say. Boxer’s home state of California stands to lose the most if transportation funding is allowed to lapse—more than 164,000 jobs and over $4.6 billion. Boxer has said she’ll propose a four-month extension as work continues on a long-term authorization. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica said this week he could support another short-term extension. Boxer’s committee is working on a two-year reauthorization of surface transportation programs at current funding levels. Mica and House Republicans have proposed a six-year bill that would rely solely on dollars available in the Highway Trust Fund.   

Robert Puentes writes this week in The New Republic about just what is at stake in transportation reauthorization:

“Since 1995, 11 states got more road construction and repair money from the federal government than they raised from their own state or local sources. In states like North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, and Alabama the federal share constitutes over half of the funds they use for roads. In only five others (Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, Massachusetts, Delaware, and New Jersey) is the share of federal funds less than 25 percent of total roadway expenditures. Transportation is also a relatively significant portion of most state budgets. At 7.9 percent of general state expenditures, “transportation” generally ranks third among state spending categories after only “education” and “public welfare.””

Impact to States of Transportation Cuts

There is also more this week about how specific states might be impacted if Congress fails to pass a highway bill extension, if they can’t agree on renewing the federal gas tax (most of which also expires September 30), or if they pass an authorization that significantly cuts the level of funding for transportation (as the House Republicans have proposed). The Beacon News reports on what Illinois faces. The Kansas City Star looks at highway projects that may be in limbo in the Sunflower State. The Springfield News-Sun has an article on potential job losses from a loss of federal road funds in Ohio. The Baltimore Sun looks at how the state of Maryland is preparing for what could be the latest federal standoff over the gas tax and SAFETEA-LU extensions. And WPSD-TV in Paducah, Kentucky examined the highway projects in jeopardy there.

Condition of U.S. Infrastructure

  • In the wake of Hurricane Irene, Bob Hennelly of WNYC Radio writes this week that decades of bad infrastructure policy have made many parts of the U.S. more susceptible to such natural disasters: “For decades in pursuit of property tax revenues and economic development we have built shopping malls in swamps, clear cut forests, and paved over farmland for box stores, while neglecting the existing infrastructure in our urban cores. While the economic development model based on sprawl made some people extraordinarily rich, it replaced naturally regulating natural systems - swamps, meadows and farms - with a mindless repetition of strip malls and fast food joints in state after state, leaving nowhere for the rain water to go.”
  • The transportation research group TRIP (The Road Information Program) has a new report out on the condition of rural roads in America. It’s entitled “Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America’s Heartland.” Among the challenges the report cites are connectivity, safety and deficient conditions.

Transportation Funding Alternatives

  • Tollroads News has a piece this week weighing the politics of several oft-mentioned alternatives to generate revenues for transportation. It derides proposals for a national infrastructure bank as “InfraFannieMae” or “TransFreddieMac” and says Congress is unlikely to authorize such an entity. Of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) or mileage-based user fees, which have been recommended by two federal commissions, the piece concludes that policymakers regardless of political stripe will never touch the issue, fearing adoption of such a system is a “political third rail threatening them with sudden electoral execution.” In addition, the article looks at public-private partnerships and what some are saying about the potential that federal transportation programs might be devolved to the states or that states would be allowed to opt out of the federal program.
  • A brief article on Fast asks the question: “Can Pay-Per-Mile Driving Programs Work?”

Public-Private Partnerships

Transportation & Climate Change

  • The Obama Administration announced today that they’re withdrawing an Environmental Protection Agency initiative aimed at strengthening national air quality standards for ozone, the main ingredient in smog. Environmental groups saw the move as “caving to big polluters” while business groups and Republicans praised it as the right decision saying the initiative would have been costly both monetarily and in terms of job losses.
  • The National Conference of State Legislatures has an update on state climate change policies and actions to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Freight Transportation

The Transportation Research Board’s National Cooperative Freight Research Program has a new report looking at the “Impacts of Public Policy on the Freight Transportation System.” The report looks at public policies related to safety, security, land use, environmental, energy and climate change, infrastructure operations and maintenance, infrastructure investment, infrastructure finance, and trade and economic regulation.