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Federal Transportation Bill

Postcards From Our National Transportation Funding Meltdown

At an event billed as a “town hall” held at USDOT headquarters
yesterday, top department officials answered questions about the future
of the nation’s road, rail, bus, and bike networks -- even as the
prospects of passing a comprehensive transportation reauthorization
bill anytime this year appear as dim as ever. Already, reauthorization
of the transportation bill is nearly a year overdue, as lawmakers have
failed to muster the will to pay for it.

cardin.jpgMaryland Senator Ben Cardin addresses the crowd yesterday. Photo: Adam Voiland

A
plenary session that focused on the Mid-Atlantic region prior to the
town hall provided a few glimpses of how the continued legislative
deadlock is plaguing local agencies and preventing the evolution of
transportation planning beyond the car-based status quo.

The head of the District Department of Transportation, Gabe
Klein, called the current moment one of the scariest times in
transportation history. He warned that lawmakers have difficult and
uncomfortable decisions ahead about how to pay for the reauthorization
bill.

Klein emphasized the need for diversified sources of
funding for transportation investment, despite the political
challenges. He noted, for example, that local jurisdictions, like DC,
should have the latitude to explore congestion pricing as a way to
raise revenue.

During the same panel, Richard Sarles, the interim general manager of
the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) explained
that his agency is spending much of its funding on efforts to improve
the safety of its system after a catastrophic Metro collision last
summer. With little clarity about what the future holds, Sarles warned
that there simply aren’t funds available to address large expected
increases in ridership on city transit systems in the coming years.

Reform-minded lawmakers, most notably House Transportation and
Infrastructure Chair Jim Oberstar (D-MN), have made it an urgent
priority to reauthorize the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible
Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU, or, more commonly, the
transportation bill). But with revenues from the stagnant gas tax flagging, lawmakers
can’t agree on how to raise the funds needed for the bill, and they’ve postponed
dealing with the problem
by passing a series of emergency extensions.

The
frustration was evident among attendees at yesterday's conference.
"There’s no innovation right now," said Faramarz Mokhtari, a planner at
the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "The status
quo is continuing."

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