This past November brought a nearly unprecedented switch in political power in Congress, with Republicans taking over the House and gaining seats in the Senate. To many the message was clear: As a nation, our government is spending over our heads, suffering from staggering unemployment numbers, still reeling from the economic recession and impatient for change.
To find out how this political shift will impact the public transportation industry, as well as the answer to other federal developments, including authorization of a transportation bill, METRO Magazine spoke to three experts — Jeff Boothe, principal at Holland & Knight LLP; Paul Dean, director, government affairs, for the American Public Transportation Association; and Kenneth Orski, long-time industry veteran and editor/publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs — to get their views.
What changes will the new balance of power have on public transportation and an authorization bill?
Paul Dean: We are certainly facing a new dynamic in Congress, with a much more conservative House and Senate. It's no secret that one of the primary goals of the new Congress is to reduce spending, which certainly makes any federally funded entity nervous, going forward. We've seen early efforts by the Republican party in the House to target transportation, and public transportation in particular, for budget cuts. However, we still have a lot of support and are working hard to make the case that these types of investments should not be unfairly targeted, particularly ones that help spur economic development and create jobs.
The President, during the State of the Union address, emphasized infrastructure spending as a priority, and both T&I Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-FL) and Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) are interested in moving forward with a long-term bill so, although the balance of power has shifted somewhat, we're still optimistic that a six-year bill can get done.
Obviously, it's going to be an important year. The new Congress is going to require a lot of education on our behalf, and, I think in the long run, I'm optimistic that we can get our message across that investments in infrastructure and transportation are investments worth making.
Kenneth Orski: The Republican leadership has said that they want to reduce the federal budget by $100 billion during the remainder of Fiscal Year 2011, but not every program is going to suffer equally. Some programs will be cut more severely than others, and we don't know to what extent the transportation program is going to be cut for the remainder of this Fiscal Year.
What we do know is that any unobligated money in the High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program (HSIPR) is probably going to be rescinded or reprogrammed. The Senate and the White House will have to weigh in on this, but as far as the House is concerned, they want to rescind any of the ARRA stimulus funds that have not yet been obligated. About one-half of the $8 billion in HSIPR funds have not been obligated, yet.
Jeff Boothe: It's been a while since there's been an effort to cut billions of dollars as is being proposed by House Republicans. I was on the Hill during the Reagan Administration, when there was a similar effort to try to cut spending, and it was partially successful. However, the Reagan Administration found out that those programs had constituencies. For example, the Reagan Administration wanted to shut down the transit program and turn it all back to the states. In response, the industry rallied together and worked hard to build a constituency. They had friends on key committees that were interested in protecting the programs and they were able to do so.
So, I think there's a lot that has to happen between now and actually cutting spending. That doesn't mean the industry shouldn't be concerned. The industry absolutely should be concerned. We are dealing with a Congress, both House and Senate, of whom 45 percent were not in office when SAFETEA-LU passed. There is no minimizing the challenge that faces us, and its going to test our ability to generate support. We also have to hope that we have some friends in the Obama Administration that care about the transit program, that don't want to see it decimated, and will be willing to veto bills or take a position in support of the industry when some of the more egregious cuts are proposed.
Along with the sweeping change in Congress came the end of James L. Oberstar's reign as T&I Committee chairman. He was succeeded by Rep. Mica, who is accompanied by significant shifts in the makeup of all T&I subcommittees.
What will be the impact of losing a long-time leader and staunch advocate as Oberstar and gaining Mica as chairman?
Boothe: The impact of who recently got elected is significant. Looking at the T&I Committee, there are 33 Republican members and, of those, 19 are in Congress for the first time, so he's working with a committee that is a blank slate when it comes to working on surface transportation legislation. Chairman Mica will need to determine how he will coordinate with House leadership to advance legislation and assess how much flexibility he has to develop a bill of his preference? We don't know yet. He's been a friend of transit, a friend of transportation and believes strongly in the program so, in that respect, it's good to have him at the helm of the Committee. Given how many new members he has, it's just unclear to what extent the committee members will follow his lead in putting together a bill. I don't think anybody knows yet.
Dean: There certainly will be differences, no doubt about that. The makeup of the T & I Committee will be much more Republican, much more rural or suburban, which certainly means we have to continue to educate on the benefits of public transportation beyond just the urban areas.
Rep. Mica, who has long been a supporter of public transportation, certainly recognizes that there is an important federal role in funding the program, but he's also practical. The fact is that unless we can come up with other resources, we're going to have to live within what we have in the Highway Trust Fund, but I expect that public transportation, in the scheme of the whole surface transportation world, will continue to be looked upon favorably under Mica's leadership.