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Senate Transportation Bill Uses Creative Math

Baruch Feigenbaum
May 17, 2012, 10:07am

It has been three months since the Senate passed its Transportation bill, MAP-21. This has given analysts time to examine the bill in more depth. Unfortunately, the more transportation analysts research the bill, the more non-transportation spending they find. Since the House passed a shell bill, the eventual bill that becomes law will have many similarities with the Senate bill. Ken Orski who publishes Innovation NewsBriefs has highlighted many of the problems with the bill. I want to detail a few of his insights:

The non-transportation provisions that are raising eyebrows include the creation of a new National Endowment for the Oceans, Coasts and Great Lakes to be housed in the Department of Commerce (Sec. 1603(4) of MAP-21), and a seven-year reauthorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund which is a National Park Service program within the U.S. Department of the Interior (Sec. 1701 of MAP-21). Indeed, the Senate bill includes over $6.8 billion in new non-Highway Trust Fund spending that has nothing to do with the core purpose of the bill. 

Creating an endowment for Oceans, Coasts and Great Lakes may be a good program. The same is true for the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Two other unrelated provisions, the Restore Act and Rural Schools, each received more than $1 billion each in dedicated funds. The Restore Act sends money to the four gulf states affected by the BP oil spill. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act reimburses counties for tax-exempt federal lands. However, both are environmental programs that have nothing to do with transportation. If Congress wants to fund these four programs, it should do so through a subject-related bill. While all four of these programs have some merits, none is transportation-related. These programs have no place in a transportation bill. 

The Republican House has been criticized for trying to include the Keystone Pipeline in its transportation bill. While the Keystone Pipeline is badly needed, it is not transportation and should not be included in a transportation bill. However, it is hypocritical for Democrats in the Senate to complain about Keystone when they have funding for non-germane programs in the Senate bill. 

This is Washington politics at its best; stick a program in at the last minute and hope that nobody notices. A total of $6.8 billion in new non-Highway Trust Fund spending is a substantial amount for a two-year bill. 

Further:

Critics are also paying close attention to changes that were quietly slipped into the Senate bill and approved on the floor by unanimous consent without debate on March 13, one day before the final passage of the bill.  They include, notably, an amendment affecting the treatment of transportation "enhancements" (Sec. 1113 of MAP-21). This provision shifts the flexibility to decide how to spend the enhancements set-aside money from the state DOTs to local government agencies, thus substantially modifying an earlier agreement reached by the leaders of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee. As the Committee's chairman, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and its ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) agreed at the November markup of the bill, it was only a compromise on that contentious issue that allowed the parties to move forward on the entire bill.  

Transportation enhancements funded by the gas tax and included in the highway section of the transportation bill fund non-highway related provisions such as acquisition of historic battlefields, rehabilitation of historic transportation buildings and establishment of transportation museums. Of all the wasteful non-highway spending in the transportation bill, Transportation Enhancements may be the most egregious. The last minute change slipped into the Senate bill shifts program administration from state DOT’s to local government agencies. While Senate Republicans should have eliminated Transportation Enhancements, the Senate bipartisan approach is a welcome change in DC. But Republicans should not accept wasteful programs in the name of bipartisanship. Under the original Senate agreement, state DOT’s would have controlled enhancement funds. At least in this scenario, program funds could serve some sort of statewide purpose. If local governments control the purse, the funds will be used for local piecemeal projects making a mockery of a national bill. If local governments want to support transportation museums they should do so with local funds. It is doubtful they would since spending for actual roads, schools, hospitals, etc. is far more vital. 

Additionally:

Other MAP-21 provisions that have raised questions include … authority to revoke passports of tax delinquents (which the bill estimates would raise $743 million over ten years to help cover the $12 billion shortfall in transportation spending).

Finally, the bill is supposed to find offsets for new spending. It is doubtful the Senate could have offset the entire amount, but the authors could have made a better effort. The bill relies on provisions such as raising $743 million from revoking passports of tax delinquents. However, these types of provisions only total $3.1 billion. Where is the other $9 billion? How can the Senate justify that the bill will not increase the deficit? The Senate will be using offsets over the next 10 years to fund a 15-month bill. These future year transportation funds will not be able to support future transportation needs. Further, it requires a great deal of “imagination” to tote a bill as balanced when much of the funding for this two year bill comes from tax revenue projected over the next 10 years. 

Most transportation types want a new transportation bill. We are now on the 9th extension of SAFETEA-LU that expired 2 ½ years ago. Hopefully the conference committee will eliminate much of the non-germane funding from both the Senate bill and the House proposal. But if this is the best we can do, maybe we need a 10th extension to get serious about creating a transportation bill that actually funds transportation within our current budget. 


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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