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Rushing the Highway Bill Would be a Big Mistake, LaHood's Delay Makes Sense

Robert Poole
June 22, 2009, 4:01pm

National Journal's Transportation Experts Blog is asking about delaying the transportation bill for 18 months. Congressmen Oberstar and Mica have proposed a sweeping revamp of the federal surface transportation program, which they hope to move quickly to enactment this summer. Doing so would be a mistake.

Putting the highway bill on a fast track means this country will forego what should be an extended debate on whether this measure is the right path to pursue. And with other key Obama administration priorities—health care policy and global warming/cap & trade, in particular—already in play and requiring extensive debate, a rush to enactment of the surface transportation bill would almost certainly lead to changes we’d come to regret.

Moreover, since greenhouse gas reduction and reduced petroleum dependence are two objectives of the Oberstar-Mica blueprint, it would make sense to see what Congress enacts on energy and climate change before finalizing a six-year transportation bill that also deals with these subjects.

I outlined some of my concerns about the bill last week. Five major concerns, all of which need serious debate and consideration of alternatives, are as follows:

  1. The proposal would convert the Highway Trust Fund into an all-purpose transportation public works fund, forcing highway users to pay for additions to other modes in addition to the long-standing provision for mass transit aid.
  2. It would institute what amounts to federal smart-growth land-use planning on all urban areas.
  3. Though it claims to be a massive streamlining of federal transportation programs, it actually protects numerous special-interest programs, some of which appear not subject to performance requirements (which is a major theme of the bill).
  4. At a time of large-scale highway funding shortfalls, it proposes federal regulation of tolling and public-private partnerships, reversing nearly two decades of federal liberalization in these areas.
  5. And, of course, it proposes $500 billion in spending, which is $200 billion more than current revenue sources can accommodate.

These and many other points need thorough, wide-ranging debate, rather than a rush to judgment. That’s why I support Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s call for an 18-month delay in reauthorization.


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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