Transport Debate Still Stalled As Oberstar Decries ‘Lack of Political Will’

Halfway through the extra month
that Congress gave itself to resolve a long-simmering dispute over
funding the nation’s transportation system, Democratic leaders remain
deadlocked over whether — and how long — to wait before debating a
broad reform of federal infrastructure policy.

lahood_large.jpgThe Transportation Secretary and the president have a stalemate on their hands. (Photo: NYT)

In one corner:
House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), who has
enlisted most of his colleagues in the lower chamber in a push to pass
new legislation replacing the outmoded 2005 infrastructure bill — "a paean to the individual motorist," as Wired put it today.

But Oberstar’s enthusiasm has not yet been met with action by the panel he needs most, the Ways and Means Committee.

Why
is Ways and Means so important? The panel controls the funding source
for transportation legislation, and chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) has
yet to see enthusiasm for his colleagues for making tough choices about
raising revenue for infrastructure. Rangel told CQ this week:

Everyone is
excited about a robust transportation bill. The enthusiasm
is out there. We have not concluded that everyone
is willing to pay for it and call it an emergency. 

Oberstar has done his part to rally the troops, publishing an op-ed
in The Hill today that laments the "lack of political will" to tend to
the nation’s aging infrastructure, but little progress can be made
until Ways and Means shows an appetite for diving into the funding
question.

How much needs to be raised to pay for a new
bill? There is an estimated $140 billion gap between expected grosses
for the nation’s highway trust fund, which pays for federal spending on
transit as well as roads, and the investments envisioned in Oberstar’s $450 billion measure.

That
gap could be closed by a 10-cent per-gallon increase in the gas tax or
by other means, though the former has pitfalls both political
(Democrats have not worked on a counter-message to GOP pummeling on the issue) and practical (as Americans drive less in more efficient cars, the tax’s value is waning).

In
response to the dilemma, both parties have gotten creative. Rep. John
Larson (CT), a Ways and Means member who also chairs the House
Democratic caucus, has proposed taking unused money from the
government’s financial bailout for transportation. Rep. Aaron Schock
(R-IL) spoke for a sizable group in his party today by suggesting that unused cash from the stimulus law go to infrastructure.

But
both of those concepts would be little more than Band-Aids, given that
congressional budget writers must rely on a steady source of funding
when setting the "baseline" that governs the price tag of future
federal transport bills. If the bailout or the stimulus were tapped
this year, when the next long-term bill rolls around, the baseline
would likely be low enough to cause serious havoc.

On the whole, the gas tax remains the only funding source that has attracted serious consideration, most recently
from the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. The Obama administration,
however, remains flatly opposed to an increase during the current
recession. Speaking of the administration …

In the other corner: Transportation
Secretary Ray LaHood, who back in June called for an 18-month delay in
taking up a new infrastructure plan. The rationale for such a
postponement is twofold; it would provide time for the economy to
recover, possibly creating political space for a gas tax increase, and
it would allow the new Obama team to get its sea legs in anticipation
of a policy reform fight that’s likely to be intense.

LaHood has key Senate Democrats on his side, including environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), but not every member of the upper chamber of Congress is convinced of the wisdom of an 18-month delay. Still, LaHood continues to state that
while he and the president share Oberstar’s goals, there is no
possibility of the administration budging on its 18-month extension.

Where
does Washington, not to mention a nation full of roads, transit, and
trail users, go from here? As talk of a possible "second stimulus"
heats up on the Hill, some lawmakers are urging an extra shot of infrastructure spending to help boost flagging employment.

Oberstar
has long contended that his transportation bill would effectively act
as that "second stimulus," but he told CQ this week that he would be
disinclined to accept an 18-month extension of the 2005 legislation
that included more money but kept the same U.S. DOT policies in place.

Yet
Oberstar spokesman Jim Berard said in an interview that the chairman
would be opposed to a transportation-centric stimulus only if it were
treated as a substitute or placeholder for a long-term bill, thus
leaving the door open for infrastructure to remain in the mix as
Congress weighs new economic recovery plans.

As for the timeline for crafting future national transportation policy … it remains as cloudy as ever.

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