Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson
Just short of three years following the expiration of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFTEA-LU), Congress overcame partisan posturing and a host of other hurdles to pass a new 27-month surface transportation bill, dubbed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), which was signed by President Barack Obama in early July.
While a dedicated funding source was still not identified, steam began to build toward a solution as Conferees from each party met late in June prior to the expiration of the latest SAFTEA-LU extension. During the week leading up to the deadline, both chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee John L. Mica (R-FLA) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, touted a bipartisan two-year bill was in the offing.
Map-21, which was passed by the House 373 to 52 and the Senate 74 to 19, funds public transportation at current levels for the final three months of Fiscal Year (FY) 2012, $10.578 billion in FY 2013 and $10.695 billion in FY 2014. Funding authorized from the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund amounts to $8.478 billion in FY 2013 and $8.595 billion in FY 2014, with $2.1 billion authorized from the General Fund in each fiscal year.
While the bill was optimistically embraced by much of the public transit industry that had been longing for some sort of stability, there was much disappointment in the overall financial investment as well as the inability to identify the all-elusive dedicated funding source.
“Give the two parties credit for striking a compromise and actually passing a bill,” says Jeffrey Boothe, partner at Holland & Knight LLP. “The industry should be expressing its gratitude for at least 27 months of stability in terms of funding. Having said that, the funding issue will not go away and it has to be addressed; we keep kicking that can down the road but it will not go away.”
“It’s hard to think of this bill as anything other than a stopgap,” says Erich Zimmerman, Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan budget watchdog group. “It gives a couple of years to get together, hopefully, to figure out how to pay for a bill in a way that taxpayers would agree is responsible.”
Optimists hope the “stopgap” authorization sets the table for identifying a funding source over the next two years, however, there still is no consensus on what that source could be, including raising the gas tax. Another issue Zimmerman alludes to is picking up on some of the policy issues that were addressed separately by both the original House and Senate bills, where a resolution was not reached.
“We talk about things like a vehicle-mile-travel charge, tolling, increasing public-private partnerships and all that kind of stuff, and all that should definitely happen, but it doesn’t stop the need to raise the gasoline tax, at least in connection to inflation,” says Rob Puentes, sr. fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
“My sense is that they solved today’s problem and they’ll worry about funding after the election when they have to deal with the next authorization bill during the next Congress,” adds Boothe. “There is a very outside possibility that financing could be addressed in the end of the year confluence of separate crises that will all be joined into a single crisis, in terms of how to address the functioning of the federal government, but that is an outside possibility.”