The critical multi-year transportation bill, which lawmakers have sidelined since last summer as they’ve quarreled about how to pay for it, looks to be back on the agenda after President Obama’s pugnacious Labor Day speech, in which he called on Congress to ramp up investment in transportation. The broad outline of Obama’s plan calls for rebuilding 150,000 miles of roads, constructing 4,000 miles of rail, and rehabilitating 150 miles of runway over the next six years.
While that may look like a lot of road spending compared to rail, transportation reformers see cause for optimism in the use of the word “rebuild” — which implies that the emphasis will be on fixing existing roads instead of constructing sprawl-inducing new highways. The outline also calls for “significant new funding” for the creation of new transit projects, and for ramping up investment in “safety, environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness, and livability.” Those criteria have all been hallmarks of the US DOT’s TIGER program, which distributes competitive grants to local transportation agencies from what has been a relatively small pot of money.
Congress typically authorizes a major transportation spending bill every six years, but political gridlock over raising the gas tax or securing other funding streams has stalled the reauthorization of the bill since it expired in 2009. In the interim, lawmakers have passed a series of stopgap spending measures to keep the transportation system functioning, even as Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has lobbied hard for Congress to take up the full bill.
Monday’s proposal represents the first serious effort from the President to tackle America’s transportation policy inertia, which is preventing any significant progress from the highway-oriented status quo. Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, are undoubtedly eager to pass a bill that will show voters they’re doing as much as possible to address high unemployment, which is making a Republican rout in the mid-term elections look increasingly likely.
Predictably, the GOP does not look willing to lend a hand. Republicans have already lined up against Obama’s proposal, and another protracted and nasty fight over a major White House initiative looks likely. Immediately after the announcement, House Minority Leader John Boehner released a statement opposing the plan, and on Tuesday he released another one calling the plan an “exercise in futility.”
Meanwhile, House GOP Whip Eric Cantor called the White House effort “another play called from the same failed Keynesian playbook.”
For a sign of how lockstep the opposition has quickly become, the real bellwether is John Mica, an influential Florida Republican who has supported infrastructure spending in the past. Mica has also heaped scorn on the President’s plan. “I don’t know what planet these people have been living on for the last 18 months,” he told The Hill. “They hijacked the $862 billion so-called stimulus, leaving less than 7 percent in the bill for infrastructure, and they failed to ensure that even this small percentage of funds would be spent expeditiously.”
The contorted argument seems to be that because the stimulus bill didn’t devote enough spending to transportation, or get it out the door fast enough, a bill devoted entirely to transportation spending and focused on a quick jolt of $50 billion doesn’t deserve support.
In the likely event that Republicans take control of the House in the mid-terms, Mica is the GOP representative who would replace Oberstar as chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.