Tom McNamara, Blueprint America
Rep. Jim Oberstar (D., MN), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has been at odds with the Obama Administration on when to take up his recently introduced transportation bill: THE SURFACE TRANSPORTATION AUTHORIZATION ACT OF 2009. Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood has called for an 18-month extension of the current law instead of approving a new law. Rep. Oberstar, however, has other ideas.
“We completely transformed the Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration in this legislation,” said the Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman about the bill on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC public radio in New York, “We can’t ask people to continue paying for a program that doesn’t work.”
As Sec. LaHood told senior lawmakers on June 17 of the Obama Administration’s request, Rep. Oberstar called extending the existing law, passed under President George W. Bush, “unacceptable.”
The transportation bill even has some bipartisan support – at least within the Committee – as ranking minority member Rep. John Mica (R., FL), among others, has endorsed the bill.
Still, the Senate is mostly opposed to the new legislation – following the lead of the Obama Administration. After the bill’s introduction, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., CA), Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., OK), ranking minority member, endorsed the 18-month extension.
Sen. Boxer said the extension should be “clean as it can be, clean as a whistle … not with these policy changes, because it will in fact jeopardize a quick passage of this extension.”
The delay of new legislation would also postpone a vote by Democrats in Congress to raise taxes – most likely the national gas tax – to cover the almost 60 percent increase in federal transportation funding the bill calls for past the 2010 midterm elections. The Environment and Public Works Chairman said, “I will tell you that if you go out to the people of America and say (a gas tax hike) is the solution, they’re not going to buy it.”
THE NEXT STIMULUS
The stimulus package passed in February has come under debate as to its actual effect in creating new jobs and saving existing ones given June’s 9.5 percent unemployment rate. With some $120 billion of the $787 billion bill going to infrastructure – $27 billion for highway and bridge construction and repair; $8.4 billion for mass transit; $8 billion for high-speed rail; and $1.3 billion for Amtrak – areas with low unemployment rates are getting a disproportionate amount of stimulus funding, according to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
In terms of federal dollars for transportation, the decision on how to spend most of it was left to the states, which have a long history, The New York Times said, “of giving short shrift to major metropolitan areas when it comes to dividing federal transportation money.”
Two-thirds of the country lives in large metropolitan areas, which are not only the locations of rundown roads and bridges and public transit systems in need maintenance and expansion, but are also the nation’s economic centers and places of highest unemployment. But, according to The New York Times, far less than two-thirds of federal transportation stimulus money has gone to these cities and their surrounding regions.
Still, President Obama has said the stimulus plan needs more time.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., CA) agrees with the President in seeing through the first stimulus package. At the same time, however, the Speaker said last week, “I am a proponent for bringing up a full transportation bill, which is a great jobs bill… right now I think that we have big issues with health care and how we fund that, and if we do go someplace, I’d like to see us do the transportation bill.”
If the new transportation bill were put into law, according to the House Transportation and Infrastructure
Chairman, then the formulas and mechanisms allowing states to potentially mis-fund transportation would be streamlined or done away with as the legislation consolidates 75 funding categories from the current system into just four categories.
The Obama Administration certainly agrees with Rep. Oberstar that the system needs reform. Simply, it may be another fight for another time.
THE HEALTHCARE ROADBLOCK
The fight right now: healthcare reform – the President’s top legislative priority. That is at least the signal from the House Ways and Means Committee, which is preoccupied with how to reform and fund the national healthcare system. As Rep. Charles Rangel (D., NY), the Committee Chairman, told The Hill, “You have to believe me. Everything I am doing is health, health and health.”
Any bills with taxes, such the proposed healthcare and transportation legislation, must go through the Ways and Means Committee. If healthcare has predominance over transportation, as Rep. Rangel has suggested, then the transportation bill is likely to not even be heard this year by the Committee. The Ways and Means Chairman went on to tell The Hill, “he can’t yet talk about how to fund the highway bill, but added that ‘it is very important and it’s on the front burner.’”