When committee assignments were divvied up for the 105th Congress, there was one set of seats many members were angling for. The House Transportation and Infrastructure has spent the last eight months working to re-write the federal transportation law. Although not as high profile as some other bills, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act [ISTEA] not only sets national transportation policy, but it also distributes over $150 billion in local highway funding.
According to Thomas Mann, director of the Governmental Studies Program at the Brookings Institute, this year "is seemingly the greatest of times to be on the committee. It is the clearest opportunity to get federal money for projects in a member's district."
Both Representatives Jay Johnson (D-WI) and Kay Granger (R-TX) were appointed to the committee at the beginning of the year. Each member has significant transportation issues in their district, Johnson representing the port of Green Bay and Granger having several airports and railroad based in her's. Both come from states that have recently received less money from the federal transportation treasury than they put in. States in the Northeast have tended to receive more. This issue of how money is divvied up was the fundamental fight of ISTEA.
Some states, known as donor states, received less money from the highway fund
than they contributed. These states worked to ensure that each donor
state was guaranteed 95 percent of the money it contributed. Other
states argued that federal highway funds should be distributed on
the basis of need. So if the roads in New York were bad one year,
they would receive more money. If the next year it was California,
then that state would get more funding. A group called ISTEA Works,
lobbied for the current system. The advocates on both
sides clashed in several of the hearings on the new ISTEA.
Jay Johnson claimed the next version of ISTEA as a victory for states
that have received less funding. "This new highway bill is a giant
leap toward equity for Wisconsin," Johnson said of the rewrite. "Currently,
Wisconsin receives about 87 percent of what we pay into the highway
trust fund from the taxes we all pay at the gas pump. Under this plan,
Wisconsin is guaranteed at least 95 percent of every dollar we pay.
It's too early to tell what we will receive when it's all said and
done, but this much is clear -- this proposal marks enormous progress
for our state."
Kay Granger (R-TX) was also interested in making sure the new federal
law altered the way that money was distributed. Texas was another
state that received less in funding than they put into the pot.
This forum addresses the following issues: Should federal funds be distributed based on need or an the amount a state contributes? Is the process too political? What should the federal role be in transportation policy?