Nov/Dec 2009

State News: August 2009



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Transportation Overhaul Hits Roadblock

By Sean Slone, CSG Transportation Policy Analyst
State officials want the federal government to recognize that one size does not fit all when it comes to transportation needs of the states and regions.
That was one message as five legislators—who also serve on transportation committees for The Council of State Governments and its regions—met with federal officials during a CSG fly-in meeting June 23–24. They were in Washington, D.C., to meet with staff from key committees that will debate the next federal authorization for transportation programs.
Connecticut Deputy House Speaker Bob Godfrey, who serves as CSG vice chairman, said a transportation plan that might be right for one state wouldn’t work in another. He said his part of the country is dealing with a “19th century infrastructure that is not serving the 21st century well.”
But Godfrey also recognizes the need for a national transportation policy.
“I want a ‘bridge to somewhere’ but I understand it has to be in a very large context,” he said.
Georgia Rep. Vance Smith, who was preparing to take office as that state’s transportation commissioner, said he sees a need for more rail and distribution centers because he wants his state’s ports to be ready when the new locks on the Panama Canal open for traffic in 2015.
Montana Sen. Jim Keane, chair of the CSG-WEST  Trade and Transportation Policy Committee, said the rail system in Montana has huge problems. He would like to see the rural West remembered in authorization legislation.
Minnesota Rep. Alice Hausman, a CSG Transportation Policy Task Force member, told staffers she’s excited about the shift to more emphasis on public transportation in the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair James Oberstar’s bill.
And Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, CSG Transportation Policy Task Force chairman, said he would like to see states given more flexibility to move money around between various federal transportation programs.
Although the state officials were able to share their hopes with staff of the House Transportation and Infrastructure, Senate Environment and Public Works, and Senate Finance committees, they heard some discouraging news for anyone expecting a major overhaul of federal transportation programs this year.
The current transportation authorization, known by the acronym SAFETEA-LU, expires Sept. 30 and Oberstar is pushing to get a new multi-year bill passed on time.
But reauthorization may not happen in that time frame.
As fly-in participants heard from several people, several factors and conflicting agendas may dash Oberstar’s plans.
Oberstar’s proposed six-year, $500 billion bill won unanimous passage in the Highways and Transit Subcommittee June 24. The full committee plans to consider the bill in the full Transportation and Infrastructure committee when House members return from their July 4 recess with a House floor vote possible before Congress takes its August recess.
But the 775-page bill does not include a funding source. The task of finding one will fall to the House Ways and Means Committee, which this summer is also busy tackling how to pay for health care reform legislation, one of the Obama administration’s biggest legislative priorities.
And even as Oberstar was preparing to introduce his legislation two weeks ago, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called for a temporary extension that would keep transportation funding at current levels for 18 months to allow time to debate how to pay for new transportation spending and how to substantially restructure federal transportation programs.
Leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, one of four key Senate committees with jurisdiction over the authorization, said they will support the administration’s 18-month plan.
Godfrey told Senate Finance Committee staffers CSG is ready to help move public opinion to funding transportation starting at CSG regional meetings this summer and continuing over the next 18 months.
But Godfrey said everyone needs to be on the same page, making the same pitch. To that end, staffers suggested trying to begin building support for a gas tax increase and reviewing other finance options recommended by the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission.
That commission’s final report, released in February, includes an examination of the strengths and weaknesses of motor fuel taxes, goals for transportation funding reform and an assessment of various forms of tolling and direct user fees.

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