At today’s hearing, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee celebrated the bipartisan consensus it has reached on a new transportation reauthorization – but details of that consensus are still not public. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) did confirm that dedicated federal funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs remains in the bill. Addressing LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa:
You’ve worked with us on Safe Routes to Schools, because that’s so crucial, and we kept it, and bike paths, and we kept it, and recreational trails, and we kept it. Tough debates, giving here, taking there. But that has remained in the bill.
The reauthorization negotiations have been largely overshadowed by the ongoing talks over the debt ceiling. For a long time it appeared that if the debt talks had any impact on the transportation program, it would be to institutionalize the 33 percent cuts mandated by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan’s budget. However, as Boxer mentioned a few times during today’s hearing, the outlook is looking brighter.
The bipartisan Gang of Six has a plan to cut the deficit and raise the debt ceiling. That plan calls for very little spending – but the one area they did see fit to spend on was infrastructure. The Gang of Six plan calls for the following:
Tax reform must be estimated to provide $1 trillion in additional revenue to meet plan targets and generate an additional $133 billion by 2021, without raising the federal gas tax, to ensure improved solvency for the Highway Trust Fund.
According to our sources, that additional revenue would stabilize the trust fund for the next 10 years.
The vote of confidence by the Gang of Six is encouraging and should be a shot in the arm to the Senate. If that debt plan passes, it could even give House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica enough political cover to raise the total price tag of his bill.
EPW was able to get bipartisan buy-in, even from one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate, James Inhofe (R-OK). Despite his conservatism on nearly every issue, though, Inhofe says he’s a “big spender” when it comes to two things: national defense and infrastructure.
Many senators mentioned the oft-repeated number $2.2 trillion: the amount the U.S. would have to spend over the next five years just to get the nation’s infrastructure to “passable” condition, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That’s eight times more than the Senate bill foresees.
Still, the Senate bill remains larger than the House bill and for a shorter duration, and it remains to be seen how the two chambers will reconcile their competing visions. Terry O’Sullivan of the Laborers’ union said the House proposal “locks in failure for six years” and “gives up on America.”
O’Sullivan and nearly everyone else who spoke mentioned the massive job loss that would be caused by the low funding levels in the House bill – 630,000 jobs, according to Sen. Boxer. “We’re inviting unemployment,” she said.
Boxer said she’d visited a job re-training program that was teaching people to become chefs. Several of the participations had been construction workers who had “given up” on finding work in their field, she said.
Boxer pleaded with transportation advocates to keep contacting their senators – including her – to encourage them to move the reauthorization bill.
“We need the people to communicate with those on the Finance Committee on both sides of the aisle, and this committee, that you really need us to do this,” she said. “A lot of you said it took courage for us to come together. We need to have you in the background, with a loud voice.”
She said she felt that the public support was behind her in going forward with the bill, but advocates need to keep it up, especially with the Finance Committee which is still searching for $12 billion to close the funding gap. “They have to feel that this is a priority,” Boxer said. “If they don’t sense that America wants this, it’s going to be very difficult.”
Sen. Max Baucus, who chairs the Finance Committee and also leads the EPW Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said he’s “fairly confident” and “optimistic” that they’ll find the money.
Baucus was the first lawmaker to publicly call for a two-year bill, but at the hearing admitted it wasn’t ideal. “Chairman Boxer held out for six-year bill as long as possible,” he said. “But the issue is funding.”
At the end of the hearing, Boxer expressed frustration that President Obama hasn’t been more present in these negotiations – except for his recent mentions of an infrastructure bank. “We have to convince the administration to please weigh in, now,” she said. “Yes, we want an infrastructure bank; we love it, it’s great, but it’s not the core program.”
Deron Lovaas of NRDC said the administration has been “AWOL.” He said he’s disappointed the only administration bill that’s been made public was a leaked, “pre-final” version that had major sections that don’t reflect actual administration positions. He said President George W. Bush released an administration draft.
“The previous administration actually did a better job of managing their approach to this bill than the current administration,” Lovaas said, “which is disappointing, given how much skill Sec. LaHood and his team have.”
Boxer reiterated her desire to get the bill out of committee before the Senate leaves for August recess.