What Voinovich Wants From the White House: A New Politics for Transport

Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), a longtime supporter of quick action on a new federal transportation bill, helped give Democrats a major victory this week when he voted for the Senate’s jobs measure after securing a promise for transportation votes in the upper chamber this year.

art.voinovich.gi.jpgSen. George Voinovich (R-OH) (Photo: CNN)

But viewing Voinovich’s move on the jobs bill as a template for breaking the partisan logjam that has paralyzed the Senate would be highly premature — as the Ohioan explained today.

"I’m taking each of these pieces of legislation and looking at them individually," Voinovich said at an event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center. If the White House does not come to the table with specific plan for the next federal transport law, he added, "I may vote against anything" more that comes down the pike on jobs.

Voinovich said he has told President Obama as much personally.

What he wants to hear from the White House is not limited to the substance of a new federal infrastructure plan: "I’d like to hear Ray LaHood say, ‘We’re going to support [a new bill] and we’re willing to look at various sources of revenue to pay for it," starting with an increase in the gas tax.

Though he plans to retire at the end of 2010, Voinovich is one of a handful of Republicans considered open to working with Democrats and resisting partisan pressures to oppose most of the majority’s agenda. His extraction of a promise to legislate on transportation this year from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) — whom Voinovich says "gets it" and "supports funding" a new bill — suggests that the White House could gain a reliable GOP ally by diving into the debate this year.

Yet neither Voinovich nor Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) held out much hope that Washington’s widespread political resistance to paying for transportation reform would ease in the short term.

"You need both Congress and the executive branch" to throw their weight behind the issue, Carper said, comparing Obama to George W. Bush in terms of their intractable opposition to raising the gas tax.

Despite the conservative appeal of saying "we’re going to improve infrastructure, restrict our carbon footprint, and pay for it," Voinovich said later, lawmakers on both sides are more "worried about how many seats they’ll have" after the 2010 midterm elections.

With the White House postponing the consideration of "tough choices" on transportation, as Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) put it yesterday, and the House and Senate wracked by disputes over even the small-scale question of how to extend the road-centric transport law, prospects for agreement appear as bleak as ever.

"No member of Congress can see a solution they can accept, so they say, ‘We can’t talk about policy because we can’t deal with the money yet,’" Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said today at a separate IBM forum on Capitol Hill.

There is, however, a potential silver lining of the current lean period for transportation. The 10 months that remain before the promised Senate vote on the issue gives Carper, Voinovich, and their House-side allies time to hash out a framework for long-term legislation that has a chance of leapfrogging the capital’s typical gridlock.

Illustrating that sentiment, Voinovich turned to Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) during a break in the action today and suggested that infrastructure-minded lawmakers get to work immediately: "Not to be naive," he said, "but we need to start pre-conferencing the [future transportation] bill right now."

  • How to Get Ohio Moving Again

    On a bright Saturday nearly three years ago, I listened to Sen. Voinovich give a passionate speech in support of infrastructure investment at the opening of Toledo’s Veterans Glass City Skyway Bridge. He spoke with pride of the work his father had once done on bridge projects in their community of Cleveland, and expressed his understanding that robust investment in Ohio’s infrastructure is vital to stimulate stalled economies and provide thousands of proud builders and craftsmen with much-needed jobs.
    As Senator Voinovich nears retirement this fall, he could leave no more lasting legacy to Ohio than real leadership on infrastructure investments that will deliver new opportunities for Ohioans for decades to come. The senator began to show that leadership last week when he broke with many in his party to vote for a jobs bill that will create new highway construction jobs in our state and around the country. There is no better way for him to continue that leadership than to turn his focus to public transportation.

    Public transportation is facing an immediate crisis in Ohio, as it is in many parts of America. At the same time, the field is a powerful engine of job creation: investment in public transportation has been proven to create twice as many jobs as investment in highway construction, according to a study by Smart Growth America. New opportunities have appeared for longer-term development as well, now that Ohio has won $400 million in federal money to develop the 3C railroad corridor. Senator Voinovich’s leadership can help to provide a way forward in all of these areas.
    With ongoing operations funding shortfalls, Ohioans from Cleveland to Cincinnati are facing an ever-growing mobility crisis that threatens current jobs and the ability to search for new ones. Sen. Voinovich is for pressing for the passage of a new national surface transportation authorization act, which will provide $500 billion in transportation funding over six years, before the end of 2010. This is an indispensible step forward, and he should be praised for his initiative on it, but that bill’s passage is months away at best. Our cities’ crises won’t wait—Ohio needs solutions now.

    Senator Voinovich and his colleagues in the Senate can help provide those solutions by passing a supplemental jobs bill that will allow federal transit funding to be used for transit operations—which means averting fare hikes and service cuts—rather than only for capital expenses. The Transportation Equity Network and other grassroots groups have been pressing the Senate for this action, and Sen. Voinovich should lend his voice and his vote to their efforts.

    Federal support for Ohio’s “3C Quick Start” Passenger Rail Plan is one example of how years of planning and the support of Sen. Voinovich has given Ohio the opportunity to invest wisely in its transportation future. The planned route will connect 6 million people in Ohio’s largest population centers, and will unleash millions of investment dollars in real estate, development, and job creation up and down the state.

    This plan can become even stronger if it includes connects the 220,000 college and university students that are within 10 miles of the “3C” line. Sen. Voinovich should lend his support to the plan by the Ohio Higher Education Rail Network to connect all of Ohio’s colleges and universities utilizing existing track. Doing so will lower transportation costs for Ohio families and provide a safe travel option. New partnerships with higher education could create new funding models and drive the future of Ohio’s excellent higher education system.

    Sen. Voinovich’s support for investment and innovation in public transportation has been evident in his work from Cleveland to Columbus and on to Washington. His leadership on a new surface transportation authorization act, transit operations funding, and Ohio’s 3C rail plan—all of them responsible investments in the common good—will provide the long-term vision Ohio and all America need. Action today will cement efforts to address today’s crises and build on Ohio’s bright future.

    Roger Shope is State Campaign Coordinator for the Ohio Higher Education Rail Network (ohern.org), and a member of the Transportation Equity Network (transportationequity.org).

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