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.