Could Transport Bill Inaction Hurt the White House’s Sustainability Push?

The White House’s lack of interest in passing a new long-term federal
transportation bill before next
spring
at the earliest is common knowledge in Washington, but the
Obama administration has paid little political price so far for its
approach to the issue. That began to change today, thanks to two
lawmakers on the House panel that controls the U.S. DOT’s purse strings.

picpic.pngReps. Tom Latham (R-IA), at right, and Steven LaTourette
(R-OH). (Photo: AP)

During a hearing today on the White House sustainability effort,
which aims
to combine
federal transport, housing, and environmental resources
in support of walkable, transit-oriented local development, Reps. Tom
Latham (R-IA) and Steven LaTourette (R-OH) questioned the wisdom of
spending money and attention on new programs when the nation’s
infrastructure funding shortfall
remains unresolved.

"Unless you change the tax incentives from where they’ve been since
the Second World War, [encouraging Americans] to live in single-family
homes, you’re not going to be successful," LaTourette said. The giant
mortgage guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, he noted, effectively
require the continued popularity of suburban sprawl in order to keep the
government’s
investment
in them viable.

If the White House would tackle the problem of the highway trust
fund’s insolvency — which
affects
bike-ped and road repair projects — "I would not have a
problem with" spending new money on sustainable development, added
LaTourette. The Ohioan has vowed to "bring Republicans to the table" if
the administration decides to pursue a new federal transport bill this
year.

Latham, the senior GOP member of the House’s transportation
appropriations panel, was more cutting in his criticism of federal
involvement in local land-use practices.

Referring to a "crisis" in federal transportation financing, Latham
marveled at the administration’s decision to focus on a "new boutique
program" rather than crafting a replacement for the increasingly
obsolete
gas tax.

Roy Kienitz, the U.S. DOT’s undersecretary for policy, did not
dispute the two Republicans’ assessment of a financing vacuum. "It was a
great run for 45, 50 years, when you had a system whereby the amount of
driving and gas people used grew along with the economy," Kienitz told
the lawmakers. Now that relationship has unraveled, he explained, making
the gas tax a poor revenue-raiser for transport projects.

But Kienitz had no answer for how the White House should solve the
problem.

"The elephant in the room here is tax increases," he said. "I don’t
see the politics for that right now." Instead, the former adviser to
Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) suggested that Congress should see the economic
recession as a reason to "innovate" its transportation and housing
policies.

Criticism from minority-party members such as Latham and LaTourette
ultimately could have little effect on the White House’ 2011 budget
request
of nearly $530 million for its sustainability work. The
appropriations panel’s chairman, Rep. John Olver (D-MA), is a longtime
champion of walkable development who secured $150 million for the effort
last year.

"We’ve had a whole generation when we’ve spent to subsidize sprawl
into the suburbs," Olver said today. "The time has long since passed for
sustainability."

Still, coming on the heels of bipartisan rural
skepticism
of the White House’s move toward more competitive
transport funding, the Republicans’ comments could portend more
political blowback for the idea of a
yearlong delay
in drafting new long-term infrastructure
legislation.

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