No New Federal Transportation Bill Until 2011?

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is asking Congress to extend the existing federal transportation law for 18 months, averting the coming insolvency of the nation’s highway trust fund while putting off broad-based transport reform for as long as the Bush administration did in the days surrounding the 2004 election.

610x.jpg Photo: AP

LaHood’s request comes at an awkward time for Jim Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House transportation committee. Oberstar had planned to release an outline of his priorities for a new transportation bill tomorrow and vowed to oppose any short-term extensions of the Bush-era legislation — exactly what LaHood is now seeking.

LaHood urged Congress to couple its extension with "critical reforms" to existing federal transportation policy that streamline cost-benefit analyses and help to promote more livable communities.
But it’s far from clear that such changes could pass Congress by the
end of next month, when lawmakers are slated to leave Washington and
must come to a decision on shoring up the highway trust fund.

In
addition, LaHood’s call to effectively postpone debate on long-term
transportation policy reform may not sit well with the small but vocal
group of lawmakers who would prefer to start a broader discussion this
year.

Extending the existing law also puts off a
discussion over whether to keep relying on the gas tax to fund
transportation improvements or move to a new revenue source — a
politically volatile issue for the Obama team, but one that lawmakers
from both parties increasingly say is necessary.

Oberstar plans to stick to his schedule for moving forward on a new
transportation bill, his spokesman told Streetsblog. During an
invitation-only briefing with reporters earlier today, he called
extending the existing law "unacceptable."

LaHood’s full statement follows the jump.

This morning, I went to Capitol Hill to brief members of Congress
on the situation with the Highway Trust Fund. I am proposing an
immediate 18-month highway reauthorization that will replenish the
Highway Trust Fund. If this step is not taken the trust fund will run
out of money as soon as late August and states will be in danger of
losing the vital transportation funding they need and expect. 

As
part of this, I am proposing that we enact critical reforms to help us
make better investment decisions with cost-benefit analysis, focus on
more investments in metropolitan areas and promote the concept of
livability to more closely link home and work. The Administration
opposes a gas tax increase during this challenging, recessionary
period, which has hit consumers and businesses hard across our country. 

I
recognize that there will be concerns raised about this approach.
However, with the reality of our fiscal environment and the critical
demand to address our infrastructure investments in a smarter, more
focused approach, we should not rush legislation. We should work
together on a full reauthorization that best meets the demands of the
country. The first step is making sure that the Highway Trust Fund is
solvent. The next step is addressing our transportation priorities
over the long term.

Update: In an interview with Bloomberg,
LaHood describes his decision as one to "face reality" instead of
"stringing Congress along with three-month or six-month extensions."