TCS Daily

The Road Less Traveled

By Darren Smith - July 26, 2004 12:00 AM

The six-year authorization of federal transportation dollars called "TEA-21" (The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century) expired nearly nine months ago, and there still is no replacement in sight. House and Senate negotiators (75 of them, more than for any other conference committee in history) are currently trying to hammer out the disparities between two different versions of a new six-year authorization plan passed several weeks ago. "Trying" is something of an overstatement, however, as Republican leaders have thus far been able to agree on only one thing: continuing to delay the bill until they can figure out some way of dealing with it (to be fair, they also have reached agreement on whether or not to use gender-neutral pronouns when making reference in the bill to the Secretary of Transportation). But these delays may result in the passing up of a key opportunity for Republicans to shape the next six years of transportation appropriations in a way that could significantly improve American transportation systems and limit the burden of those systems on the federal budget.

The transportation authorization bill is unique in its six-year guidance of federal transportation spending for a reason. State and local governments complained that the uncertainty of an annual authorization process hindered the efficient completion of multi-year transportation projects -- agencies were reluctant to begin long-term projects with the fear that the stream of federal dollars might be cut off half-way through on a congressional whim. While the federal transportation money is still appropriated in the budget on an annual basis, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) passed in 1991 began a cycle of six-year authorizations which include specific allocations for long-term transportation projects and breakdowns of federal gas tax revenues, reducing the uncertainty for state and local governments. These long-term authorization bills thus present an opportunity for the party in power to go a long way toward shaping the makeup of transportation expenditures for more than half a decade forward. But a reauthorization delay as extended as this one starts to nullify the gains in predictability for state and local governments affected by the initiation of the six-year authorization scheme.

The reason behind the delay is a familiar one for this Congress -- an unwillingness on the part of individual members and party leaders on both sides of the aisle to give up the pork with which both versions of the bill are laden, coupled with a desire by the administration to rein in non-military spending. In the absence of creative solutions, appropriation discussions often digress to disagreements about total funding levels, and that is exactly the case here. The Senate, House, and administration ideas for this bill are remarkably similar in structure, but the Senate version calls for a total of $318 billion (S. 1072), the House version outlays $275 billion (H.R. 3550), and the administration wants to hold the line at $256 billion and has so far been unwilling to budge from that number. The administration has had limited success in controlling the size of other discretionary congressional appropriations, but the transportation bill seems to be the chosen battle.

The political calculations are a little different for a bill that doesn't get the press coverage that other appropriations do, and where those supporting greater expenditures (AAA, land developers, etc.) are for the most part solidly in the Republican camp. The electoral risk is not as great. Thus, with the administration taking a hard line, Republican conferees face a tough choice: giving up the pork in this bill they have pretty much succeeded in reserving for themselves and their friends, or setting up what could be a drawn-out battle with a Republican administration late in an election year. Because of this, many observers believe that Republican leadership will continue to stall, passing yet another extension of the previous authorization that will last through the election. They run the risk that in January 2005, Republicans may no longer hold the White House or have as tight a grip on Congress, but it seems to be a risk they are willing to take in order to avoid public conflict with the administration in this election year.

The great shame in all of this is that lost in all the talk about the total price tag is the fact that this bill at this juncture presents an opportunity for significant positive change in the way federal transportation dollars are spent, an opportunity we will not see again for at least another six years. At a time when Americans are expressing increasing dissatisfaction with the transportation systems by which they are served, when the frustration drivers experience sitting on gridlocked highways is compounded by the knowledge they are burning gasoline, there is public support for at least a limited amount of experimentation with transportation systems. Republicans need to make sure that this experimentation, which is becoming more and more inevitable, takes a conservative face.

This could, and should, include the re-forming of Amtrak into solvent, privately-run regional high-speed rail systems that reduce the need for government subsidy. It could, and should, include taking a serious look at ways in which transportation systems can make more use of market forces (especially through use of congestion pricing schemes), so that resources can be allocated more efficiently, and individual transportation behaviors become more efficient because transportation costs are more fairly distributed. It even could, and should, include a wholesale reconsideration of the federal government's role in heavily subsidizing a highway system that is but one of many modes in a national transportation system that must be modally diverse in order to be efficient and secure.

Rather than taking advantage of this opportunity to reshape federal transportation spending, Republican leaders in Congress have chosen instead to try to appease their constituents with pet projects, and tried to cut the few innovative programs that are already a part of the federal transportation spending picture (like the Transportation Enhancements program) so that they have even more money to throw in the pork barrel.

Democratic members have been happy to play along, so long as they get some of their own pet projects included in the bill while still getting an opportunity to complain about the "unprecedented partisan climate" on the Hill that keeps them on the sidelines, a vantage point from where they can sit back and enjoy watching how this Republican Congressional Leadership vs. Bush Administration tug-of-war will play out.

It is, as always, a question of political will, and part of the problem is that conservatives have been to slow to realize the extent to which federal transportation spending practices have skewed the dynamics of the market in which individual transportation choices are made, and how this distortion has led to the loss of some things many conservatives hold dear, like the traditional American neighborhood where children can get around safely without needing a ride in a car, and the existence of a modally diverse network for shipping freight that ensures the smooth operation of our economy. Federal transportation spending choices have almost as much of an effect on American land use patterns as the federal subsidizing of homeownership through the tax code, and those land use patterns in turn dictate transportation costs for individuals who may as a result not be able to live close to their places of employment or choose from different transportation alternatives with different potential costs.

Liberal activists are already plotting how they might reshape this bill should it still be on the table in 2005 and should the political landscape have shifted by then. The result could easily be a reauthorization bill that is even more inclined to try to solve transportation problems in the traditional liberal manner -- throwing more money at them -- without any improvement to the market dynamics of our transportation system. For conservatives waiting for something, anything, to check the ever-increasing chunk of transportation dollars in the federal budget and reverse the lack of fresh, market-based thought on transportation spending at all levels of government, the squabbling between Republican congressional leadership and the Bush administration and the corresponding failure to address any real transportation problems should be looked at as a giant missed opportunity.


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