There's one thing you can be certain about, when it comes to the progress of transportation legislation in Washington: the wheels are spinning like mad, but nothing is actually moving.
Take the proposed reauthorization of highway, transit and surface transportation funding. Congress and the Obama Administration keep extending the current law, known by the clunky acronym of SAFETEA-LU, which stands for the Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act - A Legacy for Users. A replacement is at least nine months overdue, according to Janet F. Kavinoky, director of transportation infrastructure, congressional and public affairs with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We don't expect that bill to get done this year."
Why the delay? That's easy: the Administration and key legislators can't figure out how to pay for it. Apparently nobody has an appetite for the higher taxes or fees that would be required under a new law to shore up and expand the nation's crumbling infrastructure of roads and bridges. Meanwhile, the existing Highway Trust Fund is on the brink of exhaustion, as lawmakers attempt to prop it up with temporary infusions of cash.
SAFETEA-LU was signed into law by President Bush in 2005. Even then, says Kavinoky, "everybody knew we were running the Trust Fund into the ground." The surprise was how soon it would happen. The bill was set to expire in September of last year, but coming up with a new one is proving to be a typical exercise in legislative frustration, made worse by a general distaste for new taxes or fees of any kind.
Apparently it will take public awareness of a crisis to spur action. "We keep waiting for that point where somebody cries 'uncle' and says, 'OK, we get it. We're going to have to accept an increase in user fees,'" says Kavinoky. That hasn't happened yet. Other than a handful of committee chairs, legislators are unwilling to stick their necks out on the issue. The coming midterm elections are making Democrats nervous, and Republicans seem emboldened to oppose any increases in fees or spending at all.
Blame the recession for a portion of the problem. Blame the Tea Party, too, for its all-out antipathy toward government. Kavinoky suggests that proponents of renewed highway funding don't have a sufficiently dramatic narrative to support their argument. Certainly not one that tops creation of the Interstate Highway System back in the 1950s. "How do you make transportation policy interesting and revolutionary like Eisenhower did?" she asks. "How do you set out a picture that's compelling, when we have a mature transportation system?"
The only transportation story out there right now with any pizzazz is the coming of high-speed rail, which raises a whole set of questions about whether it would help or harm the development of infrastructure for freight. In any case, says Kavinoky, that's not the same thing as modernizing the nation's entire transportation system, for the benefit of all.
Then there's the question of whether to direct limited funds toward new freight-friendly projects or the expansion of public transit, a subject I've written about on more than occasion. Kavinoky acknowledges the view of some that transit spending is merely a divergence from the real work of saving the Highway Trust Fund. But she offers another perspective, one that sees the two options as mutually beneficial. Clearly the severe road congestion being experienced in many major urban areas could be alleviated by a greater reliance on public transit. And getting more passengers off the roads will improve the system's ability to accommodate freight. At the same time, with 100 million more Americans expected by 2050, there has to be a system for efficiently transporting the goods they'll be consuming.
"If you have an integrated planning process for both highways and transit, [to] move both people and goods efficiently, then you can strategically invest in public transportation to the benefit of freight," says Kavinoky.
First thing's first, though. Freight interests have to speak their mind. Lawmakers need to know there's a constituency for improving the nation's transportation system, even if that means paying a bit more for gasoline and diesel at the pump. (The current federal gas tax stands at 18.4 cents per gallon, unchanged since 1993, when gas cost $1.11 per gallon.)
"Congress needs people who read SupplyChainBrain to educate them about the way things really are," says Kavinoky. "We need the engagement of transportation stakeholders across the country if we're going to move the ball in the right direction on any of these issues."
Speak up, folks.
Next: A U.S. Chamber briefing on port and waterways issues.
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