Transportation Roundtable in Providence Looks Ahead to New Congress, Authorization and Transportation Finance

During the Council of State Governments' National Conference in Providence, Rhode Island, the CSG Transportation Policy Task Force hosted a roundtable discussion on December 5th looking at the impact of the 2010 election and what’s ahead for transportation in 2011. Here is a summary of what transpired.

  • The group heard from Rep. Alice Hausman of Minnesota. She discussed the pending departure of Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar, who has served as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and who was unexpectedly defeated in his bid for re-election last month after 50 years in Washington as a staffer and member of Congress. His legacy left undone includes a new federal surface transportation authorization bill to replace the one that officially expired last September. His replacement in Congress has announced plans to stop a planned rail connection between the Twin Cities and Duluth. Rep. Hausman said it may be necessary to rely on the business community and chambers of commerce to convince new Midwestern governors and others to save Midwest interstate passenger rail, because the chambers recognize the importance of rail to economic competitiveness. She said it’s now more important than ever to make the case for infrastructure investment and rail in particular within the context of building the economy.
  • The group also heard from David Ewing and Steve Hewitt, who are transportation consultants for CSG’s Eastern Regional Conference. David has worked on the last five authorization bills and Steve the last four. They said parts of the authorization bill that Oberstar proposed last year may become a part of the Obama Administration’s bill that they plan to submit with their proposed federal budget in February. But with the change in House leadership, there may be a paradigm shift in what is expected from an authorization bill. Representative John Mica of Florida, who will take over as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will start not at the needs end of the equation but at the resources end. The amount available to spend on an authorization bill will likely be tied to the Highway Trust Fund, which is expected to run out of money by 2013 if 2010 spending levels are continued. Mica and Republican Congressional leaders will have a narrow window to put together their own bill next year before the 2012 presidential campaign kicks into high gear. The end result may be a short-term solution that takes us to a longer-term bill. Ewing told the group that if CSG as an organization focuses its energies on influencing that short-term piece, we can really accomplish something.  
  • David Ewing said the outline of Mica’s bill and his overall approach will be different from those of his predecessor. Mica is likely to emphasize available financing over tax increases. He will also emphasize core transportation programs, a highway orientation, interstate maintenance and bridges, a needs-based approach in terms of distribution of funding, more public-private partnerships, continued investment in transit but drawing more from the General Fund, an emphasis on fix-it-first in transit at the expense of new starts, an emphasis on freight (which can lead to economic activity), and continued investment in high-speed rail but concentrated in the Northeast corridor where Mica and others believe it can have the most success.
  • David Ewing told the group that CSG and state governments have an opportunity since Mica and others will be looking for input in crafting authorization legislation in the months ahead. He said CSG as an organization should have the proverbial “elevator speech” at the ready. If you happened to be in an elevator at the Capitol with John Mica, what are the three things you would tell him states want from an authorization bill. As an organization, we should focus on creating consensus on that elevator speech.
  • Steve Hewitt said another focus for CSG as an organization should be educating new members at the state level. Recent electoral turnover, term limits and other factors mean a lot of experience on transportation has been lost. It’s important that CSG play a role in “101 education” of new legislators, new state department of transportation commissioners and others on how funding of surface transportation works.
  • The roundtable also included a discussion of what the future of transportation finance at the state level may look like. The pilot project in Oregon where drivers were charged by the mile rather than by the gallon has garnered much attention. This is an attempt to account for those who are driving more fuel efficient vehicles and consequently not paying as much in gas taxes, which have traditionally been used to fund transportation. But there is some lack of education among the public and the media about how vehicle miles traveled (or VMT) charges would work and why it’s important to seek new funding for transportation in general. There were a couple of questions from the group about how Oregon officials defined "success" with the pilot project there as well as those in other states and how remaining questions might be cleared up. These kinds of pilot projects could be further explored and funded in the next authorization bill.
  • Public-private partnerships (P3s) were a topic of discussion as well. Congressman Mica has expressed an interest in seeing more of these partnerships around the country but more than 20 states still don’t have enabling legislation that allows them to enter into these agreements. One of the original models for P3s in transportation which involved the selling of roads to foreign entities only interested in profit appears to have fallen out of favor somewhat. But there may be some support for private involvement in developing critical commerce corridors, which would provide new capacity and operational improvements focused on securing the movement of freight.
  • Finally, Sean Slone from the CSG staff gave a rundown of all the resources available on the CSG website in the Knowledge Center that can shed light on many of these issues and help facilitate both the education of newly elected members as well as the creation of that proverbial “elevator speech” as the authorization debate takes shape. CSG has produced a national report on Transportation and Infrastructure Finance as well as issue specific briefs on public-private partnerships, Vehicle Miles Traveled charges, tolling and congestion pricing, and many other issues. All of those are available in the Knowledge Center along with a regular transportation blog with analysis of what’s going on in transportation both in Washington and in state capitals.
  • A resolution outlining CSG’s goals for reauthorization which was approved in 2008 is due to sunset next year. CSG can seek to renew or revise the resolution and again make its case to members of Congress.