Could Transport Bill Inaction Hurt the White House’s Sustainability Push?

The White House’s lack of interest in passing a new long-term federal transportation bill before next spring at the earliest is common knowledge in Washington, but the Obama administration has paid little political price so far for its approach to the issue. That began to change today, thanks to two lawmakers on the House panel that controls the U.S. DOT’s purse strings.

picpic.pngReps. Tom Latham (R-IA), at right, and Steven LaTourette (R-OH). (Photo: AP)

During a hearing today on the White House sustainability effort, which aims to combine federal transport, housing, and environmental resources in support of walkable, transit-oriented local development, Reps. Tom Latham (R-IA) and Steven LaTourette (R-OH) questioned the wisdom of spending money and attention on new programs when the nation’s infrastructure funding shortfall remains unresolved.

"Unless you change the tax incentives from where they’ve been since the Second World War, [encouraging Americans] to live in single-family homes, you’re not going to be successful," LaTourette said. The giant mortgage guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, he noted, effectively require the continued popularity of suburban sprawl in order to keep the government’s investment in them viable.

If the White House would tackle the problem of the highway trust fund’s insolvency — which affects bike-ped and road repair projects — "I would not have a problem with" spending new money on sustainable development, added LaTourette. The Ohioan has vowed to "bring Republicans to the table" if the administration decides to pursue a new federal transport bill this year.

Latham, the senior GOP member of the House’s transportation appropriations panel, was more cutting in his criticism of federal involvement in local land-use practices.

Referring to a "crisis" in federal transportation financing, Latham marveled at the administration’s decision to focus on a "new boutique program" rather than crafting a replacement for the increasingly obsolete gas tax.

Roy Kienitz, the U.S. DOT’s undersecretary for policy, did not dispute the two Republicans’ assessment of a financing vacuum. "It was a great run for 45, 50 years, when you had a system whereby the amount of driving and gas people used grew along with the economy," Kienitz told the lawmakers. Now that relationship has unraveled, he explained, making the gas tax a poor revenue-raiser for transport projects.

But Kienitz had no answer for how the White House should solve the problem.

"The elephant in the room here is tax increases," he said. "I don’t see the politics for that right now." Instead, the former adviser to Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) suggested that Congress should see the economic recession as a reason to "innovate" its transportation and housing policies.

Criticism from minority-party members such as Latham and LaTourette ultimately could have little effect on the White House’ 2011 budget request of nearly $530 million for its sustainability work. The appropriations panel’s chairman, Rep. John Olver (D-MA), is a longtime champion of walkable development who secured $150 million for the effort last year.

"We’ve had a whole generation when we’ve spent to subsidize sprawl into the suburbs," Olver said today. "The time has long since passed for sustainability."

Still, coming on the heels of bipartisan rural skepticism of the White House’s move toward more competitive transport funding, the Republicans’ comments could portend more political blowback for the idea of a yearlong delay in drafting new long-term infrastructure legislation.


A Vow to ‘Bring Republicans to the Table’ for a New Transport Bill

Despite Senate Democratic efforts to move quickly on a new jobs bill that includes infrastructure investment and takes steps towards solving the nation’s transportation financing dilemma, Congress has just two more weeks of work until time runs out on the latest short-term extension of the five-year-old law governing federal transport policy. "We will bring Republicans […]

Senate Version of Wall Street Transportation Tax Coming Next Week

Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR) and Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) have officially unveiled their new bill taxing Wall Street transactions to pay for the next long-term transportation bill and other infrastructure needs, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) is poised to introduce the legislation next week in the upper chamber of Congress. Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Bernie […]

Lawmakers Reject House Starvation Levels For Transportation

A small but bipartisan group of lawmakers today sent a letter to the leaders of the House Transportation Committee, urging them to act quickly to pass a bill with adequate funding to meet the country’s needs — “higher than or at least equal to the current funding level.” Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Steven LaTourette (R-OH), […]

Rep. LaTourette Tells Transit Advocates to Ask Congress for What They Need

Transit officials spent the day on Capitol Hill yesterday, meeting with Congressional offices as part of the American Public Transportation Association’s legislative conference. Transportation Committee Chair John Mica suggested they ask members for a six-year bill. Secretary Ray LaHood urged them to ask for support for President Obama’s “big, bold vision” for transportation. Rep. Steve […]

LaHood Answers GOP Critic, Soothes Dem Skeptic of Sustainability Budget

As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood tangled with a senior GOP senator today over the White House’s $500 million-plus request for its inter-agency office of sustainable communities — a new project aimed at channeling federal energy towards local transit-oriented and smart growth plans — an influential Democrat joined her fellow senator in raising questions about diverting […]

Don’t Look Now, But the House Amtrak Bill Actually Has Some Good Ideas

Tomorrow, the House Transportation Committee will consider a bill that changes the nation’s policies on passenger rail. The proposal, while it includes some cuts, is a departure from the senseless vendetta many House Republicans have waged against Amtrak in the past. The National Association of Railroad Passengers, NARP, says the plan contains “commonsense regulatory and […]