Sean Slone

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Perhaps lost somewhere this week between news of President Obama’s budget and transportation plan and Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s rejection of high-speed rail in his state is the fact that today, February 17th, marks the two-year anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The act, which provided $48.1 billion for transportation infrastructure projects around the country, has received plenty of criticism for not doing enough to revive the economy but also won praise from state governments who saw the infrastructure funds as a godsend during what was otherwise a period of slashed transportation budgets. And, as I reported in a CSG National Report last year, some states themselves won a fair amount of praise for their efforts to meet deadlines, select worthy projects and report on their activities. While the one year anniversary of ARRA in 2010 produced a flood of reports looking at the legislation’s impact, I could find only a handful commemorating this anniversary.

Transportation figured prominently in President Obama’s 2012 budget proposal released this week. The proposal included the outlines of a $556 billion, six-year transportation plan. While some praised the plan for “bold vision,” others believe the lack of agreement on a revenue source to pay for it all and other factors will make it very difficult to achieve that vision.

Vice President Joe Biden announced today a proposal to spend $53 billion over the next six years to improve existing rail corridors and designate new tracks for high-speed trains. The Obama administration wants to start with an $8 billion down payment included in the President’s proposed 2012 budget, which is expected to be released Monday. But as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee prepares to host a series of field hearings on federal transportation policy starting Monday in West Virginia, Republicans on the panel say the administration’s high-speed rail plans are out of step with what the country needs to be doing.

The future of federal transportation programs and what it could mean for state governments were clearly on the minds of speakers and attendees at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting last week in Washington, D.C.

I’ve written a fair amount over the last year or so about the intersection of transportation and the environment in public policy, about Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth, about Climate Change and Transportation and about Green Transportation. Several new reports on related issues have come across my desk in recent weeks. Here’s a rundown.

High-speed rail continues to be a topic of debate in several regions of the country. Here’s a rundown of some of the developments in recent days.

I have a new Capitol Research brief out this week entitled “Rural Transportation Needs.” The concept for the brief evolved from a resolution our CSG Transportation Policy Task Force approved at the 2008 annual meeting in Omaha. One of the lines in that resolution reads “be it further resolved that the Council of State Governments supports a transportation authorization that considers the needs of both urban and rural areas.” That line, I believe, was an effort by our members to address what some at the time feared could become an urban bias in a fundamental reorganization of federal transportation programs under a new authorization regime. Three years later, that resolution is due to sunset later this year under CSG bylaws (we will likely endeavor to renew or revise it accordingly). There still is no agreement on a successor to SAFETEA-LU, which officially expired in 2009 and has been extended six times on a short-term basis. And a sea change has occurred in Congress not only politically but demographically. Republicans, who now control the House, made many of their gains in rural areas. That impacts what the expectations are for an authorization bill and what parts of the country are likely to benefit. But it is no less important to keep in mind the unique transportation needs of rural communities as the authorization debate resumes this year.

Next week, I’ll be in Washington, D.C. for the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies Annual Meeting, which brings together thousands of transportation professionals from some 70 countries to discuss all things transportation-related. With as many as 100 sessions going on simultaneously at any one time in three huge conference hotels, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the choices. As I’ve learned from attending the meeting in 2009 and 2010, it helps to map out a plan in advance. Here’s a look at my tentative schedule of sessions and events along with some suggested further reading for those who may be interested. You’ll be able to follow me on Twitter (@CSGTransport) and here on the blog starting Sunday.

I’ve blogged before about how the governors of New Jersey and Virginia, both elected in 2009, are tackling transportation issues in their respective states. Now, Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell are back in the news this month with ambitious transportation plans. Meanwhile, newly elected Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is proposing tapping transportation funds to prop up other government programs in his state budget. And as other states seek ways to finance improvements to their own transportation systems, a number of recent reports and developments put the focus on such mechanisms as public-private partnerships, congestion pricing and tolling.

The first half of January has already been full of news about federal transportation spending and how things may be different under new House leadership in the nation’s capital. The discussion continues about the potential impact of new House rules on the Highway Trust Fund and what a ban on earmarks may mean for transportation spending. Meanwhile, it appears there may be some movement afoot to tackle new legislation reauthorizing federal transportation programs this year.

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