transportation funding

Divided Government Could Lead to Infrastructure Collaboration

There has been lots of talk and even more anticipation over the last two years of a mammoth infrastructure initiative. The ascendancy of Democrats in control of the House will put Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio back in charge of the committee that deals with transportation and infrastructure. He wants a $500 billion package with “real money” sewed up in the first six months of 2019.

There has been lots of talk and even more anticipation over the last two years of a mammoth infrastructure initiative. The ascendancy of Democrats in control of the House will put Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio back in charge of the committee that deals with transportation and infrastructure. He wants a $500 billion package with “real money” sewed up in the first six months of 2019.

Infrastructure investment is one of the most promising areas of bipartisan collaboration in the new Congress. Oregon Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio is poised to explore the boundaries of that possibility.

With the Democratic takeover of the House, DeFazio is expected to assume the chairmanship of the House Transportation and infrastructure Committee. In that pending role, DeFazio is touting a $500 billion measure to fund highways, transit, airports and marine projects.

Unlike President Trump’s $1.5 billion infrastructure initiative that relied heavily on private investment, DeFazio is contemplating a measure backed by actual federal funding. Under DeFazio’s plan, Treasury would issue $500 billion in a new type of 30-year bonds that would be repaid by increased federal gasoline and diesel taxes to account for highway construction cost inflation and from lower fuel usage because of federal fuel-economy standards.

In 2017, the 30+year veteran on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced a “Penny for Progress” bill that would pay for a $500 billion infrastructure package over 13 years. DeFazio says he isn’t wedded to that idea, but insists he wants to move an infrastructure investment bill before the middle of 2019. “I’m open to any and all options on how we get real funds for infrastructure. But it has to be real money.”

“Infrastructure has been delayed too long,” DeFazio says. “We’ve got to get it done. We’ve got to maintain it. We’ve got to modernize it and we’ve got to move people and goods more efficiently.”

DeFazio suggests airport improvements could be paid for by an increased passenger facility charge. The charge has been pegged at $4.50 per flight since 2000. He wants Congress to mandate spending the balance that exists in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to maintain harbors and shipping channels.

There has been a lot of post-election commentary favoring bipartisan collaboration. Infrastructure investment has the support of mainstream Republicans and Trump, so could be an early test case for finding common ground to pass meaningful legislation in a divided government.

Congressman Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican who could become the Ranking Member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has expressed interest in “presenting my vision for our transportation network” and might emerge as a partner to DeFazio in fashioning bipartisan legislation.

A wide array of transportation advocacy groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, have applauded the idea of a bipartisan infrastructure measure and federal funding to pay for it. 

“We see this as good timing if Congress and the President can come together,” said Bill Sullivan, American Trucking Association’s executive vice president of advocacy. “Everybody knows that we need to invest in infrastructure, but they just haven’t hit that magic moment that Congress is willing to do it.” Maybe that time has arrived.

DeFazio’s position should be the good break needed to revive conversations to replace the I-5 Columbia River Bridge as part of the 2020 reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Act, which his committee will oversee.

Just Don't Call It an Earmark

"What's in it for me?"  That's been the time-honored question asked for centuries by politicians in the midst of heated negotiations.

Up until the last four years, one direct incentive Congressional leaders could use to cajole extra votes came in the form of earmarks. Members fought for and secured earmark dollars for local transportation and water projects, university research and economic development to address the needs of their district and solve local challenges.

The practice of earmarking also ensured federal resources were distributed across the country — from small rural communities to big metropolitan cities. Using earmarks as an incentive to support broader legislative compromise, congressional leaders could grease the gears to move legislative packages that weren't perfect but kept the government trains moving on time. It's a process that worked for decades. 

After the GOP wave election of 2010, the practice of earmarking came to an end.  Many new House GOP Members ran on a platform of eliminating wasteful spending — with earmark spending first and foremost in their crosshairs.

One unintended consequence many Republicans failed to aniticipate was how eliminating earmarks would change the balance of power in DC.  With earmarks gone, all grant funding decisions would reside solely with the Obama Administration, a realization that deeply annoys the most conservative Republicans. 

One pro-earmark Republican who saw this coming is Conservative Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe. Here's what Inhofe recently wrote in a May 17 op-ed in the Tulsa World:

"What I warned America in late 2010 is proving true today: Eliminating earmarks has not saved taxpayers one dime. Instead our debt has increased by $4 trillion, and Congress is giving specified amounts of taxpayer dollars to the president so that he can spend it as he and his unelected bureaucrats so please. Republicans’ decision to cede power to the president through the earmark moratorium has made Congress less accountable, less transparent, and less responsible to its constituents."   

How About Congressional Oversight? 

It's taken some time, but after four years Congress is starting to develop ways to exercise renewed influence over the spending process. Two bills attracting overwhelming bipartisan support will require more congressional input and oversight over grant project selection. It's no surprise the two bills are infrastructure measures that typically would have been flooded with earmarks — the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and the Transportation Reauthorization bill.

WRDA will be the first bill since the earmark ban to establish a creative process for project approvals through congressional review. The legislation is expected to pass this week. Here's how it is supposed to work: 

Road Congestion and Political Gridlock

The cost of congestion continues to rise, but not enough apparently to break political gridlock on how to modernize, expand and diversify the nation's aging transportation system.A new report says bumper-to-bumper congestion on American roads and highways cost the economy $121 billion in 2011 in lost hours of work and wasted fuel. The cost of congestion is predicted to rise to almost $200 billion by 2020.

The report says Portland has the sixth worst commutes in the country, resulting from a relatively small, circular freeway system that bunches up traffic, especially when there are multiple accidents or bad weather conditions. Portlanders drive fewer miles, one of the report authors says, but travel times can be unreliable and often stressful.

Meanwhile, political gridlock in the nation's capital and many state legislatures is blocking measures to invest in roads and bridges. Roll Call's John Boyd reports President Obama backed off his call for new money for transportation in negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff. Senators from both political parties, Boyd adds, flirted with a transportation funding package in the lame duck session last year, but gave up.

While motorists dislike congestion, they appear to hate proposals to raise the gas tax, switch to a mileage-based fee, resort to toll-ways or pay in some manner for road use if they drive an alternative fuel vehicle. An sudden, sharp jump in gas prices in the last two weeks hasn't made motorists less grumpy.

Brakes Still on Transportation Bill

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.