TRANSPORTATION:

Legislation for a 21st century national system doesn't come easy

The road to reforming the nation's transportation systems looks to be a long and winding one.

Once lawmakers decide when to move forward with the sweeping overhauls they promise, they will need to find a way to pay for it. And once that difficult task is accomplished, the debate will only grow more complicated.

Many in the transportation community agree the next multi-year surface transportation bill needs to significantly boost federal funding for the nation's roads, rails and bridges. But the consensus soon begins to crumble when the issue turns to how to pay for the overhaul -- with lawmakers loath to tell Americans they will need to foot the bill and the rest of the transportation community agreeing that is the only option to pay for it (E&E Daily, Sept. 15).

But even off the Hill, where key players agree massive reform is needed to make the system more performance-based and effective, there is no consensus on exactly what that new system would look like and what those performance goals should be.

"I think part of the reason we fall short is we take a leap from these areas of general consensus immediately to the micro level -- How do we design the programs? What are the specific source of revenue? What is the specific mechanisms," said Mort Downey, who served as deputy secretary of Transportation in the Clinton administration. "I think we need to recognize there are multiple goals."

Downey, who also advised President Obama on transportation issues during his presidential campaign and transition into office, was one of roughly 80 transportation attorneys, engineers and other stakeholders who met last week at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs for a summit to discuss the sweeping reforms many in the field want in the next highway and transit bill.

In a sign of how much work remains to be done on the bill's next incarnation, the Miller Center working group does not plan to release its recommendations to Congress until early next year, at least three months after the current law is set to expire.

But looming deadlines that come and go are nothing new for highway and transit spending bills. The current authorization was signed into law in August 2005, two years and 12 extensions after its predecessor had been scheduled to expire. Senate leaders, backed by the White House, are pushing to pass an 18-month temporary extension this month that would give lawmakers until March 2011 to work on the new bill.

Old fights

Many of the goals discussed at the invitation-only event are conflicting by nature. The usual suspects include the funding ratio for highways and transit systems, and the rate of return that individual states see from taxes they pay to finance the nation's road and rail work.

Robert Atkinson, who chaired one of two congressionally created blue ribbon panels to examine transportation investment needs, said his panel, the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission, did not even broach the subject of where the increased investment should be spent in its report.

"There was a consensus about how much we need to raise and how we go about raising it," Atkinson said. "There were vast and strong disagreements on how we would be spending it."

Under the current system, revenues raised from federal taxes on gasoline and diesel are placed in the federal Highway Trust Fund, which in turn doles out the cash to states according to a federal formula. The formula leaves some states with less federal cash than they paid into the account and other states with more.

The donor-donee fight has been a staple of federal transportation debates for more than two decades, according to the Congressional Research Service. During debate on the current highway reauthorization, which expires at the end of this September, lawmakers ultimately decided to incrementally increase the minimum percentage returned to each state from 90.5 percent to 92 percent, which is the current rate. But for some highly populated donor states, that 8 percent gap is still too wide, and a handful of lawmakers have promised to again push to retain more of their state's funding.

But many reform advocates argue that states unwilling to part with their federal taxes serve as a roadblock for projects of national importance. With the Interstate Highway System "we had a consensus where people in New Jersey were alright with seeing their tax money used to build a highway in Montana," said Emil Frankel, who served as assistant secretary in President George W. Bush's DOT. "I'd like to think that some day people in Montana will see the benefit of having an intermodal system in Chicago."

New fights

Lawmakers must not only forge a compromise on existing goals but also must tackle new ones, notably an increased focus on reducing fuel consumption in the transportation sector and the greenhouse gas emissions that accompany it.

According to government estimates, the transportation sector accounts for roughly a third of U.S. carbon emissions, and Democrats have vowed to recast the nation's roads and rails in a "greener" light.

But many state highway departments that had previously voiced support for the new environmental focus are now worrying that the emissions goals may grow overly ambitious and threaten to deliver another blow to both the economy and their efforts to repair and replace crumbling roads and bridges (Greenwire, Aug. 27)

Congress must also decide whether or not to welcome the private sector into the transportation field by giving firms long-term leases on public roads and bridges, effectively turning public infrastructure into a private product.

And that's not all.

Even after all of the technicalities are hashed out, transportation spending must then navigate the halls of Congress where many lawmakers are quick to insert their own pet projects in an effort to gain popularity at home.

"In the House, we have a focus on earmarking because that is a very visible and tangible way to say what the bill is about for most members, and in the Senate, it's about 'how much money my state is getting," said Steve Heminger, the executive director of San Francisco's Bay Area Metro Transportation Commission. "That's the national interest as defined in operation of the surface transportation program."

According to a Center for Public Integrity report released yesterday, there are nearly 1,800 special interest groups lobbying Congress on the transportation bill, ranging from local officials and planning agencies to real estate companies, construction firms and universities. In the first half of this year, the groups employed more than 2,000 lobbyists and spent an estimated total of $45 million on their transportation lobbying.

Single national goal

Many in the transportation community fear the varying individual goals cloud the overall picture, making it difficult to craft a public pitch for what it is they are truly trying to accomplish.

"This question of goals is critical, it's the key missing agreement," Heminger said. "When you look back at the Interstate program, it was just beautiful in terms of laying out a national vision, goal, objective, whatever term you want to call it. The vision was simple and coherent, it was something everyone could understand and rally around, from members of the public to members of Congress -- and we're never going to have that back, and that's the sad truth facing our profession."

Still, other stakeholders are unwilling to give up hope of crafting a message that can rival that of the Interstate Highway System, in part because it was the product of long-term consensus building. The system was built in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration, but federal officials began studying its feasibility in the late 1930s.

"There was a national consensus about it but it didn't just happen, it didn't leap out of the mind of Dwight Eisenhower and suddenly happen," said Frankel, who now serves as the director of transportation for the Bipartisan Policy Center. "There was a gestation period of 30 years, give or take."