The New Curveball: A $150 Billion Transportation Down Payment

At an event with Dick Durbin (IL), the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) today threw a curveball into Washington's ongoing back-and-forth over economic recovery, suggesting a $150 billion "front-loaded" transportation stimulus for next year.

durbin2.jpgSenate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) (Photo: STLtoday)

Appearing at the Capitol, Durbin sought to bolster Congress' credentials on transportation investment, which have tarnished in recent days amid the impasse over the next long-term infrastructure bill.

"Stopgap extensions [of existing law] make it very difficult" for states to map out future projects, Durbin said, vowing that "after health care reform, we'll be focused even more on the economy and jobs," including transportation spending.

Durbin said he would work with fellow senators and House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) on a plan to boost federal infrastructure aid as soon as as health care was complete. It fell to Rendell, co-chairman of the infrastructure advocacy group Building America's Future, to mention the "front-loading" idea.

"I think the Treasury can extend money to the highway trust fund, and we can front-load the eventual" six-year transportation bill, Rendell said.

"Let's say we front-loaded $150 billion" of the House's proposed $500 billion transport bill, Rendell added. "The states have proven we can spend infrastructure money quickly. Let's go, let's move -- it would have a tremendous effect in lengthening the recovery."

Few details were offered on the "front-loading" concept, including whether it would amount to an extension of the highway-centric 2005 infrastructure law with extra spending or a down payment on the policy changes contained in this year's House bill.

Durbin made clear that his interest in the idea was his own, yet to be shared by other Democratic leaders, and did not endorse the concept explicitly.

But on a day when unexpectedly high gross domestic product (GDP) data prompted questions about a possible "jobless recovery," depicting new transportation legislation as a job creator carried palpable political appeal for both the senator and the governor.

"We're going to be looking for the most bang for the buck" as 2010 draws near, Durbin said. "Turning to infrastructure is one thing that's going to have broad bipartisan support."

The prospect of asking the Treasury to provide up-front money for transportation arose earlier this year, when Oberstar suggested issuing $60 billion in bonds for infrastructure that could be repaid when the economy registered two consecutive quarters of economic growth.

But that notion would still require a reliable revenue source to close the funding gap necessary to pay for national transport programs, thus opening up a debate over the gas tax for which the Obama administration has shown no enthusiasm.

(ed. note. This post has been updated for clarity.)