Transportation Reauthorization Not on Congressional Radar

Ken Orski’s recently distributed his analysis (vol. 20, no. 25) of the current state of transportation reauthorization as part of his Innovation Briefs series. Ken reports:

Before adjourning for the holidays, the House also passed by a vote of 217 to 212 a second job stimulus bill (H.R. 2847). The $154 billion measure, endorsed by Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, allocates $36.7 billion in additional funds for highways, transit and Amtrak, extends the surface transportation authorization through Sept. 30, 2010, credits the Highway Trust Fund with $19.5 billion in foregone interest payments and allows the HTF to accrue interest in the future. But because the new stimulus program and its infrastructure component are to be funded with dollars from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), the bill will face an uncertain future when it reaches the Senate early next year. Opponents may be expected to argue that the law establishing TARP requires unspent and repaid funds to be used to pay down the soaring national debt. The measure also faces possible White House opposition, given Preident Obama’s strong desire to limit further deficit spending. Environmental advocacy groups, while supportive of the measure, expressed disappointment that the House failed to focus on long-term transportation reform or include a National Infrastructure Bank in its bill. Even Rep. John Mica (R-FL), ranking member of the House T&I Committee, who generally supports Chairman Oberstar, was moved to criticize the House measure. The “Son of Stimulus,” Mica wrote in Roll Call, will be no more successful in creating new jobs in the transportation sector than was the first stimulus bill, since the dollars are being spent on short-term road maintenance and repaving projects that provide jobs only for a few weeks.

In short, the latest House action is seen by the transportation community as another example of Congressional equivocation and inability to come to grips with the nation’s long-range transportation needs in a substantive way.”

All this raiese an pretty important question (and one Ken addresses: Does anyone really care? In Congress, Jim Oberstar, Chair of the house infrastructure committee, certainly does. But the White House doesn’t seem to care about anything unless its tagged as a jobs program, health care reform, or climate change legislation. The Senate doesn’t seem to care either.

Why not?

A few more insights from Ken:

But the dilemma facing transportation advocates is that these warnings fall on deaf ears as far as the general public and many elected officials are concerned. People do not seem to share a sense of an impending crisis, nor are they alarmed about the deteriorating state of infrastructure. Toll road operators attending the IBTTA meeting told us informally that their customer surveys show a high degree of satisfaction with the quality of service and the physical condition of their facilities. While we did not have a chance to pose the same question to directors of state DOTs, we suspect that they would give similar answers concerning state-operated facilities. Collapsing bridges are happily few and far between, and the focused attention that state and local highway agencies devote to repair and maintenance of their assets keeps signs of aging infrastructure largely hidden from view.

To be sure, another aspect of transportation— traffic congestion— is highly visible and public dissatisfaction with it is well documented. But the driving public has grown skeptical that more money or program reform will bring effective congestion relief. Perhaps they have come to accept the truth of the oft-repeated refrain that “you cannot build your way out of traffic congestion.” What is more, traffic congestion leaves vast stretches of rural and small-town America (and their elected representatives in Congress) unaffected and unconcerned. Traffic congestion may be the source of great concern to many individual urban communities, but it does not seem to be perceived as a crisis warranting congressional intervention.

I think Ken is on to something.

In part, I think the beltway crowd simply doesn’t have the time to invest the political capital for an issue that is fundamentally local in nature. Transportation isn’t a national policy issues, or hasn’t risen to the public consciousness as a national issue. Untill it does, it will continue to be a peripheral issue and off center stage in national politics.

Ken’s analysis does a nice job of documenting the exasperation leading transportation experts feel about the lack of attention to this truly critical issue. But, perhaps the bigger point is one that recognizes a missing truth in American governance: the states were responsible for local issues and the federal government for truly national ones (and resolving disputes among states). May the politics we see on transportation is really evidence of the need to go back to a truly federalist approach to transportation, where the states take control (and responisbility) for getting people from point A to point B, and the national role is limited to issues that are truly national in scope,.

The states have always recognized the importance of transportation. So, let’s give it back to the people and elected officials who really care about it and resurrect federalism in the process.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.