Marine Transportation System

The Rush/No-Rush to Replace SAFETEA-LU

In Infrastructure, Politics, Surface Transportation Policy, Uncategorized on May 26, 2011 at 4:39 pm

You’d think that Congress and the Administration are proud of SAFETEA-LU.

That’s the “bridge-to-nowhere”, 6000+ earmark, strangely named measure that was signed into law in 2005 and immediately trashed on the front page of Parade (yes, Parade!), on editorial pages of all stripes, and by interested interest groups.

Freight stakeholders were grossly disappointed by the final product of a seemingly endless process born of a White House that didn’t seem to care, a Congress that seemed to care only about taking home projects, and policy makers who, for the most part, would have stumbled in answering the question: what is the underlying national policy and purpose?

In retrospect, the SAFETEA-LU experience was just what the doctor ordered.  Like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise that premiered with a ridiculously entertaining first film and epitomized wretched excess by its third iteration, the “TEA” surface transportation bill franchise was not well served in 2005.  Time for a change.

The policy commissions (#1 and #2) authorized in SAFETEA-LU to look to the future and make recommendations for the next-go-round were among a comparatively small number of “LU’s” insightful provisions.  The resulting reports and recommendations emanating from think tanks and other organizations are urgent calls for reform.  A common assessment was that SAFETEA-LU does not address the pressing needs of the nation. The case is been made in the reports:

  • The National Interest (my caps) was lost in the flood of 6000+ earmarks.
  • The Highway Trust Fund is structurally flawed and is losing revenue.
  • Capital needs of our transportation system are greater than current funding levels.
  • American competitiveness is at risk if we ignore the problems facing a growing goods movement sector.
  • Too many discrete surface transportation programs limit the ability to focus funds on greater needs.
  • Metrics–performance measures–would help judge where Federal investments can have greater effect.

And there were more.

So you’d think the policy makers would be in a hurry to fix the problem,get “LU” off the books and put in its place a new stimulus for the lagging economy.

You’d think.

It doesn’t help that the public and their electeds are tax-talk shy.  That was a main reason why the White House delayed putting together a proposal for a new bill.  It is the reason why few in Congress are willing to talk even about adjusting the existing tax in order to plug the gaping hole that is draining the trust fund tank.  Formal appeals and press releases by stakeholders calling for action pile high.

Reading the signs as to where the key actors may be headed in recommending a 6-year bill…the Administration has budgeted a $556 billion without stepping onto the thin ice of tax talk.  The Senate is looking at $339 billion, which will require around $75 billion in undefined additional revenue.  The House appears rigidly set in whatever revenue the Highway Trust Fund fairy will collect in fuel and the other excise taxes currently in effect.

Like just about everything else in this town, it’s the talk about spending–or silence about revenue–that is governing the legislative agenda.

It’s not that key actors don’t want to get a bill written and made law.  They really do.

They understand the potential for claiming and real job creation.  They want to shake off the dust of inaction.  They actually want to solve problems.

Chairman Barbara Boxer and her Republican counterpart met the press this week. Chairman John Mica frequently and convincingly voices his intent to produce a bill this year.  And the President outlined, in greater detail than the others thus far, his policy direction when issuing his FY 2012 budget.  There are other signs of what passes for progress in Washington.  Freight related bills have been introduced and await movement by the lead committees.  However a good many seasoned observers do not expect a bill will be signed into law until after the 2012 election because of tax issue avoidance.

But let’s stay optimistic.  Next we need to hear from the tax committee chairs.  Because, in more ways than we might want to admit, it’s all about the money.   Pbea

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  1. [...] previous post about the surface transportation reauthorization bill—TEA for short—ended with a bit of [...]

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