Transportation Policy Becomes the Proverbial Tree Falling in the Forest

Halfway through this afternoon's rally in support of a new federal transportation bill, there came an accidental but telling moment. A group of tourists, attracted by the hundreds of orange flags planted in the National Mall for the rally, walked through the event and whispered questions to attendees about its purpose. Once their curiosity was sated, the group lost interest and ambled away.

0131mnfederal_dd_graphic_oberstar.jpgRep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) (Photo: Capitol Chatter)
The tourists may well have been speaking for most senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where this week's growing momentum towards a six-month timetable for taking up the next long-term infrastructure bill was abruptly squelched by GOP senators' inability to find consensus among their members.

As the subscription-only CQ reported today:

Efforts in the Senate to take up a six-month extension of surface transportation law this week appear dead, over objections by a few Republicans to passing it without a full debate, said James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

... Inhofe said Tuesday that at least two Republicans objected and that there is not enough floor time to finish a bill this week under normal procedure. 

The Senate's lack of progress means that officials working on the nation's transit, roads, bridges, and bike paths will likely have to continue operating under a second short-term extension of the 2005 transportation law, this time lasting until December 18.

Despite the prospects of continuing uncertainty on the local level, House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) remained upbeat and focused on a singular goal: getting his colleagues to elevate infrastructure to the top-of-mind status currently occupied by health care (followed by financial regulation and climate change).

"Encircle the White House," Oberstar advised the organizers of today's rally, who parked heavy-duty construction equipment along the sidewalk to symbolize their plea for more transportation spending. "Encircle the Senate!"

The economic stimulus law's $48 billion in transport aid, $8.4 billion of which went to transit, "will dry up" by spring of next year, Oberstar added. He threw in a jab at Obama administration officials who insisted on cutting stimulus transit spending to pay for tax cuts: "I don't know of anybody who's thanked me for their $250 tax credit ... God only knows what's happened to it."

Speaking to reporters after the rally, Oberstar said that extending the 2005 transportation law until the holidays "will give us time between now and Christmas to agree on a six-year bill."

But the Minnesotan's push for taking up his $450 billion proposal by year's end has yet to be met with any enthusiasm from the White House and senior Senate Democrats, who until recently had aligned with Obama aides in favor of an 18-month delay.

And even if the Senate had won passage of its six-month extension, Oberstar said he would have raised concerns about the measure in the House, citing several "serious problems." One example, according to Oberstar: the Senate's plan would have shifted the current grant program for significant projects -- which helps fund some transit work -- back to the states, potentially jeopardizing the money.

For the moment, long-term transportation policy appears to have become the proverbial tree falling in the forest, with few in the capital taking note as the federal bill languishes and climate legislation climbs higher on the agenda.