Transportation Bill Gives States Greater Certainty
By Sean Slone, CSG Senior Transportation Policy Analyst
Just hours after Congressional negotiators reached a final agreement on a 27-month federal surface transportation authorization bill, transportation official Joanna Turner spoke to a group of state legislators about the agreement.
“The whole building is shocked,” Turner, deputy assistant secretary of Transportation for governmental affairs, said.
Most weren’t expecting approval of the reauthorization—which comes nearly three years after the previous bill officially expired and despite the skepticism among many, including Turner’s boss, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood—until after the November presidential election.
The meeting at the U.S. Department of Transportation June 28 was the culmination of The Council of State Governments’ three-day Transportation Policy Academy in Washington, D.C.
State legislators in attendance had the opportunity to get early impressions of the legislation from Turner and her colleagues even as the ink was still drying on the 600-page bill.
Turner touted the bill’s consolidation of programs that is expected to give states greater flexibility in spending federal transportation dollars. She said the 27-month length of the bill will give states greater certainty about federal funding and allow them to get more long-term transportation projects underway, after three years of short-term extensions of the previous authorization legislation had limited their ability to do that.
In addition, Turner highlighted what she called the bill’s “dramatic expansion” of the TIFIA program (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act), a program popular with many state transportation departments that provides federal credit assistance for complex, large-scale transportation projects.
Turner credited a number of factors for Congress finally reaching agreement on a bill. She said casting the bill as a jobs bill as the current economic uncertainty continues proved a shrewd strategy. Another tipping point may have been the desire of rank-and-file members to have a legislative accomplishment to point to as they run for re-election this fall, she said.
But Turner said state and local government officials also should get some of the credit for keeping the pressure on Congress to get the bill passed.
Policy Academy Attendees Tour Projects, Receive Briefings
Eight state legislators picked by CSG’s four regions attended the invitation-only Transportation Policy Academy. The group included five lawmakers who chair transportation committees in their respective states. Among the states represented were:
Georgia, where voters this month will consider a local option sales tax to fund infrastructure projects;
Arkansas, where voters will consider three transportation funding-related ballot measures this fall;
Ohio, where officials are considering leasing the Ohio Turnpike to help fund transportation; and
Washington, where a transportation funding task force recommended earlier this year that the state invest $21 billion over the next decade to preserve the state’s transportation system and make strategic investments.
Legislators from Connecticut, Louisiana and Maine also attended the policy academy.
In addition to meeting with Turner, the legislators also had the opportunity to meet with their members of Congress and take a bus tour of regional transportation construction projects hosted by the Virginia Department of Transportation. They also received briefings on such topics as the state of the nation’s infrastructure, the importance of infrastructure investment to the economy, the future of the federal-state partnership in transportation and innovative transportation financing options for states including public-private partnerships and state infrastructure banks.
Briefers included representatives of the American Society of Civil Engineers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Transportation Trades Department AFL-CIO, the Bipartisan Policy Center, Eno Center for Transportation and Transportation for America.
The briefers told academy attendees that while the transportation bill passed by Congress is a notable accomplishment, it leaves some significant work undone.
“This is going to be a reform bill,” said the U.S. Chamber’s Janet Kavinoky. “It may not be massive amounts of reform, not a total overhaul of the federal program but that’s not what we do in Washington. But at least the groundwork I think to be able to go out in the future—and by the future I mean starting about the week after this thing passes—and talk about how we need sustainable, predictable, growing sources of revenue so the federal government can keep up its commitment to transportation. So I think that there are going to be a lot of positive things coming out of this.”
“We need to have a clearer articulation of national goals and national purposes (in the federal transportation program),” the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Emil Frankel said. “It needs to be a program that is based on outcomes and results, on performance measurement and accountability.”
Speakers also noted that a brighter future for transportation will require better decision-making in transportation planning at all levels of government, more competition among worthwhile projects, and the use of technology and innovation.
The CSG Transportation Policy Academy was made possible through the support of CSG associates The American Society of Civil Engineers and United Parcel Service.