STAA Tuned: Transpo Bill Leaves Funding Question Hanging

We now have in our hands the 775-page Surface Transportation Authorization Act, which was released yesterday by James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House transportation committee. It is, in many ways, a remarkable bill -- a blueprint for how transportation planning and infrastructure construction might undergo a significant shift away from the mindsets that have dominated for the past half-century. There is a lot to like in the bill.

Current spending levels, to say nothing of the increases proposed in the bill, will be impossible to sustain in the absence of a new source of revenue. This is a huge obstacle to passage.

As currently written, STAA would significantly strengthen the Office of Intermodalism and work toward making DOT planning "mode neutral" -- that is, not operating under the assumption that highways will always get first priority in planning and funding.

It would create an Office of Livability, focused entirely on seeking balance in mode choice by boosting transit ridership, bicycling, and walking. The bill seeks to streamline the process by which new transit projects apply for funding, and it allows federal officials to consider likely changes in land-use from transit construction in considering whether a project deserves funding.

STAA aims to empower metropolitan planning organizations. It seeks to depoliticize funding decisions and support private investment in infrastructure by creating national and metropolitan infrastructure development banks. It lays the groundwork for significant new investments in high-speed rail in America (though it cuts the definition of high-speed to 110 miles per hour or higher).

The bill includes a push to support "complete streets" and a national bike route network. It establishes increased transit ridership and reduced carbon emissions as explicit goals. And of course, the bill is targeted to allocate a lot more money than in previous reauthorizations, with a lot more money for transit (though transit's share increases only modestly).

But as my colleague Elana Schor noted yesterday, what's missing from the bill is as telling as what's included. The 775-page length may suggest excessive comprehensiveness, but in fact much of the bill is little more than placeholders. "[To be supplied]" is in ample supply, as is "[$]." Ideally, actual numbers would follow immediately after the dollar sign.

These blanks hint at the challenge chairman Oberstar and fellow committee members John Mica (R-FL), Pete DeFazio (D-OR), and John Duncan (R-TN) will have in getting their bill through the legislative process any time soon. Time is scarce; Congress already has some substantial legislative challenges on its hands, and it may have to address the looming shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund before the August recess.

Political capital is also wanting. With most legislative eyes on health care and the Waxman-Markey energy and climate bill, there may not be enough chits available to strike the necessary deals on this transportation bill.

This is especially true given the money issue. STAA, as written, simply does not address the fact that current spending levels, to say nothing of the increases proposed in the bill, will be impossible to sustain in the absence of a new source of revenue. This is a huge obstacle to passage, and a major reason for the administration's requested 18-month delay for the bill.

With the economy still in recession, the federal deficit approaching $2 trillion, a $1 trillion or so health bill in the works, and GOP legislators going all out to attack the climate bill under consideration as representing a major new energy tax, this is not a convenient time to be discussing transportation tax increases. If the funding issue cannot be resolved, and there is every indication that neither the administration nor a number of high priority legislators are anxious to solve it, then the reauthorization bill will probably not pass.

All hope for this particular bill is not yet lost, but a number of very difficult questions will have to be answered to turn this blueprint into a bold new transportation law.