Transit Industry and State DOTs Agree: Senate Climate Bill Needs ‘Rewrite’

The transit industry's leading D.C. lobbying outlet today joined the umbrella group for state DOTs and two major construction groups to protest the Senate climate bill's failure to set aside all of the revenue from its proposed new fuel fees for infrastructure projects -- specifically, to the cash-strapped highway trust fund that is generally split, 80-20, between roads and transit.

030210_Senate_climate_bill_full_600.jpgSens. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), center, and John Kerry (D-MA), right, with onetime climate bill cosponsor Lindsey Graham (R-SC) at left. (Photo: CSM)
American Public Transportation Association (APTA) chief William Millar told reporters that while the local transit agencies he represents are "very supportive of legislation to address climate change and energy issues," the Senate bill's diversion of all but about $6 billion of its fuel revenues for purposes unrelated to transportation is a matter of serious concern.

"This is one of those cases where we really can't even talk about the merits of any portion of the bill because the fundamental position is flawed," Millar said.

Referring to the legislation's promise of funding for the clean transport and land-use grants known as "CLEAN TEA" and TIGER, he added, "Many of those are very good ideas … but you can't make those ideas work if there's no significant funding to make them work, and this bill would aggravate the funding situation for public transit."

John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), was more direct in outlining where state DOTs want to see the Senate climate bill's fuel revenues directed. "Channel[ing] every dollar through the highway trust fund," he said, would help the industry break through a congressional stalemate and win passage of a new six-year federal transport bill.

Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors, and Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, echoed Horsley's interpretation of the new fuel fees in the climate bill -- which are imposed on oil companies and refiners but are likely to be passed along through higher gas prices -- as a de facto "user fee" on drivers.

The climate proposal, Ruane said, does "nothing more than finance a lot of goals, which are enviable in part, on the backs of transportation users."

It remains to be seen whether the transportation industry's combative stance against the partial diversion of the bill's transportation revenue, billed as a "call for a rewrite" of the climate legislation, will help force senators into restructuring the measure. Ruane said he "like[s] the odds" facing the four groups.

But a spokesman for Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) said that APTA, AASHTO, and 25 other industry groups mis-estimated the amount of revenue set aside for transportation in a letter outlining their concerns that was sent today to Kerry and his chief climate bill co-sponsor, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT).

“Let’s get the facts straight," Kerry spokesman Whitney Smith said via email. "This bill invests more than $6 billion annually in transportation infrastructure, which is more than any other comprehensive energy and climate bill and more than twice what's claimed in this letter. In effect, the letter advocates a policy that would accelerate emissions from the transportation sector and increase our dependence on foreign oil. That's not good for anyone, especially consumers."

One congressional source was befuddled by APTA's move to "bit[e] the hand that feeds them" by criticizing a climate bill that stands to give broad, lasting benefits to rail and bus systems.

“Perhaps these groups are confused about the purpose of the climate bill: It’s to reduce emissions, not increase them," the source told Streetsblog Capitol Hill. "The Kerry-Lieberman bill invests more money in transportation than any of the previous climate bills. Instead of working constructively to increase that investment, they are biting the hand that feeds them. Why is APTA advocating for a strategy that will decrease the amount of climate money going to transit? Transit makes out like a bandit in the Kerry-Lieberman bill.”

APTA's alignment with AASHTO and the construction industry groups marks a split of sorts from the Transportation for America (T4A) infrastructure reform coalition, which has praised the upper-chamber climate bill's focus on investing in clean transport projects while taking no official position on the legislation as a whole.

The Senate climate plan provides "a new source of revenue" for transportation, T4A spokesman David Goldberg said in an interview. "This is not a gas tax, and it's not conceived of as a supplement to the highway trust fund, for whatever the business-as-usual, run-of-the-mill highway trust fund projects are."

How big would that new source of transportation revenue be, relative to the total amount raised by the Senate climate bill's new fuel fees? APTA and AASHTO claim in their letter that more than three-quarters of total fuel fees would be used for non-infrastructure purposes:

In 2013, fees from on-road fuel consumption [under the climate proposal] would generate at least $19.5 billion.  Instead of returning revenue from these fees to improving the transportation system, the bill diverts at least 77 percent of the funds away from transportation infrastructure investment. As carbon prices increase, the bill diverts as much as 91 percent of fuel revenues.  Of particular concern, the bill limits new investment in the Highway Trust Fund to $2.5 billion per year, far below the amount the bill raises from system users. 

As Kerry's office pointed out, however, the industry groups' math appears to lowball the amount of funding set aside for transportation. The 77 percent estimate would yield an annual pot of less than $4 billion, while Kerry and Lieberman have estimated that transport would receive upwards of $6 billion during the first several years after their legislation takes effect.

(ed. note. This post was updated to add comment from Kerry's office.)