Rendell & Lawmakers Aligning on 2-Year, Treasury-Funded Transport Bill

Senior Democrats in Congress are warming to a new two-year federal transportation bill as a vehicle for upwards of $100 billion in infrastructure spending aimed at job creation -- and a key player in building that momentum makes his home far from the Capitol.

Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA), the co-chairman of Building America's Future, held a meeting yesterday with House and Senate aides as well as representatives from the construction and investment industries and the road lobby. On the agenda: creating consensus for a financial "front-loading" of the next transportation bill, likely over two years, and a long-term plan for infrastructure investments going forward.

"If there's a second stimulus or a jobs bill, to me it should be all about infrastructure," Rendell told MSNBC this morning (viewable above).

Stephen Sandherr, chief of the Associated General Contractors, attended Rendell's sitdown. "His message is that Congress should be looking at infrastructure broadly, beyond transportation -- but that there should be some emphasis on front-loading spending for the transportation component, perhaps through a two-year general fund contribution to the highway trust fund," Sandherr said in an interview.

Rendell's idea would be to let federal gas taxes accumulate in the highway trust fund while national transport programs were funded by general taxpayer contributions, Sandherr added. "After two years, you'd be able to significantly increase spending" thanks to the accumulated tax revenues.

Building America's Future will hold a press conference on Monday announcing supporters for a front-loading, spokeswoman Laura Braden said in an interview.

Giving the highway trust fund a multi-billion-dollar infusion from the Treasury under the aegis of job creation would certainly appeal to lawmakers who are loath to take a politically difficult vote to raise the gas tax before they face voters in the 2010 midterm elections.

Yet "front-loading" a new transportation bill would not necessarily guarantee that repair projects are prioritized over building new roads, despite House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar's (D-MN) statement yesterday that $69 billion in new "ready-to-go" projects from road interests represent "evidence of state-of-good-repair projects that have been waiting on the shelf."

For merit-based criteria to determine which projects get funded by "front-loaded" legislation, Congress would have to craft language to that effect -- and if this winter's first stimulus debate is any guide, lawmakers may have trouble pinning down those details. While the first stimulus aimed to steer transport aid to the nation's most "economically distressed" areas, Congress added no method for measuring performance and the money ultimately shortchanged major cities.

There is also the question of how much front-loading to pursue, particularly given that Republicans have vowed to oppose any spending not offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. "We never even got to [the issue of] how much" at Rendell's meeting, Sandherr said, though funding a National Infrastructure Bank was another point of consensus.

Transportation for America and several other reform-minded groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, this week asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to limit any targeted infrastructure spending for economic recovery to one year, in order to keep lawmakers focused on policy changes in a long-term federal transport bill.

Sandherr said the Contractors were in favor of many of the large-scale reforms envisioned by Oberstar's six-year infrastructure bill: "We like the concept of making the [national transport] program more accountable. We recognize that in order for you to get the public to support increased investments, they've got to see a return. They'd say, 'I'll put more money towards a gas tax if I can have decreased congestion and better air quality'."

His group's chief priority, however, is getting the House and Senate to clear a jobs bill that spotlights infrastructure before next year. And if Rendell's increasing visibility on the issue is any guide, speed will remain the order of the day, with performance, sustainability, and closing the roads-transit funding divide running further down the list.

Late Update: It's important to note that the "front-loading" concept doesn't preclude passage of a new long-term transportation bill as soon as lawmakers can reach legislative agreement. Rendell's proposal would involve expediting and moving forward the next bill's spending, but also a timely approval of policy changes.