‘This Needs Attention’: Senators Seek Shot in the Arm on Transportation

Senate environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and fellow lawmakers yesterday pressed the Obama administration to take a more active role in ending the current political stalemate over federal transportation funding, but the sense of urgency they sought emerged only intermittently during an 80-minute session on infrastructure.

610x.jpgDeputy U.S. Transportation Secretary John Porcari (Photo: DayLife.com)

Roy Kienitz, U.S. DOT's undersecretary for policy, told Boxer that the cancellation of $8.7 billion in contracting authority -- which took effect when Congress passed the first of two stopgap federal transport law extensions in September -- is forcing a 30 percent cut in local spending power, although each state will feel the effects at a different pace.

"It's pretty important when we see that we're giving the states 30 percent less than they should be getting," Boxer replied, asking the administration for help in marshaling support for a six-month extension of the 2005 transport law.

She added that senators would appreciate White House assistance in ending "the standoff" with the House, where transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) continues to call for passage of his new six-year transport bill.

Boxer described the House approach as: "Let's just bring it to a crisis point, then we'll go double the gas tax and solve the whole problem." She noted that Democrats lack the votes for that strategy in the Senate (and likely the House as well).

But the administration gave a fairly lukewarm answer to Boxer's urging. Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari restated the White House's endorsement of an 18-month extension before conceding that a six-month window is "better than a 30-day."

In a startling tonal contrast, Porcari acknowledged minutes later that America is dangerously "behind the curve" on infrastructure investment.

"We're clearly not doing right by the next generation with what we're doing now," he said.

The lack of sustainable funding remains the biggest obstacle to taking up a new long-term transportation bill, and Boxer nodded to that fact by asking the administration to begin working on alternatives to the federal gas tax -- which has remained at 18.3 cents per gallon since 1993 and lost value as fuel-efficient cars become more popular.

"[A]t the end of the day, we need to think outside of the old ways," she said. "So far, there hasn't been a lot of ideas forthcoming [from the White House], because there are a few other things on the plate -- and I get it. But this needs attention."

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), a member of the environment panel, asked Kienitz whether the administration was planning for a new transportation funding mechanism. "We're working hard to prepare internally," Kienitz replied, before adding that "none of that" is close to the form of an official proposal. 

When Carper asked if Congress should do more to press Obama aides into action, Kienitz's response was palpably deliberate. "We ... always appreciate your wise direction," the U.S. DOT official said.

The White House's rationale for its proposed 18-month delay has long been that officials need time and space to craft a sweeping, reform-minded transportation bill. Kienitz gave a hint as to what such legislation might look like when he told Carper that it would be appropriate for Washington to set national performance targets for roads, transit, and ports -- an issue that remains controversial for some industries but has support in the Senate.

Of course, progress on the next bill will be difficult to achieve without putting an end to the recent run of stopgap extensions of the 2005 transportation law, which was heavily tilted in favor of new highway projects and has lost purchasing power as the cost of construction materials swells along with inflation.

No matter what happens, the Obama administration has a limited window to begin pressing for a deal between the House and Senate. The current extension of transport law is set to expire one month from today.