Could Transport Bill Inaction Hurt the White House’s Sustainability Push?

The White House's lack of interest in passing a new long-term federal transportation bill before next spring at the earliest is common knowledge in Washington, but the Obama administration has paid little political price so far for its approach to the issue. That began to change today, thanks to two lawmakers on the House panel that controls the U.S. DOT's purse strings.

picpic.pngReps. Tom Latham (R-IA), at right, and Steven LaTourette (R-OH). (Photo: AP)

During a hearing today on the White House sustainability effort, which aims to combine federal transport, housing, and environmental resources in support of walkable, transit-oriented local development, Reps. Tom Latham (R-IA) and Steven LaTourette (R-OH) questioned the wisdom of spending money and attention on new programs when the nation's infrastructure funding shortfall remains unresolved.

"Unless you change the tax incentives from where they've been since the Second World War, [encouraging Americans] to live in single-family homes, you're not going to be successful," LaTourette said. The giant mortgage guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, he noted, effectively require the continued popularity of suburban sprawl in order to keep the government's investment in them viable.

If the White House would tackle the problem of the highway trust fund's insolvency -- which affects bike-ped and road repair projects -- "I would not have a problem with" spending new money on sustainable development, added LaTourette. The Ohioan has vowed to "bring Republicans to the table" if the administration decides to pursue a new federal transport bill this year.

Latham, the senior GOP member of the House's transportation appropriations panel, was more cutting in his criticism of federal involvement in local land-use practices.

Referring to a "crisis" in federal transportation financing, Latham marveled at the administration's decision to focus on a "new boutique program" rather than crafting a replacement for the increasingly obsolete gas tax.

Roy Kienitz, the U.S. DOT's undersecretary for policy, did not dispute the two Republicans' assessment of a financing vacuum. "It was a great run for 45, 50 years, when you had a system whereby the amount of driving and gas people used grew along with the economy," Kienitz told the lawmakers. Now that relationship has unraveled, he explained, making the gas tax a poor revenue-raiser for transport projects.

But Kienitz had no answer for how the White House should solve the problem.

"The elephant in the room here is tax increases," he said. "I don't see the politics for that right now." Instead, the former adviser to Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) suggested that Congress should see the economic recession as a reason to "innovate" its transportation and housing policies.

Criticism from minority-party members such as Latham and LaTourette ultimately could have little effect on the White House' 2011 budget request of nearly $530 million for its sustainability work. The appropriations panel's chairman, Rep. John Olver (D-MA), is a longtime champion of walkable development who secured $150 million for the effort last year.

"We've had a whole generation when we've spent to subsidize sprawl into the suburbs," Olver said today. "The time has long since passed for sustainability."

Still, coming on the heels of bipartisan rural skepticism of the White House's move toward more competitive transport funding, the Republicans' comments could portend more political blowback for the idea of a yearlong delay in drafting new long-term infrastructure legislation.