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And now, at last, we're talking about money. Not enough by any measure - $50bn won't cover the cost of fixing the nation's highway and rail infrastructure by a long shot. Still, to borrow the punchline of that old joke about 10,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean, it's a good start.
The taboo topic of increased government spending was raised by President Obama in a speech in Milwaukee early this month. The President, who hasn't exactly taken the lead on highway funding reauthorization up to now, sketched out a six-year plan for fixing or constructing 150,000 miles of roads, 4,000 miles of rail and 150 miles of runway. He acknowledged that the $50bn is just a "up-front" investment that is part of a long-term program which also includes the establishment of an Infrastructure Bank to focus spending on projects of national and regional significance, and the consolidation of more than 100 programs related to surface transportation investment. The money, according to the Administration, "would help jump-start additional job creation, while also laying the foundation for future growth."
Obama's announcement won immediate support from a number of those seemingly interchangeable groups addressing transportation issues, including Transportation for America, Smart Growth America and Building America's Future. James Corless, director of Transportation for America, said the "aggressive, multi-year construction and rehabilitation effort is fundamental to the long-term health of our economy."
Of course the proposal means nothing without a bill to reauthorize federal spending on surface transportation. The previous mechanism, known as SAFETEA-LU, expired a year ago, and the system has been bumping along ever since. Last year, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) floated a $500bn Surface Transportation Authorization Act, but it went nowhere without Administration support (or, for that matter, many Republicans - despite the co-sponsorship of Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.).
So is this the magic bullet that will pierce the political muddle and bring about the rebuilding of our nation's infrastructure? Don't count on it. Still to be worked out are the details of how the money would be allocated. Maybe that's why the National Industrial Transportation League, the nation's biggest lobbyist and advocate for freight interests, has yet to chime in on the specifics of the Obama proposal. While the promised funds "certainly are welcome," NITL is still studying the details of the plan, says executive vice president Peter J. Gatti.
"Having said that," he adds, "clearly the most important aspect that needs to get addressed is developing a national freight transportation policy." That's necessary, he says, in order to prioritize the various infrastructure projects that will be clamoring for funds. What's more, such language needs to be part of a new surface transportation authorization bill.
The FREIGHT Act of 2010, introduced in the Senate in July of this year, calls for a national freight policy of sorts, but it doesn't address the issue of funding. Ideas on that front range from an increase in the federal fuel tax to a user-fee system such as a vehicle traveled miles tax. And don't forget the need for a Highway Trust Fund that is adequately endowed and can't be raided for non-transportation purposes, such as deficit reduction.
So what we have are a couple of pieces of legislation, a fledgling Administration proposal and a handful of funding theories that somehow must be melded into a coherent program. As Gatti puts it: "You don't take one from column A and one from column B and try to jury-rig something. We've said through the Freight Stakeholders Coalition that it has to be part of a coordinated effort, with Congress and the Administration working together to develop a program that prioritizes the nation's infrastructure needs."
The bad news is that freight interests rarely make up the kind of constituency that moves lawmakers to action. (The short version of that statement: "Freight doesn't vote.") The good news is that progress on transportation matters is almost always characterized by bipartisan cooperation. The bad news is that "bipartisan cooperation" is something of a dirty phrase today, especially in the runup to midterm elections.
Granted, President Obama was a no-show when Rep. Oberstar tried for a new transportation bill last year. Embroiled in debates over healthcare and economic stimulus, the Administration chose to put off action on a massive new infrastructure spending measure. Now that the President wants to move ahead, Republicans are dead set on preventing him from scoring any legislative successes, no matter what the subject might be. I'm not sure that Rep. Mica is correct when he says that the Oberstar bill would have passed last year with Administration support. But he's being disingenuous, to say the least, when he says the time isn't right for another attempt. It's only wrong because Republicans, salivating over the prospect of taking back the House of Representatives, are lining up to deride the proposal as another budget-busting "tax-and-spend" measure. (So was President Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System.) If they liked it then, why not now? The answer seems obvious. To mix a metaphor, transportation funding is still everybody's favorite political football. And no one's scoring any goals this season.
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