Prospects for Transportation Reauthorization

C. Kenneth Orski polled several knowledgeable people on transportation policy about the prospects for a reauthorization bill passing in the next Congress and the results are probably not encouraging for those looking for bold initiatives. The full report was published as part of his Innovation NewsBriefs series (Vol. 21, No. 25, October 28, 2010).

I think the following passages sum up Ken’s main takeaways:

“A majority of the individuals we talked to, however, thought that the expected political realignment in Congress will inevitably affect the size, scope and reach of the next transportation bill. Given a Congress that will likely be heavily motivated to cut spending and reduce the reach of government, the bill they might come up with might be shorter in duration (2-3 years instead of the traditional 6-years), smaller in scope, contain fewer earmarks and focus more heavily on matters of genuine federal interest. Virtually every one we talked to thought that any bill passed in the 112th Congress would be considerably smaller in size than the $500 billion bill proposed by Rep. Oberstar.

“Most people we interviewed thought that there is a good chance of a modest “transitional” bill passing during the next session of Congress, although a few pessimists felt that in the absence of additional funding (meaning a gas tax increase), the existing program might have to limp along under continuing resolutions until after the presidential election of 2012. The optimists pointed to Rep. Mica’s declared desire to see a multi-year authorization enacted during the next session of Congress, the White House’s equally strong interest in seeing it done and the bipartisan nature of transportation legislation. The pessimist warned of a prospect of political gridlock and legislative stalemate on all discretionary big-ticket spending measures in the next Congress. In any event, the window of opportunity for any major piece of legislation was thought to be only the first 8-10 months of the next Congressional session. Beyond that period, presidential campaign politics will likely preempt any major legislative activity.

“There was a general consensus that the new legislation would contain some reforms but not as extensive or “transformational” as urged by some transportation advocates. Mentioned as possible reforms that could attract bipartisan support were program consolidation, more flexibility for states to use tolling, greater facilitation of public-private partnerships, an expanded TIFIA credit program and a wider use of performance metrics. Chances of creating a National Infrastructure Bank as proposed by the White House were judged small in view of the bipartisan Senate opposition to establishing an autonomous grant-making entity outside the reach of Congress. Equally remote was thought the prospect of narrowing the scope of the Highway Trust Fund to highway-based programs only as advocated by some conservative voices; or the expansion of the Trust Fund to all modes as promoted by proponents of multi-modalism. Nor was total elimination of congressional earmarks considered politically realistic. In sum, the weight of opinion suggested that the policy and program reforms are likely to be less dramatic and the money far less plentiful than the advocacy-oriented elements of the transportation community have hoped to see.