Obama Administration Working on Its Own Six-Year Transportation Bill

The annual powwow of thousands of transportation workers, planners,
and wonks that’s known as the Transportation Research Board (TRB) conference
kicked off in the capital yesterday with a candid admission from some
senior U.S. DOT officials: reorienting American transport planning to
accommodate the overlap with housing and environmental sustainability
is proving pretty difficult.

Trans_Secretary_Ray_LaHood_Discusses_Cash_Jx_HxR08cPwl.jpgU.S. DOT chief Ray LaHood’s team is working on a six-year transport proposal of its own. (Photo: Getty)

The
subscription-only ClimateWire news service caught remarks from Beth
Osborne, the Obama team’s deputy assistant secretary for transportation
policy, who said the administration’s livability work has been slowed by laws that impede federal participation in local planning:

"A lot of it [is] the disjointed federal programs that
often discourage and certainly do not incentivize the coordination of
housing policy and transportation policy, water infrastructure policy,
economic development policy," she said.

"In fact, within the
transportation program, we really disincentivize this," she said. A
state that improves traffic flow and transit use will burn less
gasoline, meaning it will lose revenue from its main source of
transport funding — the gas tax. "That state that creates greater
efficiency can see their own budget get slashed as a reward."

This tension between the desire to cut transportation emissions and the
nation’s reliance on the gas tax for the majority of its transport
funding is a familiar one for Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and other
urban members of Congress.

Nadler lamented
back in June that many states were insisting on a guaranteed rate of
return from their gas-tax revenue based on a nonsensical "equity
argument" that says: "The more energy-efficient you are, the less gas
you use, the less [federal] funding you should get."

One key
ingredient in the Obama administration’s effort to carve out a stronger
federal role in local planning, of course, is the still-stalled
six-year federal transportation bill. And Osborne — seemingly aware of
the value of that legislation in removing longstanding obstacles to
coordination — told the TRB meeting that "Capitol Hill has asked DOT
to craft its own version of a transportation reauthorization bill,"
according to ClimateWire.

A legislative outline from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who spent much of 2009 urging lawmakers to put off discussion of the next six-year bill until 2011, would be an undeniable boost to Democrats who have long urged the administration to play a more active part in solving the puzzle of long-term financing.

But the political hurdles to enacting a new federal transport bill this year remain steep, as ITS America President Scott Belcher remarked in one of today’s TRB conference sessions.

"Everybody
wants to get past the elections" before passing new long-term
legislation," Belcher said, "and they want to get past the election
because they don’t want to raise taxes."

  • David Galvan

    Ugh. Is this transportation bill ever going to make it through congress? Yeesh.

    regarding the gas tax being used for transportation funding: Though it does become problematic when we are relying too heavily on the gas tax for transportation funding, there is some rationale behind it: Driving a car contributes to traffic, and so it makes sense that to enjoy the privilege/convenience of driving one should contribute a bit toward solutions that can reduce the traffic congestion / environmental impact of driving, like public transit.

    Still, the funding source for public transit has always been a problem. In principle, I wouldn’t mind raising user fees/fares such that the public transit systems cover their own costs, but since auto use is already so heavily subsidized, that would put PT at an even greater disadvantage when competing with autos for ridership. Perhaps some mix of increased user fees, a small gasoline tax component, and property taxes for those living near expensive transit projects can provide funding? The most popular avenue appears to be sales-tax increases (like L.A.’s measure R), which I suppose is not much worse than the other options.

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