GOP Will Control the Senate in 2015. What Does It Mean for Transportation?

The forecasting models were right: As the polls closed last night it quickly became apparent that Republicans will gain control of the Senate, occupying at least 52 seats. The implications for transportation are immense. To understand what they are, first let’s look at what last night means for the prospects for a new transportation bill next year. Then we’ll get inside the committees for a nitty-gritty look at the leadership shakeup.

The Bill

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) will take the reins of the powerful EPW committee -- and he just can't wait to eliminate all federal bike/ped funding. Photo: ##http://www.inhofe.senate.gov/newsroom/photo-gallery/greater-oklahoma-city-chamber-of-commerce-fly-in##Office Sen. Inhofe##
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) will take the reins of the powerful EPW committee. And he just can’t wait to eliminate all federal bike/ped funding. Photo: Office of Sen. Inhofe

First and foremost, the election results mean both chambers of Congress will be in GOP hands when the current transportation bill, MAP-21, comes due for renegotiation next spring.

Bicameral Republican control strongly suggests that the door to increased revenues is closed. (It was hardly open under a Democratic Senate, either.)

GOP control could make it challenging to extend the current law as well. Senators had to scrounge for ways to pay for MAP-21, settling for a grab-bag of gimmicks. There isn’t more loose change to be found under the cushions. And no one in Congress, on either side of the aisle, has the appetite for deficit spending.

Other scenarios don’t look much more promising. Some have suggested that Republicans and Democrats could use the lame duck period between now and January to hammer out a revenue deal, for instance. That would benefit Republicans by raising taxes on the Democrats’ watch (but after the elections, when they don’t have to worry about the Republican base slamming them for not fighting hard enough). With the funds in hand for a multi-year bill, the details of how to spend it would then get hammered out after the GOP takes control of the Senate.

This is unlikely, however. The lame duck is already chock-full of must-do activities, first of all. Second, the reluctance on both sides to raise the gas tax isn’t all show: Most members of Congress are truly unwilling to increase what they see as a middle-class burden, no matter who’s watching. House Speaker John Boehner doesn’t have the cohesion within his party to do something so strategic, and the Democrats might not even go along with it.

The other possibility, of course, is that instead of raising revenues to match desired expenditure levels, Congress can limit spending to match gas tax receipts. Former House Transportation Chair John Mica tried that a few years ago and it didn’t go anywhere. Many people think that idea has been tried and discarded, but others think it could easily return, given how few options remain.

If Congress does try to “live within its means,” one advocate says, the battle will be over what gets cut. House Republicans will advocate for limiting gas tax revenues to highways only, leaving transit and bike/ped programs out in the cold. But even some Senate Republicans like Mark Kirk of Illinois and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who have a significant share of transit-riding constituents, will fight a change like that. And Democrats would revolt.

Republicans may have won control of the Senate but they don’t have a 60-vote majority, so they’ll need to cross party lines at least a little bit to bring along a few Democratic votes if they want to get anything passed.

The change in party power also signals a massive turnover in committee leadership. Republican ranking members will become committee chairs and Democrats will get a corresponding demotion. Here are some key changes.

Environment and Public Works

Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida will likely take over as Ranking Member of the Commerce Committee, with jurisdiction over rail and safety -- two passions of his. Photo: ##http://www.billnelson.senate.gov/photo-slider?page=1##Office of Sen. Nelson##
Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida will likely take over as Ranking Member of the Commerce Committee, with jurisdiction over rail and safety — two passions of his. Photo: Office of Sen. Nelson

Chair Barbara Boxer will become the ranking Democrat on the committee. David Vitter has been the top Republican, but the peculiarities of term limit rules mean that instead of elevating Vitter to chair, James Inhofe of Oklahoma will likely come back to take the gavel — and likely bring with him the shrewd negotiators on his staff, sharp as tacks and with a solid understanding of the law. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with.

Inhofe, a climate denier and opponent of environmental regulations with a soft spot for highway spending, has for years longed to get rid of all federal funding for bike and pedestrian programs — something he wasn’t able to do with Boxer as the chair. He may now have his chance.

As chair, Boxer made myriad compromises with Republicans in the interest of passing a bipartisan bill. She and Inhofe worked well together, despite their many differences. Will Inhofe work as hard to please Boxer as she did to please him? And, in the minority position, will Boxer fight harder to preserve sustainable transportation funding and policies, now that it’s not her job to get a bill passed?

Meanwhile, Vitter is running for Louisiana governor next year and will likely fade into the shadows on the Hill.

To match the proportions of the parties in power, Democrats will also lose some EPW members and Republicans will gain some.

Banking Committee

The current ranking Republican is Michael Crapo of Idaho, a relative moderate with some appreciation for transit (over which the Banking Committee has jurisdiction), but it’s likely Richard Shelby will come back to take over the chairmanship (those funny term limits tricks, again). Being from Alabama, a rural state without major transit systems, Shelby has little interest in transit.

The current chair, Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota, is retiring — one shred of good news for transportation advocates. Not that Johnson was opposed to their interests, but having a South Dakotan lead a committee with jurisdiction over transit issues wasn’t the most natural fit. Likely replacements are Chuck Schumer of New York, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, or Sherrod Brown of Ohio — all passionate transit supporters from heavily urban states. Though Johnson had nice things to say about the importance of public transportation, his replacement may be more likely to fight for it. Given the battles we can expect over the next two years, having a combative city Democrat in the Banking Committee leadership will be key.

Commerce Committee

We already knew Commerce Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller was retiring — and that was a blow, given his track record as an ardent and eloquent champion of rail and transportation investment. It’s likely Florida’s Bill Nelson will step into the top Democratic slot, while South Dakota Republican John Thune will take over the chairmanship.

Thune won over some safe streets advocates when he helped negotiate a complete streets provision for inclusion in the committee’s portion of MAP-21 (only to be stripped out in conference). According to insiders, Thune wasn’t acting out of any great love for biking and walking — more likely he was hoping the compromise would kill the amendment — but he did later take credit for it in the bike/ped community and has since become more of a supporter.

Thune also has American Indian reservations in his state, meaning he has a large constituency of rural people without access to cars who depend heavily on transit. (Not surprisingly, transit on reservations was also Tim Johnson’s main connection with the issue.) Representing South Dakota, Thune has a big stake in freight rail but not much incentive to support passenger rail.

Democrat Bill Nelson, on the other hand, is passionate about passenger and freight rail issues — key to the Commerce Committee’s focus — and is also well aware of Florida’s terrible street safety record, which the state is finally trying to overcome. While Nelson hasn’t taken a strong leadership role on these issues, he’s a big supporter of complete streets and the role of ranking member could propel him to greater action.

Finance Committee

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who has long made clear his desire to stop federal funding for bike/ped programs, rises to the chairmanship of the Finance Committee. Hatch’s distaste for sustainable transportation doesn’t extend to transit, though, since transit investment is growing in Salt Lake City.

Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon will likely become ranking member.

We’ll follow up soon with an update on the House. Though the balance of power stays with the Republicans, big changes are afoot.

  • Andres Dee

    “Why can’t Amtrak turn a profit? Why can’t Amtrak run at 300 MPH?”

    “The NEC turns a profit.”

    “Why can’t Amtrak sell off the NEC?”

    “Then Amtrak will definitely not earn a profit and will lose control of the only asset that it runs that actually works most of the time. (and is critical to the economic well-being of the states it serves. Hear that, Mr. Christie?)”

    “Why can’t Amtrak turn a profit? Why can’t Amtrak run 300 MPH?”

    “Why can’t public transit pay more of their own costs?”

    “We can try and promote charters of public buses.”

    “No, you can’t do that, it would cut into the revenues of private operators (many of which are government subsidized).”

    “Why can’t public transit pay more of their own costs?”

  • Larry Littlefield

    How about eliminating all federal transportation spending? Didn’t the federal government do enough damage before Ronald Reagan! turned the revenues over to the states and let them decide what to do with it?

  • Southeasterner

    Of course since turning funding over to the states our interstate highway system is worse off now than ever before, primarily due to lack of adequate investments in road repair and loosely monitored governors and state DOTs siphoning funds to other pet projects.

    Not to mention the cost of states issuing bonds adds a significant cost to projects as interest rates are higher than what the federal DOT pays.

    However, as a democrat I do like the idea of more federal funding returning to the blue states that actually provide most of the funds. Of course the welfare states like Wyoming, Alaska and Alabama that receive the highest net contributions from the federal gov’t will be unable to raise the necessary funding to maintain their infrastructure, so it will be interesting to see how they manage but it will at least force them to reconsider their absolute hatred for the federal govt.

  • Anandakos

    There are some benefits to the seniority system. These Republicans, with the exception of Jim Inhofe, are intelligent, reasonably well-meaning people. Imagine what this article would have looked like if instead of John Thune on Commerce it were Ted Cruz taking over and instead of Michael Crapo on Banking it was the inimitable Joni Ernst out to castrate some poor bus driver.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    The Obama administration wanted to do another trillion dollar stimulus of the the economy in 2010 by pumping money into transportation infrastructure projects that could be completed very quickly. This is based on the reasoning that when the private sector of the economy has lack of demand, the public sector steps in to make up for it. The incoming majority of the House didn’t go along with that plan and did not approve the money.

    This would have worked out to about $11.5 billion for the city of Los Angeles if you divvy this money up by population. It turns out that Los Angeles has finished since 2009, or is in the midst of, several large construction projects that will total over $12 billion. Most of this is due to a half-cent sales tax measure for the county that was passed during the presidential election in 2008. It needed a more than two thirds majority voter approval to pass. Probably due to Obama running for president, which got more people to vote, it got the votes needed .

    Here is a list of projects that I can think of off of the top of my head and their approximate cost:

    $900 million Gold Line east LA light-rail extension (completed 2009)
    $587 million Silver Line bus route (completed 2009–part of route outside of LA)
    $1 billion Expo Line light-rail Phase 1 (running mid 2012)
    $188 million Orange Line BRT extension (running mid 2012)
    $1.6 billion Universal/NBC expansion (under construction)
    $1 billion Wilshire Grand hotel (under construction)
    $1.4 billion light-rail connector tunnel downtown (expected completion 2020)
    $2 billion Crenshaw light-rail (expected completion 2018)
    $2 billion Purple line subway extension Phase 1 (expected completion 2025)
    $1 billion Expo Line light-rail Phase 2 (will be running early 2016)
    $1 billion Interstate 405 added lane (almost complete)

    Another transit project that will probably be started in another year will likely cost at least $200-300 million (expected completion 2018).

    These projects should show whether a large influx of money for infrastructure projects will stimulate the economy. The Census Bureau estimates that there were about 3% more workers in 2013 compared to 2012 in the city of Los Angeles.

  • Tanya, big problem in your assumption about 60 votes. Spoiler: they only need 51 votes in the Senate. Why? The filibuster can be scraped in full by new Senate rules in January.

  • Howard Wong, AIA

    Past bad decision-making has poisoned the funding well. Throwing money at bad transit projects, with poor new ridership gains, hasn’t exactly helped the cause of integrated public transit systems. In San Francisco, the Central Subway Project will cost over $1.6 billion for a short 1.3 mile route—with dismal new ridership gains—while taking $605 million of matching state/ local funds from greater transit needs. Now, developers and business interests are pushing for a northern subway extension—taking more funds from the rest of the City’s transit system. If nothing else, GOP control may force both parties to use cost-benefit criteria for funding allocations.

  • I don’t know what rules you’re talking about. The filibuster rules that took effect two years ago and only barely limited the use of the filibuster actually expire in January, and the “nuclear option” curtailment of the filibuster was only about presidential nominees. What are you referring to?

  • Bolwerk

    AIUI, the old rules stay in effect until the new ones are adopted, so I think the minority can still filibuster a rule change to eliminate the filibuster.

    Historically, anyway, Democrats are much less prone to (ab)using the filibuster. Of course, now that the Republikans used it so extensively to scuttle, well, everything, the Dems might escalate. However, there is probably little need for them to do so until and unless they are still in the Senate minority under a GOP presidency (so not until 2017, at the earliest).

  • Bolwerk

    Overall there are already pretty strict criteria for costs and ridership, and it seems to me many projects exceed ridership projections. Transit projects aren’t built willynilly like highway projects.

    Cost control might be a more legitimate issue, though it’s rarely put in perspective correctly. You get people comparing the results new land- and capital-intensive projects with ones that involve modest upgrades to existing lines and wondering why the former have fewer riders than the latter. (The infrastructurist view in reverse?) I agree San Francisco’s transit finances seem inordinately bad though.

  • joe student

    It might be reconciliation, where for budgets it only needs 51 votes..

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