‘The Concrete is Cracking’: Front-Loaded New Transport Bill Gains Steam

With the U.S. unemployment rate hitting 10.2 percent today, its highest level in 26 years, a palpable shift is occurring on Capitol Hill.

20070102_oberstar_2.jpgHouse transportation chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) (Photo: STLToday)

For weeks, we've heard senior Democrats and the transit industry make the case for more transportation spending as a potent job creator, but the lack of funding for a full six-year bill has kept the conversation stalled.

But two things have happened in the week since Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) floated the idea of a "front-loaded" infrastructure plan that would concentrate investment in the first two years:

  • The defeat of two Democratic candidates in Tuesday's off-year elections reinforced that job creation and economic worries are the No. 1 concerns for voters.
  • Gross domestic product may be rebounding, but unemployment decidedly is not.

This adds up to renewed interest in fast-tracking a new transportation bill, perhaps with a two-year window. As House transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) told David Rogers of Politico, "The concrete is cracking."

But even if the White House is prepared to abandon its insistence on an 18-month extension of current law, how to pay for new transportation legislation remains a very open question. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), for his part, told Rogers that he likes the sound of Rep. Pete DeFazio's (D-OR) proposed tax on Wall Street oil speculators:

There are some painless ways to fund the highway bill. Transaction taxes, that’s a painless way ... Where are the shared contributions to all this? If you’re sitting there on Wall Street, if you’re Goldman Sachs, if you’re making all this money, if you got all this federal money [in a] bailout, and you are paying all these big bonuses to your folks, where is your contribution to this recovery? That’s why it’s painless.

Clyburn's reference to the "highway" bill brings up another lingering mystery about the type of transportation spending being envisioned by senior Democrats. If the White House does agree to support a new infrastructure bill after health care is finished, will it include policy changes or just new money?

Because, as Clyburn inadvertently acknowledges, simply adding more money to the framework of the 2005 infrastructure law would help highways but do little to move the nation towards a more rational mix of transit and roads. Oberstar's pending six-year bill, by contrast, would institute an array of reforms, cutting 75 funding categories from the current system and allowing more "flex-ing" of road money for use on transit.

If a front-loaded bill is passed with some of the policy changes offered by Oberstar, job creation and a more accountable national transportation system could start moving hand-in-hand. If a front-loaded bill is passed but scrubbed of any substantive reform, jobs may be created but voters will still be sitting in traffic.

Late Update: House Republicans are making noise about using unspent money from this winter's economic stimulus law to bolster infrastructure projects, which comprised just 6 percent of the stimulus' $787 billion price tag. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said at a press conference today:

And so I'd like to see us go to the back end of where the stimulus is going, to be inflating more government programs ... scrape that money out and put it into infrastructure, which we know [is] the job creator.

The concept of tapping the stimulus is one that Republicans have floated for months, including in legislative form when the nation's highway trust fund was nearing insolvency over the summer. The problem, then as now, is that senior Democrats such as House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) are staunchly opposed to diverting funds from the massive recovery bill.

Later Update: Politico's article cites Oberstar as arguing for "an upfront investment of $80 billion over two years" in transportation. But it's worth noting that the transportation chairman has not formally endorsed that figure, according to his office.