A Republican Returns to Congress With A Map to Transportation Reform

During his 24 years in Congress, former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) was known for a brand of Republicanism now considered endangered. An ardent environmentalist and defender of objective government science, he played a key role in drafting the acid rain limits that are serving as a model for this year's climate change fight.

Sherwood_Boehlert_1.jpgFormer Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) (Photo: Wikipedia)

Boehlert is returning to the Hill today, three years after his retirement from politics, to testify on climate legislation in his capacity as co-chairman of the Bipartisan Policy Center's transportation project.

He has yet to begin speaking to the Senate environment committee, but it's worth taking an early look at Boehlert's remarks -- which lay out a path to bipartisan transportation reform that's both conservative and conservationist.

Boehlert's testimony begins with a fact that few of Congress' current Republican members acknowledge: if legislators cannot agree on a system for cutting emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will step in under Supreme Court mandate.

"Realistically, that is the alternative: Congress or EPA taking the lead role," Boehlert's remarks state. "Inaction by both would be unacceptable."

Boehlert then cites a few compelling statistics about transportation's role in the climate problem, noting that the sector swallows close to 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption and that 30 percent of the nation's carbon emissions come from shuttling its people and goods.

His next recommendation may well sound counter-intuitive to state DOT officials and community advocates alike -- America needs to think bigger than its traditional, locally-driven approach to transport:

We usually think about new investments as specific “projects” such as a new transit line. But to actually achieve emissions reductions and other national goals such as economic growth and safety, we need to shift from a project orientation to a programmatic one. This means thinking about how that new transit line can be integrated into an overarching program or plan that considers land use decisions, pricing options, access to the transit line, and any other policy that can improve performance.

Changing the culture of infrastructure, Boehlert adds, requires selecting projects based on "a suite of overarching national goals" that goes beyond the environment to include economic growth and safety.

He also makes the case for entirely "mode-neutral" transportation spending, which would take a free-market approach to project selection by setting rail, roads, transit, and freight on an equal footing and choosing the mode that best meets those "overarching national goals."

Boehlert's remarks praise the Senate climate bill's sponsors, environment panel chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and John Kerry (D-MA), for devoting nearly 3 percent of their plan's valuable "emissions allowances" to clean transport. Still, he makes clear that the 3-percent share should grow as the process goes on -- a banner that Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) is poised to carry when the first votes on the legislation occur (expected next month).