States Still Face Long Wait on Transportation Bill
By Sean Slone, CSG Senior Transportation Policy Analyst
The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee took up bipartisan legislation this week to reauthorize federal surface transportation programs for two years and make major reforms to ensure greater efficiency.
After a more than two-year wait for a successor to the previous legislation, known as SAFETEA-LU, that would seem to be, on its face, a positive development. But as a group of state legislators attending The Council of State Governments’ Transportation Policy Academy learned in October, they still have plenty of reasons to be pessimistic—as well as a handful of reasons to be optimistic—about the chances such legislation could be signed into law anytime soon.
For one thing, the Senate committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee still appear to be very far apart on what a bill should look like. While the Senate bill proposes to maintain highway and transit funding at roughly current levels for two years, it does not identify a source for the $12 billion needed to fully fund the proposal.
Republicans on the House committee initially proposed a six-year bill that would rely solely on existing revenues coming into the Highway Trust Fund, which would mean drastic cuts in the amounts states receive for transportation projects. More recently, some have suggested that such a multiyear bill could be funded, in part, by revenues from expanded oil drilling, a proposal that’s likely to be a political non-starter for some and may not even produce the kind of revenues needed in the near term.
“There’s still a long way to go to get bills from both houses (of Congress) and conference, particularly when you’ve got these pretty extreme differences starting with the size of the bill in terms of how big and how long,” said Jim Kolb, Democratic staff director for the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. Kolb spoke to a group of 11 state legislators who attended the policy academy in Washington, D.C., Oct. 4–6. “So there’s a lot of work that will have to be done before we get to that point.”
While states would like to have the greater certainty a long-term transportation bill would provide when it comes to planning major transportation projects, some believe it may not be such a bad thing that a new authorization bill may still be a long way off.
“If we’re talking about the future of the program, it may not be a bad thing,” said James Corless of the advocacy coalition, Transportation for America. “The question is what happens in the next 12 to 24 months.”
Even more basic—and much more difficult—than finding the money to fund a bill, lawmakers are tasked with redefining the purpose of the federal program, analysts say. Where the construction of the interstate highway system drove the program in the past century, a lack of a national purpose now has made the program rudderless.
“We’ve really lost our way in terms of the national surface transportation program,” said Emil Frankel of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “It is a program that lacks goals and purposes. … We can’t do everything anymore and I think that’s going to require us to look at and redefine the federal interest.”
He believes the program should put resources on projects, programs and activities that can bring the greatest results.
“There are things that are done under the federal programs which maybe we can’t afford to do, that maybe were appropriate at a time when the pie was getting bigger and bigger,” he said.
The problem is the pie is not getting bigger.
“The backbone of the federal highway and transit program—that would be the Highway Trust Fund—has been effectively bankrupt since 2008,” said Jack Basso of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “We’ve had to actually transfer for the first time in history $35 billion in total from the General Fund to keep this fund going and be able to pay the bills.”
The Highway Trust Fund’s traditional funding source—the federal gas tax—is no longer producing the revenues it once did as fuel efficiency has increased and many people are driving less.
Increasing the tax, which has not been done since 1993, could help shore up the federal program temporarily. But the sluggish economy and other factors have made an increase politically unlikely.
While analysts believe it’s a good sign that the debates over how to fund the program going forward and how to redefine it for the 21st century have begun in earnest, those debates haven’t always focused on the things they should. The recent fight over the $800 million transportation enhancements program is one example. States have used that program, which some Republican senators have targeted for elimination, to fund pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and safety, scenic and historic highways, landscaping and scenic beautification, historic preservation and environmental mitigation.
But Joshua Schank of the Eno Transportation Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan transportation think tank, argues that eliminating transportation enhancements, much like eliminating the earmarks that have been a part of past transportation bills, is attacking a symptom of the real problem and not the larger issue.
Schank said many of the 108 different federal programs in the surface transportation program don’t have a clear federal purpose. “So just starting with ‘Well, I don’t like this one,’ is not a productive conversation,” Schank said. “We might start with what are we trying to achieve with these programs and then go through and look at all the programs and say ‘OK, which ones of these are actually achieving what we’re trying to achieve.’ That would be the rational way to go about it.”
Schank believes the national debate should be focused less on the merits of a two-year vs. a six-year bill or how much transportation funding states might receive from a new bill, and more on how the benefits of federal transportation programs can be measured going forward.
“Getting national goals and performance measures established is more important than getting a bill,” he said.
Transportation for America’s Corless says such a transition for the program will be challenging but necessary. States will lead the way in demonstrating the benefits of transportation programs and projects, and measuring those benefits to justify their costs and, he said, “frankly reinstall some of the public trust in the system.
“So we are moving … toward a more quantitative, cost-benefit, performance-based transportation system,” he said. “And the more you’re doing that at the state level and understand how we grapple with this, the better.”
The Senate committee’s two-year bill considered this week would set national performance standards. It also would increase state flexibility under the enhancements program, collapse the number of federal programs to 30 and eliminate earmarks. While it may be a promising sign that such legislation received serious consideration, many still wonder whether political divides, funding gaps and vision deficits will still mean a long wait for a SAFETEA-LU successor and the increased certainty it could bring for states.
“Right now, we’re in a debate for the heart and soul of the country,” said Janet Kavinoky of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “What is the role of the government? How big should it be? How much money should be spent? What should the focus of the government be? And transportation is caught up in that overall debate.”