By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter
This story appears in the Dec. 19 & 26 print edition of Transport Topics.
When it comes to the nation’s transportation infrastructure, 2011 was a year marked by frustration.
Despite reports about costly congestion and the deteriorating state of America’s roads and bridges, Congress failed for the third consecutive year to produce a long-term surface transportation spending plan.
Even with high unemployment and intense lobbying by road builders, labor, trucking, and manufacturers, 2011 ends with the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives saying it could be February before a transportation bill is even introduced there.
Meanwhile, SAFETEA-LU, the 2005 law that governs federal spending on highway construction and safety programs, initially expired in 2009.
Congress has since passed a series of temporary extensions, lest all highway programs come to a halt as airport projects did for nearly two weeks this summer when Congress could not agree on new authorizing legislation for the Federal Aviation Administration.
The latest of the SAFETEA-LU extensions was approved by Congress in September but runs out on March 31. And while a transportation reauthorization bill was introduced in the Senate in November, the bill is only a two-year plan and has been declared unacceptable by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.)
President Obama presented a $556 billion transportation reauthorization blueprint in February that called for $336 billion in highway spending over the next six years, a 48% increase over highway spending in SAFETEA-LU.
The president did not, however, suggest a new revenue source to pay for his plan, and the White House has ruled out an increase in the fuel taxes that provide most of the money in the Highway Trust Fund.
In late May, a bipartisan coalition of four senators led by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, outlined a six-year reauthorization plan that at $339 billion was less ambitious than the president’s. By Sept. 9, when the senators finally introduced their bill, it was a $109 billion measure and for only two years.
Besides Boxer, the coalition included Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), EPW’s ranking minority member; Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), ranking member on EPW’s Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee; and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who chairs the EPW subcommittee and the Senate Finance Committee.
Like the president before them, the senators did not suggest a way to fund their plan.
On the House side, the new Republican leadership took charge of the reauthorization debate early in the year, passing a rule that transportation spending must be limited to the about $35 billion a year that flows into the Highway Trust Fund from fuel taxes.
That would have meant a reduction of about 30% in current transportation funding, which for years has been supplemented by the general fund.
As a result, in July, Mica outlined a dramatically spare reauthorization spending plan, saying he had to abide by the leadership’s rule.
By September, however, as President Obama called on Congress to agree to his new $447 billion jobs and infrastructure plan, the Republican leadership changed course.
It said it would abandon the 30% cuts and find a way to sufficiently fund a long-term reauthorization bill that would stand as the party’s jobs bill.
In November, Mica and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced they had a plan: a five-year reauthorization bill funded with expanded oil drilling along coastal areas and in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and increased production in the nation’s oil shale areas.
That bill has yet to be introduced and Mica has since announced that he will not introduce a reauthorization measure until January or February.
By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter
This story appears in the Dec. 19 & 26 print edition of Transport Topics