Caught in a Perfect Storm: Will a New Transportation Bill Emerge in 2010?

Posted on February 9, 2010 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

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[IMAGE]Oberstar.jpg[/IMAGE]When you combine the nation's economic slump and the inability to find a new funding mechanism to bolster the Highway Trust Fund, it can safely be said that the stalled effort to pass a new transportation bill is caught up in a "perfect storm."

The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), which was signed into law by President George W. Bush on Aug. 10, 2005, expired as of Sept. 30, 2009. Although Congress is supposed to begin work on a new six-year authorization this year, there are many factors outside of the two aforementioned problems, including healthcare and climate legislation, that have also contributed to gumming up the works.

"It was our original intention to complete work on the authorization by the end of September. Certainly, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure was ready to do just that," explains Congressman James L. Oberstar (D-Minn), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "However, we could not move our bill until the Committee on Ways and Means was ready to move the revenue title, but that committee was tied up with several other pieces of major legislation. At the same time, the Administration and the Senate were urging an 18-month delay in the process, leaving the authorization stalled in our Committee."

Currently, federal surface transportation legislation is working on an extension of SAFETEA-LU until Congress is prepared to address the funding issues, which could possibly not happen until after the healthcare and climate legislations are put to bed.

So, where does that leave the hopes of seeing a reauthorization in 2010? While many are still optimistic that a new bill will emerge in 2010, some are coming to terms with the reality that extensions of SAFETEA-LU will be applied possibly until March 2011, which is 18 months later than the bill was supposed to be completed and is the time period suggested by the Obama administration and Senate that Chairman Oberstar mentioned.

Monumental opportunity

Most agree that this surface transportation bill is a monumental opportunity, since it is not only the chance to fund much-needed infrastructure improvements, but also shape the nation's transportation system as it gears toward a population predicted to escalate to more than 400 million by 2040.

"In our view this is an historic opportunity - a moment akin to 1956 when the Interstate Highway Act was passed," says David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation For America (T4America), a broad coalition of organizations that support a better transportation system for Americans. "We've built the interstate and sprawled out about as far as we could. We have a vastly different energy picture and a vastly different real estate picture, in terms of where the demand is. We have changed demographics. We are very different than the Ozzie-and-Harriet era that our current system is based on."

Goldberg adds that the U.S. has a huge need to move toward a clean energy future that also includes cleaner forms of transportation for a different part of the nation's population.

"Eighty percent of our population lives in metropolitan areas now. Sixty-five percent of the population lives in just the 100 largest metro areas, but we have a transportation program designed for interstate travel, which doesn't address urban transportation very well at all," he says.

Proving Goldberg's point, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census Bureau, only 54 percent of American households have access to public transportation of any kind.

The aforementioned population growth, as well as the U.S. Census Bureau's prediction that the number of Americans 65 and older will double to more than 70 million by 2030, makes it abundantly clear that this federal transportation bill is of the utmost importance, says Chairman Oberstar.

"This will be a transformative authorization bill," he says. "It not only will invest more money in our national transportation infrastructure, it will reform the way our federal surface transportation programs are conducted. It will reduce red tape and require more coordination and cooperation among the various modal agencies within the Department of Transportation."

With the renewed interest in public transportation and the benefits it brings both economically and environmentally, there is no doubt that many feel now is the time to push for the extra funding in the wake of recent victories, such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ARRA) investment, which included a large investment in high-speed rail systems.

"Under President Eisenhower in the 1950s came the construction of the Interstates. While regarded as a system crucial for our national defense during the Cold War, it helped build out our nation and also connect it within," says Robert Puentes, sr. fellow/director, metropolitan infrastructure initiative, Brookings Institution, metropolitan policy program. "For Senator Pat Moynihan and his colleagues in the 1980s and 1990s, the vision was to modernize the program and better connect roads, transit, rail, air and other modes. The challenge for us today is to recognize that transportation is a means to an end, not the end in and of itself."

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