Transportation advocates, environmentalists and like-minded lawmakers see the upcoming highway and transit reauthorization bill as a vehicle to deliver Washington's promise to overhaul the nation's transportation system, complete with a focus on curbing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing fuel consumption.
But with little visible progress on that front, they are looking elsewhere -- particularly the House Democrats' energy and climate change bill -- for more immediate victories to set the stage for reform.
"To believe that the entire Congress is going to finish this reauthorization bill by September 30, when there isn't even a bill, is truly a triumph of hope over experience," said Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator from Washington and a co-chair of the bipartisan National Transportation Policy Project, one of several policy groups urging massive reform in the sector. "Can things be done in the interim? My answer to that question is yes."
The transportation spending bill has been on the horizon for lawmakers since Congress approved its current incarnation in August 2005, two years and 12 extensions after its predecessor had been scheduled to expire. That bill, which expires at the end of September, provided $286 billion for the nation's roads, rails and transit -- an amount lawmakers now concede was a far cry from what was needed to keep pace with the nation's needs.
The upcoming measure will provide the bulk of federal transportation spending for the next six years and, as a result, will replace the current law as the de facto national transportation policy. Roughly a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are generated by transportation, leading many environmentalists and a growing number of lawmakers to argue that the reauthorization should be viewed through the lens of climate change.
But while the reauthorization bill -- which is expected to top $400 billion -- will remain the most important transportation law on the books, by the time it reaches the White House it may be superseded by other measures, most notably the climate and energy effort Democrats hope to move this year.
"It is pretty clear that the climate bill is moving first," said Derron Lovaas, transportation policy director for the National Resources Defense Council. "I think the fact that it has taken off in the House and that the president has shown increasing interest, it is really the stage setter. The transportation bill will need to follow suit and align itself with the climate goals, particularly in terms of public investment in the transportation sector."
'Investment gap' between climate, transportation bills
The sweeping energy and climate bill (H.R. 2454) from House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) contains several transportation-related provisions. It would give each state three years to craft plans to curb transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, both at the state and city levels. States would work with U.S. EPA to set emissions targets for 10- and 20-year periods; would be encouraged to expand environmentally friendly modes of transportation, such as bus and light rail systems; and re-evaluate their land-use planning to create cities that require less driving and achieve increased mobility.
But while the bill provides some funding for transportation planning, it lacks the massive funding levels expected in the reauthorization bill.
"There is an investment gap present in the climate bill," Lovaas said. "There is a lot of investment for clean energy and technology, but there is nothing in there for transportation infrastructure. The two bills, climate and transportation, will have to compliment each other. That is the dance that Energy and Commerce and T&I will need to perform."
Colin Peppard, climate and infrastructure director at the Environmental Defense Fund, said it should be no surprise that the climate and transportation efforts will need to work hand in hand. "There has always been a necessary companionship between emissions regulation and transportation infrastructure," he said.
He pointed to the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, known as CMAQ, which was created in the 1991 transportation bill to fund projects that contribute to air quality improvements and reduce congestion, as an example of where transportation efforts have run flush with environmental law, in this case the Clean Air Act.
"It would be a similar case now," Peppard said. "The Waxman-Markey bill outlines a clear framework for the GHG assessment, and on the flip side, in the reauthorization you need the infrastructure policies that are connected to these emissions goals."
If all goes according to plan for many of those advocating for transportation reform, the climate effort will draw the outlines of a new transportation policy that pushes Americans out of their personal cars and trucks and on to trains and buses, leaving the door open for the reauthorization to come in and fill in the blanks with the massive amount of federal cash that is needed to build and sustain those alternative systems.
The American Public Transit Association is asking lawmakers to ramp up transit spending to a total of $123 billion in the reauthorization, roughly double the annual investment in the current bill. Likewise, high-speed rail advocates say that if Obama truly wants to build a national high-speed rail system, most of the heavy lifting will need to be done in the reauthorization.
Last week, more than 50 Democratic congressmen sent a letter to Oberstar and T&I Committee ranking member John Mica (R-Fla.) urging them to tackle climate change and energy security in the reauthorization. And NTPP, an effort from the Bipartisan Policy Center, this week released a white paper calling for an overhaul that increases the focus on specific objectives, such as curbing emissions and fuel consumption, and decreases the rigid funding firewalls between roads, rail and transit.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who served as co-chair of the project until he was elected to the Senate last November, has had a firsthand view of the difficulties of the current system. "As someone who was a governor for a long time and used to complain about why we couldn't have a national transportation policy, I understand now," he said, describing his first term in the Senate, where he is a member of both the Banking and Commerce committees.
Still, Warner said the Obama administration's recognition of the overlap between transportation and climate is "a giant step forward" and, likewise, a number of transportation experts view this year's stimulus package as a preview of the reauthorization bill.
This $787 billion economic rescue package provided Obama his first chance to deliver on his campaign promise to address the climate and energy impacts of the nation's transportation sector. The bill provided nearly $50 billion for roads, transit and rail, and notably decreased the percentage of the take for highways, which have traditionally received the lion's share of transportation dollars. Transit and rail received more than $17 billion in stimulus cash, including the $8 billion Obama set aside to help jump start a national high-speed rail network.
NRDC's Lovaas said the ratio of funding in the stimulus broke down about 60-40 for highway to transit and rail, a marked improvement from the 80-20 split that has become commonplace since the early 1980s. "The stimulus bill was directionally correct," Lovaas said. "It was very different from previous transportation bills."
House leaders are aiming to bring the climate bill to the floor by late July, which is almost certain to spark a prolonged debate on the potential cap-and-trade system. And with Senate passage of H.R. 2454 a major question mark, the transportation reauthorization could easily sprint past the climate bill at some point.
That said, the timing of the highway reauthorization is far from certain, but it appears unlikely to clear both chambers by Sept. 30, when the current bill expires.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) has vowed to block any extensions of the current law in an effort to rally lawmakers to meet the September deadline. But his committee has yet to release a first draft of the bill and, meanwhile, many lawmakers are waiting on the White House to provide its own set of recommendations.
Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wis.), a member of the Transportation panel, said a better goal for the spending bill might be next year or even next Congress. "My own sense, having been through it a couple of cycles, is that it tends to take longer rather than shorter," he said. "The people involved have to say they want to get it done by some immediate deadline because they want to keep the pressure on and keep moving."
On the Senate side, the three committees that will work together to draft a bill have indicated they are focused on the overlap between transportation and climate, but they have yet to provide a timetable for action.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has indicated that she is focused on moving a climate bill before she tackles the reauthorization's highway provisions, which her committee has jurisdiction over. Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), whose committee will write the rail provisions, has introduced legislation that would require the reauthorization to set a goal of reducing GHG emissions from the transportation sector, but his bill provided only rough outlines for the reauthorization. Likewise, Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) has said he hopes the spending bill will boost funding for transit, but his committee currently has a full plate dealing with the ongoing financial recession and the growing federal involvement in the private sector.
Despite the hurdles, Sherwood Boehlert, a former Republican congressman from New York and NTTP co-chair, said there now exists a changed atmosphere in Congress that will make such transportation and climate efforts possible in the long run. "When did we ever consider environmental concerns as we fashioned transportation policy?" he said at a policy briefing this week. "The answer is we didn't. Now we're doing that. Everyone's attention is focused on this subject for good and valid reasons."
Highway Trust Fund shortfall
Reform advocates are also cautiously awaiting expected congressional action this summer to inject the cash-strapped Highway Trust Fund, the federal account that finances the nation's surface transportation work, with billions of dollars to keep it afloat.
The trust fund has long been funded by federal taxes on gasoline and diesel. But fuel tax revenues have been unable to keep pace with spending because of increased auto fuel efficiency and a decrease in miles traveled by U.S. drivers. If not for an 11th-hour transfer of $8 billion by Congress last September the account would have run dry, likely bringing the nation's road and rail work to a grinding halt.
The White House estimates that the account will now need another injection of between $5 billion and $7 billion before August to keep it afloat through the fiscal year, and up to an additional $10 billion to survive until the end of fiscal 2010.
Lovaas said NRDC had yet to make a push to try to get lawmakers to attach reform-minded strings to the transfer, which would likely need to come from the general fund, but that it was under consideration. "I think it makes good sense, but I don't know if it is in the offing," he said. "I think the public is increasingly concerned about federal government outlays, especially in the case of a transportation program that is sprawling and wasteful. So that actually makes good sense: We'll plug the hole, but only if you come up with a plan for the new legislation."