LaHood Asks For 18-Month Extension of Four-Year-Old Transpo Law

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is asking Congress to extend the existing federal transportation law for 18 months, averting the coming insolvency of the nation's highway trust fund while putting off broad-based transport reform for as long as the Bush administration did in the days surrounding the 2004 election.

610x.jpgTransportation Secretary Ray LaHood (Photo: AP)

LaHood's request comes at an awkward time for Jim Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House transportation committee. Oberstar had planned to release an outline of his priorities for a new transportation bill tomorrow and vowed to oppose any short-term extensions of the Bush-era legislation -- exactly what LaHood is now seeking.

LaHood urged Congress to couple its extension with "critical reforms" to existing federal transportation policy that streamline cost-benefit analyses and help to promote more livable communities. But it's far from clear that such changes could pass Congress by the end of next month, when lawmakers are slated to leave Washington and must come to a decision on shoring up the highway trust fund.

In addition, LaHood's call to effectively postpone debate on long-term transportation policy reform may not sit well with the small but vocal group of lawmakers who would prefer to start a broader discussion this year.

Extending the existing law also puts off a discussion over whether to keep relying on the gas tax to fund transportation improvements or move to a new revenue source -- a politically volatile issue for the Obama team, but one that lawmakers from both parties increasingly say is necessary.

Oberstar plans to stick to his schedule for moving forward on a new transportation bill, his spokesman told Streetsblog. During an invitation-only briefing with reporters earlier today, as LaHood was telling senior lawmakers of his coming request, Oberstar called extending the existing law "unacceptable."

LaHood's full statement follows after the jump.

This morning, I went to Capitol Hill to brief members of Congress on the situation with the Highway Trust Fund.  I am proposing an immediate 18-month highway reauthorization that will replenish the Highway Trust Fund. If this step is not taken the trust fund will run out of money as soon as late August and states will be in danger of losing the vital transportation funding they need and expect. 

As part of this, I am proposing that we enact critical reforms to help us make better investment decisions with cost-benefit analysis, focus on more investments in metropolitan areas and promote the concept of livability to more closely link home and work. The Administration opposes a gas tax increase during this challenging, recessionary period, which has hit consumers and businesses hard across our country. 

I recognize that there will be concerns raised about this approach.  However, with the reality of our fiscal environment and the critical demand to address our infrastructure investments in a smarter, more focused approach, we should not rush legislation.  We should work together on a full reauthorization that best meets the demands of the country.  The first step is making sure that the Highway Trust Fund is solvent.  The next step is addressing our transportation priorities over the long term.

Late Update: In an interview with Bloomberg, LaHood describes his decision as one to "face reality" instead of "stringing Congress along with three-month or six-month extensions."

Later, Bad-Pun Update: LaHood tells the Times that he's not ruling out a possible gas tax increase after the 18-month extension (and the crucial 2010 congressional elections). "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, if you'll forgive the expression," he said.