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.

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