Marine Transportation System

Rendell Bets on a Delay

In Infrastructure, Surface Transportation Policy on September 25, 2009 at 7:44 am

Governor Ed Rendell, a leading figure in the call for infrastructure reform and investment in the U.S., said that any surface transportation bill that Congress could pass this year would be a “very mediocre bill in terms of the needs of the country.”

In a story yesterday by Bob Edmonson of the Journal of Commerce the governor acknowledged, “In one sense a delay is hurtful, but in another sense the delay would give us a chance to look at new ideas, and build new concepts, and try to get a bill that will really revolutionize.”  Rendell spoke at a American Road and Transportation Builders Association conference.

The governor apparently assumes that the Senate and Administration will succeed in getting an 18 month extension of  the expiring SAFETEA-LU.  Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) on the House side doesn’t want to put off major revenue and policy decisions that long.

On September 23rd when the House debated, and passed, a three month extension, through December, Steven LaTourette (R-OH) agreed that action is needed now.  His House Republican leadership opted to object to a prospective gas tax hike, which was not even on the table, rather than identify themselves with the need to maintain highway and transit programs.  LaTourette stood in the well–exasperated, looking at his own party members–and said, “I am constantly amazed at how both parties are able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”  He foresees his party in the months ahead fighting a major transportation bill in the cause for low taxes.

In a recession the desire to improve the economic environment for employment is genuine and politically vital.  It’s easy to understand the impatience.  Oberstar and others want to move as quickly as possible to produce a 5-year, $450 Bn transportation bill.   Then again, there is that knotty problem of how to pay for it, as noted in this prior posting.

Whatever other thinking may be behind Governor Rendell’s frank remarks to the “road builders” he makes an important point.  On the surface is this one:  Jim Oberstar may be ready to move a bill but the Senate and administration are not.  But Rendell seems to go deeper than that.  Crafting a major bill, with its inherently difficult revenue issues and bearing the weight of expectations that this one must break new policy ground, will take more time.

Rendell is right.  After reaching the pinnacle that is SAFETEA-LU we don’t need another “mediocre” bill.   The hearing record of recent years is loaded with testimony calling on Congress to not repeat past mistakes and, as the governor put it, to produce “a bill that will really revolutionize.”  Freight policy, high-speed rail, transportation policy in a new energy/environment policy framework, performance measures, marine highways, livable communities, and the broader question raised by the Secretary as to how to integrate the MTS more fully into surface transportation policy.  These are just some of the policy challenges.

The Oberstar bill is a clear step in that direction.  And while the Senate committees have been plotting their TEA contributions the administration can’t say the same.  The White House and the Department of Transportation, which remains immersed in implementing the economic stimulus package with its multi-billion dollar new programs,  are nowhere near ready to be a full participant in the crucial dialogue on next generation surface transportation program and policy.  It will take more time.   Pbea

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