Senate Committee Approves Transportation Bill—What Now?

The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Wednesday voted unanimously to move forward a bipartisan transportation authorization bill known by the acronym MAP-21. In the latest issue of CSG’s Capitol Ideas E-Newsletter I look at why there may still be a long road ahead before legislation is signed into law. Here is some additional analysis of the bill and its prospects. I also have updates on the potential for a gas tax increase in Iowa and the future of tolling in Washington State.

Reasons to be Pessimistic About a Transportation Bill

  • Brad Plumer of The Washington Post writes this week that Congress’ aversion to a federal gas tax increase is prompting lawmakers “to devise ever-more byzantine—and often problematic—ways to rustle up funds.” House Republicans are said to be working on a plan to use royalties from new oil and gas drilling to help fund a larger transportation bill than the one they initially proposed, which would have meant significant cuts for states. But as Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense tells Plumer: “They’re taking revenues way down the road, speculative at best, to pay for roads and bridges we’re building right now.” House leaders are reportedly trying to fill a $75 billion to $100 billion shortfall to fund their bill.
  • Plumer also writes that in the Senate, the Finance Committee must still come up with $12 billion to fund MAP-21 in order to maintain current spending levels for two years. If they manage to come up with that extra $12 billion, the bill would still spend down the balance of the Highway Trust Fund to zero over the next two years. That could be a risky move if for some reason gas tax revenues don’t come in at expected levels. It could require Congress to step in again and shore up the trust fund or risk not having the money to fund planned infrastructure projects around the country. It also begs the question: what happens after that two-year bill is over and the trust fund is spent down to zero? Lawmakers would still be faced with the same choices and the infrastructure and fiscal situations could be even more dire. As Plumer puts it: “Congress could avoid many of these elaborate contortions if a gas tax hike were on the table and the Highway Trust Fund could get replenished. But it’s not.”
  • Politico’s Adam Snider writes that Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Republican James Inhofe is not a fan of the House’s oil drilling plan. “I think it’s not realistic that you can fund any size bill—let alone a six-year bill—with proceeds from increased (energy) production,” Inhofe told Politico.
  • Snider also points out that the Congressional Budget Office in late January will release new projections for the amount of revenues expected to come into the Highway Trust Fund. If those projections show potential additional shortfalls, Congress could have to scramble to come up with even more money to fund a bill.
  • As I’ve reported before, in addition to the Senate Environment and Public Works and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committees, three other panels are required to weigh in on various pieces of transportation reauthorization. They include the Senate Banking, Finance and Commerce committees. According to Snider, Banking is expected to mark up their portion of the bill after the Thanksgiving recess and Commerce could take action before the end of the year.
  • Senate EPW Committee Chair Barbara Boxer was able to reach a compromise with Republican Senators like Inhofe and Tom Coburn on the Transportation Enhancements program, which has been used by states to fund pedestrian and bike infrastructure and other things. In MAP-21, state departments of transportation were given an opt-out for spending those funds. But this is likely far from the end of the debate. Advocacy groups are already complaining about the elimination of dedicated funding pots for programs like Safe Routes to School and Recreational Trails. They expect things could get worse however. “The House bill by all accounts isn’t going to have a word about bike and pedestrian projects in it,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. Clarke blogs this week about another provision in the bill of concern to cyclists that would require them to use a bike path or trail if one is available rather than the parallel roadway.
  • Science magazine reports on another group concerned about the outcome of the authorization bill debate and the future of the Transportation Enhancements program—archaeologists. Since 1992, the program—in addition to funding bike trails and sidewalks—has also funneled funds to some 200 archaeology projects around the country.
  • Performance measurement could be another sticking point on a transportation bill. Emil Frankel, the Director of Transportation Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center offers this criticism of the Senate bill’s performance measures in a letter to EPW leaders dated Wednesday: “In its description of the national highway system MAP-21 fails to define a core national interest system. Everything that is eligible today would be eligible under the new highway programmatic framework. In a time of constrained resources there should be a clearer focus on national priorities, consistent with the national goals articulated in the performance management portion of this bill. There should be clarity between areas of primary federal interest and of state and local responsibility.” The letter goes on to say: “There are no real accountability provisions in MAP-21 that would serve to enforce the performance management principles of the bill and therefore no way to ensure compliance in the planning, programming, and application of federal highway funds.” Phineas Baxandall of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group sees promise, but also potential shortcomings: “The best part of the bill is the creation of initial steps toward state accountability for maintaining transportation assets in a state of good repair. This is an area that has been seriously neglected in past years and has led to unnecessary costs and reduced performance for highways and bridges. The bill would finally require states to develop plans for managing the expensive assets that taxpayers have funded and to establish performance targets for the condition of roads and bridges. The program includes provisions that could help to ensure that states do not allow their roadways to fall into disrepair while they divert funds toward building new and wider highways. These are important steps, though the provisions mostly lack teeth and potential accountability measures could not begin until after the bill expires. Unfortunately, the past history of implementing toothless federal accountability measures in transportation is not encouraging. The initial metrics and planning requirements will need to be followed up with more automatic “fix-it-first” rules to prevent wasteful spending.”
  • Our 2011 CSG National Chair, Deputy House Speaker Bob Godfrey of Connecticut offered this reality check during our Transportation Policy Academy last month in Washington, DC: “I understand the ideological gridlock intellectually and I hate it emotionally. And I don’t see any short- or long-term resolution of this. Somehow both parties have managed to take the line that connected the revenue dot to the spending dot and erased it and no one believes anymore that they have anything to do with each other. And that we can do more stuff for free … Until the poisonous discussion stops, nothing’s going to happen.”

Reasons to be Optimistic About a Transportation Bill

  • Joan Lowy of the Associated Press writes that the Senate committee’s passage of MAP-21 is “prompting lawmakers to talk of a looming bipartisan consensus that would end years of stalemate on repairing and expanding an aging transportation network.” Lowy’s article quotes Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter as saying “I don’t think there is any question … that this is the definition of bipartisan work. This is a jobs bill, this is an infrastructure bill that is designed to succeed, that can succeed.” Also weighing in is John Horsley of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, who said he’s encouraged by what he’s hearing from members of Congress in both parties.
  • Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, who is also a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Wednesday that although his committee has yet to identify where the $12 billion will come from to fully fund MAP-21, “we will, one way or another, hook or crook, find the resources on a bipartisan basis to pay for this bill.”
  • House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica has said he plans to introduce the House’s competing six-year, $286 billion transportation bill in the next several weeks.
  • 123 House Republicans signed onto a letter to their leaders last week urging them to move a multiyear surface transportation bill to support economic growth.
  • Joshua Schank of the Eno Transportation Foundation told legislators at our Transportation Policy Academy last month: “We have demonstrated in the states that you can raise revenue for transportation if people know what they’re getting. It has been demonstrated …The biggest example is Washington State, where a gas tax increase was achieved primarily through the use of a book they put out called “The Gray Book” (see here) that explained how those investments were going to increase accountability for a bunch of different performance measures … I’m optimistic because there’s a model for how we do this. And yes, it’s harder to do at the federal level and harder to do in this political environment but it is possible. And it is possible if we have a smart discussion about what the national purpose is. And it’s possible if we really reconsider how we’re funding this program. If we do all those things—which we are somewhat being forced to do—then there is hope that this program can be funded adequately and directed towards clear national purposes.”
  • James Corless of Transportation for America offered this: “I believe we’ll actually save the federal program. But it does mean that we’re going to have things like the TIFIA program, where the feds are going to loan basically. They’re going to get into different financial instruments and more innovative financing techniques. I think when we talk about things like mass transit, we are going to be seeing things like … what we call value capture, which is looking at transit lines and understanding the increment of value we’re inferring around surrounding properties, the importance of the development of those properties to make those transit lines function, that we get jobs and housing and services. But capturing some of that increment that is conferred by that investment, whether that’s federal, state or through a regional sales tax, we have got to begin thinking in those more innovative ways. While that’s going to be turbulent over the next one, two, three, four years, I actually think there is opportunity in that turbulence.”

Reasons to Be Uncertain About a Transportation Bill

  • Janet Kavinoky of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was another of the speakers at our recent Transportation Policy Academy. She told a group of state legislators that there is broad agreement on some of the key policy goals transportation authorization should include. But money is a major sticking point: “We don’t have a policy problem right now … We know we need to refine the focus of the federal program. We need to make sure that national needs are met. We need to pay attention to freight. We need to maintain and modernize what we have. Streamline project delivery, make it work faster, make permitting work faster. We need to provide incentives for private investment in transportation … But at the end of the day… it you want a road or you want a runway, lock or a dam, you’re going to have to pay for it. And the simplest and most straightforward way of doing that in surface transportation at the federal level is to raise the gas tax, which has a negative 30 percent chance of moving anywhere on its own. So we’re going to have to go and find any sort of offset we can in order to move it forward at the federal level. If we don’t, (they’re) going to hand you all a bill… to make up at least—depending on where you are in the whole formula—a 35 percent hole in highways and transit. And there are more than enough people here in Washington who will be more than happy to hand you that bill and say ‘it’s not Washington’s problem, we had to cut spending. Now it’s your problem.’ That’s a big hole to make up … Understand that over the next six months … it is very, very critical that if you don’t want to be handed that bill, you make it very clear to your members of Congress that they have a responsibility to figure out how to maintain federal funding.”
  • Jim Kolb, the Democratic Staff Director for the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit agreed: “We can talk about tightening up enhancements but you’re not going to get the savings that people expect. It was only about $800 million last year so it’s well short of what we need to fill the gap. They talk about project delivery. Absolutely, we can make a lot of progress with project delivery. There’s a lot of work that can be done. But when we’ve got less than 1 percent of the projects actually given (environmental impact statements), there’s only so much you’re going to save. And when one of the primary impediments to projects that require an EIA actually moving forward is lack of funding, it’s not going to solve your problems in terms of filling the gap that you’re going to have on the investment side. And when you talk about increasing public sector involvement, absolutely. We need to find ways to do that. There’s money on the table. We need to try to find ways to bring it in to the system and utilize it. But it’s project-based. It’s not programmatic. So when you do 10,000 projects a year and since 1998, you’ve only done 96 P3s in transportation and only 12 of those involve financing, you’re still going to have a huge gap and how do you fill those projects in rural West Virginia, which is what my boss (Subcommittee Chairman Nick Rahall) cares about. How does that fit into a program that focuses much more on that private investment? So, while it is a piece of the solution, it’s not the solution that it’s been sold as by a lot of folks. Which really leads me to the most frustrating part of this whole discussion and it’s a criticism of both sides frankly, it’s just not been at any level, intellectually honest … Nobody’s certainly been willing to step up and talk about the revenue side of things.”

Other Resources

  • The AASHTO Journal Weekly Transportation Report reports on Wednesday’s Senate EPW Committee hearing here.
  • Tanya Snider of Streetsblog Capitol Hill reports on the hearing and the debate over Transportation Enhancements here.
  • Larry Ehl of Transportation Issues Daily also recaps the committee debate here. You’ll have to subscribe to read all of the article (it’s free).
  • Veteran public policy consultant Ken Orski has this assessment of the chances for reauthorization.

Updates to Recent Stories

  • I blogged recently about how Iowa might soon consider a gas tax increase, as recommended by a Citizen Advisory Commission in a recent report. It now appears Gov. Terry Branstad has rejected that recommendation, at least for now, the Iowa Gazettereports. Branstad said Wednesday he’ll delay calling for a gas tax increase for at least a year and instead ask state transportation officials to find nearly $50 million in administrative savings. The governor hopes those savings will generate more funds to upgrade roads and bridges in the state. “I think with the financial circumstances that many people are in today rather than being the first thing you do is raise the fuel tax, I think we’ve got to look at additional efficiencies,” Branstad said on a radio call-in show. He said he does want to end the diversion of some gas tax revenues to deal with leaky underground storage tanks, a problem which has largely been addressed. In recent days Iowa Tea Party leaders sent letters to all 150 state legislators urging them to pledge to oppose a gas tax increase in the next legislative session.
  • I blogged this week about the defeat of ballot initiative 1125 in Washington State, which would have restricted the use of highway tolls there. The Seattle Times reports today that despite the win for proponents of tolling, Washingtonians shouldn’t expect to see tolls everywhere anytime soon. A number of toll projects are in the works but still some years away including HOT lanes on I-405, the Highway 99 tunnel project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct and a new Columbia River bridge on I-5. Still, House Transportation Committee Chair Judy Clibborn told the newspaper that the move toward tolling won’t happen quickly and will be done on a case-by-case basis. “We’re not out here throwing tolls at everybody in order to do whatever we want in transportation,” Clibborn said.