Brakes Still on Transportation Bill

Disagreements over mass-transit funding and Keystone pipeline approval are among reasons a federal transportation bill remains stalled in Congress.Despite an undisputed need and the prospect of thousands of construction jobs, Congress continues to struggle with legislation that would unlock funding for highway, mass transit and bike projects across the nation.

Authorization for federal surface transportation projects expired the end of 2009. Congress is now working against a June 30 deadline of the ninth extension of that statute, known as SAFETEA-LU. 

A 47-member House-Senate conference committee, which includes Oregon Congressmen Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer and Washington Congresswoman Jamie Herrera Beutler, is only debating a 15-month reauthorization. Most of the "debate" is being handled so far by professional staffers and a handful of conservative House members, who have rained on the idea of any compromise.

Many wonder how transportation ended up in such a partisan stand-off. House Republicans attached an amendment to approve the Keystone oil pipeline. The Senate added language to create a competitive grant program to pay for downtown redevelopment, trails, bike lanes and sidewalks.

The pending reauthorization would establish a $1 billion fund to finance projects of national significance, such as the new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River. But even if the reauthorization manages to pass, Congress hasn't agreed on a revenue source for the mega-project fund. House GOP conservatives have voiced dissatisfaction that there is any funding in the bill.

Major interest groups are pressuring Congress to act, but there are mixed views inside Capitol Hill political caucuses. Some think it is better to extend the current transportation statute for the 10th time and angle for a much better bill in the next Congress. There are different views on what constitutes a better bill.

Part of the political problem is an unwillingness by either Republicans or Democrats to tackle the eroding effectiveness of a fuel tax, as vehicles become more efficient and there is a embryonic shift to hybrid or electric vehicles. Shifting to a mileage-based or congestion tax is fraught with issues, ranging from the heavier impact on rural residents and long-range commuters to privacy concerns over mileage tracking systems. One way or another, Congress will need to figure out how to pay the tab since the Federal Highway Trust Fund is anticipated to go broke sometime in 2013.

Sharply divided views exist on funding mass transit. That division was evidenced in Portland following the Federal Transit Administration announcement of a $745.2 million contribution to construct a Tri-Met light rail line extension from Portland State University to Milwaukie. The FTA award drew fire from John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute who said the rail line will cost more per mile than an express bus alternative, which would move passengers on the route faster.

Apart from political disagreements, a recent Princeton survey indicated 83 percent of Americans it surveyed favored funding to maintain and expand bike lanes, sidewalks and trails.