Fear Growing Senator Boxer Won’t Deliver Progressive Transportation Act

Dallas_High_Five.jpgThe "High Five" in Dallas, via jmmadrid on Flickr

California Senator Barbara Boxer will be at the center of a battle over whether or not the reauthorization of the transportation bill will address the global warming impacts of transportation, given her Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee is responsible for writing much of the bill’s language. Any chance of reforming the transportation bill, which advocates are clamoring for, will require deft political maneuvering to mollify ranking
committee member Senator James Inhofe. 

Several sources said that Boxer’s cooperation
with Inhofe is simple math. The $312 billion baseline for transportation over six years is insufficient to meet state of good repair needs and set the country on a course for innovation. Minnesota
Representative James Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation
Committee, has suggested $400-500 billion would be needed, while the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Organizations (AASHTO) and the American Public Transit Association
(APTA) argue in their Bottom Line Report that at least $160 billion will be needed annually. In order get from $312 billion to $500
billion or better, Boxer will need to get approval for new revenue
streams, which would require a filibuster-proof majority, something she
might not get without Inhofe and other reluctant members on the committee. 

Several interviewees also pointed to Senator Boxer’s
alliance with
Inhofe on an amendment in the federal stimulus bill for an additional
$50 billion in highway money as a bad sign.

"You have polar bears and glaciers on your website… then throw people back in their cars?" said one official who insisted on anonymity.

Because Boxer has traditionally been a champion for environmental causes, several advocates said that monitoring her on this issue would be new and potentially uncomfortable. TransForm Executive Director Stuart Cohen said he first saw a red flag late in 2008 when Senator Boxer spoke in San Francisco about highway and road infrastructure needs in the stimulus bill while failing to mention transit.  But, Cohen added, "we would have to adjust to the idea of watchdogging Senator Boxer; she has been such a reliable ally."

Transportation for America (T4A)
Communications
Director David Goldberg said an appropriately large sum of money is needed in any discussion of the transportation bill, but he was more concerned about how legislators would spend that
money. "We think there is a need of at least $500 billion, but
support is contingent on reforms that would make it a wise investment."

Colin
Peppard, Climate and Infrastructure Campaign Director for the
Environmental Defense Fund echoed the T4A sentiment. "What
we’ve gotten for our money so far is not a good deal," he said. "The public wants
a better product. Hopefully the authorization lays out priorities that
enhance safety and focuses on investment in new capacity that increases
energy independence and reduces greenhouse gases." 

Getting Inhofe, one of the premier
global warming deniers, to support a bill that calls for reducing greenhouse gas impacts from driving would be a political coup. He has said that environmental review is an
onerous burden for infrastructure investment and that the inclusion of
global warming rhetoric in a transportation act is unacceptable. From a
recent op-ed in Roll Call:

One
thing we must not do in this year’s reauthorization discussion is allow
debate over other national policies to distract us from surface
transportation issues. This bill historically has enjoyed broad
bipartisan cooperation and support. The insertion of controversial
issues, such as global warming, would pose serious threats to that
bipartisanship and would significantly slow, or even halt, the
reauthorization process.

Democratic leaders in both the Senate
and the House of Representatives have voiced the intention to consider
stand-alone global warming legislation at some point in the next two
years. It is within that context, and not during transportation
reauthorization, that we should debate the merits, or lack thereof, of
various proposals to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Inhofe spokesman Matt Dempsey added in an interview:

Senator
Inhofe and Senator Boxer have worked very closely together on
infrastructure legislation-there is no question how
closely they work together on infrastructure…. Certainly Inhofe
has been the leader in the Senate in opposing cap-and-trade
legislation; that is the direction he would go with transportation. 
And
there are other Senators on the committee who would oppose global
warming legislation in the transportation bill."  

Relying on other legislators and other committees to tie climate change to transportation is a risk as well. AASHTO only days ago sent a letter to House Energy and Commerce Committee
Chair Henry Waxman urging him to exclude rules for reducing
transportation sector greenhouse gas emissions from his draft climate
bill (PDF). 
AASHTO Executive Director John Horsley said that they "believe that any
changes to the transportation planning process, along with a funding
mechanism to support that process, should be addressed by the House
Infrastructure and Transportation committee as part of transportation
authorization legislation."

When pressed for a response to this story, representatives from Boxer’s office and
the EPW press office refused to comment on record and instead pointed Streetsblog to
the Senator’s own Roll Call op-ed and a speech she gave to APTA (PDF) in 2008 for her position on the issue. 

The significance of this reauthorization cannot be underscored enough. With a President and US DOT Secretary both publicly calling for reform in regional planning and transportation policy, political support at the top is no longer the sticking point.

Randy Rentschler of the San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan
Transportation Commission
compared the significance of the
passage of the current transportation act to the writing of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991,
when the focus of federal funding shifted from completing Eisenhower’s
interstate system to funding multi-modal transportation with emphasis
on transit and metropolitan regions.

The job [Boxer] has is
incredibly important. If you want to make a connection between this
opportunity we have now and another moment, you have to think back to
[Representative] Norman Mineta and [Senator Daniel Patrick] Moynihan.  They saw that the
interstate era was coming to an end – they not only saw it, but found
the political coalitions and strength and turned a highway completion
program into another program altogether.  The entire industry believes
we’re in that position now.

  • I am dubious about all the calls for more money. Both AASHTO and APTA feed at this trough, so their estimates are bound to be exaggerated.

    When Oberstar says that $500 billion is needed rather than $312 billion, isn’t he assuming that we will continue to increase road capacity?

    Less money would be needed if we made the only environmentally sound decision: to spend the funding on public transit and on maintaining existing freeways, but not on building new freeway capacity. If we don’t make that decision, allocating more money to TEA will mean that we build more new freeways.

    I suggest that, instead of abandoning the battle to shift money to transit in order to win the battle for more money, Pelosi and environmentalists should take the opposite tack. Accept just $312 billion for the next 5 years, and concentrate on the battle to shift as much of that money as possible to transit.

    If we win the battle this time to get away from the usual 80% freeway / 20% transit split, then we can try for more money 5 years from now, at the next TEA reauthorization. After we win the battle to change the split, then future TEAs will tend to follow that new split, and we can concentrate on getting more money for transit.

  • vito

    For a senator that will be up for reelection, I hope she does the right thing by the citizens of California. I wrote a letter urging her to do so. I hope you all will too.

  • What new freeways?

    19th Street Tunnel in SF?
    Cross Harbor-Brooklyn Tunnel?
    Long Island Cross Sound Tunnel?
    D.C. I-66 K Street-NY Avenue Tunnel?
    D.C. I-95 Grand Arc Mall Tunnel?
    Alexandria Virginia Route 1 Bypass Tunnel?

  • Colin

    Douglas, indeed highway builders and planners always want even more highways than are actually built and are happy to put and keep them on the drawing board. But there certainly are plenty of new highways and expansions- as you know, here in the DC area we have the massive Intercounty Connector, the new Springfield interchange, a new Woodrow Wilson bridge, and ongoing projects to widen I-66, 270, 395, etc ever farther out. It’s time to ditch the 80/20 split for a greener, more multi-modal model.

  • AnthonyA

    Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is making headlines, but it isn’t for doing something useful for the nation or the citizens of California. Barbara Boxer, though rightfully proud of becoming a Senator, grilled Brigadier General Michael Walsh of the Army Corps of Engineers for calling her Ma’am. The title is one of respect, but apparently it wasn’t good enough, so she insisted he call her “Senator.” Senator Boxer would likely give payday loans now to make this go away. The nation has real problems before it, and Barbara Boxer has decided to waste valuable time with trifles rather than put effort and maybe a cash advance into getting something useful done.

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