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Obama Admin Will Make Its Transportation Push… During the Next Congress

6:33 PM EDT on September 28, 2010

President Obama is “going to throw his support behind a six-year reauthorization of the transportation program” in Congress. That was the word today from Roy Kienitz, who represented the Transportation Department today as he testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

In a meeting with transportation reform advocates last week, Secretary Ray LaHood indicated that the administration's proposal will drop early next year. Today Kienitz tipped his hat to the reform community in describing the goals the administration has in mind:

The first thing you have to do is name your goals if you want to make sure you’re pursuing them… Our strategic goals are pretty simple: economic competitiveness, safety, state of good repair of the existing system, environmental sustainability, and community livability.

Today's hearing was about financing, however, and Kienitz acknowledged that the path toward those lofty goals is a little complicated. But he did give some hints about what the administration's thinking. He said U.S. DOT is trying to foster a financing system that does a better job of matching the project to the need:

Some places they propose a transit investment, in some places we have to rebuild the bridges that already exist but configure it differently, whether it’s for bicycles, pedestrians, cars, or transit. Other places we need to invest in highway capacity – but that should be case by case. [emphasis added]

Kienitz also stood up for allocating funds without the constraint of formulas based on different modes of travel: “Right now… a highway dollar is only a highway dollar, and a transit dollar is only a transit dollar.” He said a project like Los Angeles' ambitious transit expansion requires more money with more flexibility.

So he's beating the drum for higher funding levels, and for finding a way to pay for it, and for doing it soon. “Given the economic situation right now,” he said, “it seems appropriate to frontload a significant share of that money, and we have suggested the first $50 billion to be made available as soon as possible.”

But “as soon as possible” looks to be at least four months away. Congress is already itching to get out of town, and leadership could adjourn the session as soon as tomorrow night. A lame-duck session after the election will deal with tax cut extensions and some other urgent matters. Big new initiatives like these will have to wait until the new Congress gets sworn in -- one that will have a much different look if Republicans make the gains they're hoping to make.

Listen to Kienitz's whole opening statement here.

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