GOP Wants to Bring Transpo Policy Back to the 1950s

A top Republican transportation staffer gave some clues yesterday about the GOP’s plan to drastically restructure national transportation policy and reverse many reforms of the past 20 years.

Eisenhower would be proud of the GOP's "back to the fifties" view of transportation spending.
GOP insiders say transportation policy should go "back to its roots" in the 1950s.

In an off-the-record luncheon with the Road Gang, a sort of “fraternity” of Washington highway executives, Jim Tymon gave the view from his seat as Republican staff director of the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee. Streetsblog spoke to sources who attended the gathering.

According to Tymon, incoming Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) has three goals for the reauthorization of the surface transportation bill:

  • stabilize the highway trust fund
  • leverage existing revenue sources
  • streamline project delivery

What does that mean for reforming our broken transportation system? Well, everyone wants to stabilize the highway trust fund – it’s not sustainable to continue spending more than the fund brings in from gas tax revenues. (According to Tymon, the trust fund currently spends roughly $50 billion a year, while taking in revenues of just $35 billion.)

But if the option of raising taxes is off the table (Mica believes in VMT fees but says it’ll take years to get there, and has flatly opposed raising the gas tax), the only solution is to cut spending – and that’s just what Mica and his Republican colleagues seem poised to do, to the tune of $7 billion to $8 billion per year. Tymon called it “cutting the fat.”

Apparently, for Republicans, the big target for cuts appears to be transit spending. Tymon suggested to the Road Gang that the current $8 billion allocated for transit annually could shrink to $5 billion. The Road Gang was, apparently, relieved to see that transit would bear the brunt of the burden of spending cuts.

Meanwhile, Tymon said the Republicans want to bring transportation spending back to it roots in the 1950s – interstate commerce and travel, with a strong focus on the National Highway System. It all adds up to a possible revision of the longstanding 80/20 ratio governing highway and transit spending, with transit losing ground. Tymon confirmed that a new calculus could be coming.

According to Streetsblog’s sources, Tymon discussed reducing the Surface Transportation Program and eliminating federal mandates to states about how they should spend their money – for example, the “inappropriate” mandate for bike-ped projects, which he said should be up to state discretion.

Mica has also indicated his willingness to discontinue discretionary grant programs like TIGER, saying the process hasn’t been sufficiently transparent.

As for the second point on the bullet list – leveraging existing revenue sources – no big surprises there. To help make up for the dwindling power of the gas tax, the GOP wants to rely more on Public Private Partnerships, tolls (but only for new roads, not existing roads), and bonds, including private activity bonds and tax-preferred bonds like Build America Bonds (which will expire next month if not renewed). Tymon also praised state infrastructure banks, which the GOP would like to encourage. South Carolina, which has the biggest state bank, is their model.

And third, Mica would like to cut in half the average time it takes to get a transportation project built by streamlining project delivery. This might be done by shifting responsibility for project reviews to the states, limiting environmental reviews, and mandating deadlines for resource agencies to review and approve projects.

Mica says he will push for a six month extension of the transportation authorization in the next several months, so Congress can consider a new bill for consideration in summer of 2011. Expect listening sessions and hearings in the meantime.

In the end, however, agreement on a new six-year reauthorization seems increasingly unlikely anytime soon, according to observers who note the difficulty of winning consensus on such a bill without either a major increase in revenues or earmarks. Advocates are bracing for a fresh round of extensions that could last two years or more. That could mean spending cuts, as outlined by Jim Tymon, without a new vision for moving infrastructure into the 21st century.

The last reauthorization – passed by a Republican House, Senate and President – was significantly more reform-minded than the proposal coming from the GOP now. Mica’s close relationship with outgoing chair, reformer Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and public support for transit have been a reason for hope for reformers – but it’s becoming clear that advocates will have to fight hard to preserve the gains made in the last two decades for transit, bicycling, and walkability.

  • gecko

    re: “Tymon called it ‘cutting the fat’.”

    Wow that would be great!

    Transportation systems based on cars are the fat and a huge waste of money, lives, and environment since there are much better more practical ways to provide human mobility.

  • Eric McClure

    These policy initiatives are crystal-clear evidence of the dangers of inhaling too much automobile exhaust.

  • capt subway

    Scary reading and quite troublesome.

    But the picture of Eisenhower is inappropriate in this context. While the interstate highway system is named after him he was actually a tepid supporter, at best, of the concept. It was LBJ, as senator from Texas, who was most responsible for the system – who nursed the bill through to full term. He also changed the funding formula from the original 60 fed/40 states to 90 fed/10 states. Both houses were controlled by the dems at the time and it seems they had enough votes to over-ride a presidential veto. So Ike signed the bill even though he was not pleased. Most rightfully it should be called the Lyndon B Johnson interstate highway system.

  • Boris

    This makes perfect sense within the Republican framework of destroying this country as much as possible in the next two years so Obama won’t get reelected. But the 1950’s this is not – in the 50’s we actually paid for what we used.

  • W. K. Lis

    What will happen when the price of oil (and its byproducts such as gasoline and asphalt) is expected to increase 500%? What about alternatives? What choice is there if one is not rich?

  • JJJ

    It’s like the the Democrats are innocent. They knew they were going to lose seats, and instead of passing a bill, they let the republicans fillbuster their meager attempts.

    Fortunately, it works the other way. I doubt the Senate or Obama would approve the kind of bill this article talks about.

  • gecko

    Absolutely charming!

    “Like some crumbling basilica sinking into the mud, the elderly bicycling populations of Ravenna and Ferrar represent a vestige of time past. They hark back to a time in Italy’s grand history before automobile ownership and Vespas, when bicycling was the fastest and most convenient way to get around the small towns and Italian countryside (at leas the flatter regions). Though the gates of Ravenna have today flung open to a torrent of traffic, the old ladies headed to the market still take their bikes. (When I say old, I mean really, really old ladies.)”

    http://ramblershighway.wordpress.com/

  • gecko

    GM Unveils Three Futuristic Vehicles http://su.pr/6Rg06I (@GOOD stuff)

  • Randy Neufeld

    Tanya, Was the reference to the 50’s yours or did it come from a “GOP insider”
    Thanks, Randy

  • Tanya Snyder

    @Randy, the reference came from Tymon, according to my sources!

  • Frank

    Thank God for Mr. Tymon — the Democrats wanted us to re-create the transportation network of the 1880s and the housing of the 1920s! At least the Republicans are modern enough to push for the 1950s!!!

    Thankfully the Democrats didn’t get to finish their monstrous bill.. the over-confidence and elitism of the left made them way to sure of themselves to compromise on policy. Same way they lost on cap-and-trade when everyone thought it was in the bag.

    Hopefully the Republicans will deliver a HIGHWAY bill that is conservative and less wasteful.

  • WAKEUP

    YA right the 1950s is modern..no the rest of the world shows what is modern in tranportation and when gas goes over 4.50-5bucks we will hear those ooso forward thinking repubs respones to the your types crying about your gas expenses

  • Ahhh, I fondly recall the distorting effects of the old Federal Highway program. I was at Oregon DOT when we were EXPANDING rest areas on Interstate 5 during a desperate revenue shortage because it could be done with 92% Federal funding. At the same time, we were eliminating some snow plowing and other maintenance programs. AND, at the same time, senior citizens were locked up in their homes in small cities where the private bus companies had gone under when highway-induced sprawl made them unprofitable, but the same government that had caused that problem only offered more money for highways.

    The shift proposed in this story would succeed in breaking the publicly owned transit agencies, too, by re-energizing sprawl along the inevitable new “interstates” built to greenfield suburbs. At the same time, as happened in the Oregon example above, secondary highways and rural roads would continue to deteriorate, due to not being eligible for “interstate” money.

  • Charles M.

    I don’t see anything about Amtrak, High Speed rail. Back to the ’50’s?, yeah, but they’ll omit anything on rails.

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