By Leslie Wollack
With the nation's federal transportation law set to expire next year and funds running low, transportation made news last week in President Obama's State of the Union and a hearing on Capitol Hill. Incoming House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) held the first committee hearing of the new Congress and then in his annual address to Congress the President offered two proposals for urgent infrastructure repairs.
In his State of the Union, the President offered two proposals for urgent infrastructure repairs although the specifics have not been fleshed out. "Fix-it-First" would provide $50 billion in funding for immediate repairs to aging infrastructure such as deficient bridges. A "Partnership to Rebuild America" would use private capital to upgrade port infrastructure, pipelines, and schools.
In the House, Rep. Shuster has announced his intention to work on a reauthorization bill for ports and inland waterways as his initial priority for the committee, followed by reauthorization of Amtrak and discussion of funding for a new surface transportation bill to succeed MAP-21, the bill adopted by Congress last year.
At last week's hearing, Chairman Shuster called for greater bipartisanship in crafting Congressional response to national transportation programs and an end to the acrimonious debate that resulted in Congress only being able to adopt a two year transportation funding bill last year. Shuster, whose father chaired the Committee when he served in Congress, called for a return to "common sense" in dealing with transportation.
The hearing featured former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donohue and Laborers' International Union President Terry O'Sullivan.
Donohue, called for more federal funding for transportation and offered that the Chamber of Commerce would support a gas tax increase, although all options for funding transportation should be under consideration.
All three witnesses objected to turning over responsibility for federal transportation programs back to state and local governments. "The challenge we are facing is beyond the capacity of any one city, any one county or any one state," O'Sullivan said.
The lack of funding for big infrastructure programs was highlighted by the General Accountability Office which recently put federal transportation programs in their high risk category. The GAO report on high risk programs is prepared every two years at the beginning of a new Congress. Noting the critical importance of surface transportation to the economy and "the daily lives of most Americans," GAO noted the dire condition of the national transportation network while federal investment continues to lag.
In its statement, GAO warned that the nation's surface transportation program "is under growing strain, and the cost to repair and upgrade the system to meet current and future demands is estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars."
"Calls for increased investments come at a time when traditional funding sources are eroding. Funding is further complicated by the federal government's financial condition and fiscal outlook," said the report. GAO further noted that "spending for surface transportation programs has not commensurately improved system performance because many programs do not effectively address key challenges, federal goals and roles are unclear, programs lack links to performance, and some programs do not use the best tools and approaches to ensure effective investment decisions."
NLC's Transportation and Infrastructure Policy Committee will look at implementation of the current surface transportation program, MAP-21 at its upcoming meeting in March. In addition, the Congressional City Conference will feature a workshop on transportation programs and the transportation authorizations before Congress.