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Fate of Transportation Funding Tied to Super Committee?

There suddenly seems to be an up-surge in activity on a new surface transportation authorization bill.  The authority for the federal surface transportation programs, SAFETEA-LU, enacted in 2005, expired on September 30, 2009, and we are now in the eighth extension of this act (the latest extension will expire on March 31, 2012).  The key authorizing committees in both houses of Congress, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T & I)  and the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW), which has responsibility for the highway programs, seem to be moving toward marking-up committee bills. 

However, there is no clear indication of how these programs will be fully funded, and there remains disagreement about the length of the two proposals.  T & I Republican Chair John Mica has spoken about a six-year bill at the level of current revenues, which is about 30 percent lower than current program authorities.  The chair of EPW, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, and the Ranking Republican, James Inhofe, have spoken of a two-year bill at current program levels, but additional revenues would have to be identified to meet these levels.  There is no indication that the Senate Finance Committee has found the additional resources for even a two-year bill.

So, will there really be forward movement? And can we expect that the two Houses of Congress and the two parties can reach agreement in the next six months or so about the size, scope, and length of a new authorization bill? The key answer to that question revolves around money, that is, funding for the bill, whether a two-year, or a six-year, bill. The general view of the panelists at BPC’s recent Bridge-Builder Breakfast on investing in transportation in times of austerity, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, former Senator Slade Gorton of Washington and co-chair of NTPP, Dr. Alice Rivlin, Co-Chair of BPC’s Debt Reduction Task Force, and Matt Rose, CEO of BNSF and member of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, was that it is hard to imagine that sources of funding for surface transportation would be resolved until the Joint Select Committee, addressing the deficit and debt, has completed its work. For example, there have been suggestions from Speaker Boehner that funding for the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) might come from royalties on new domestic sources of oil drilling. Is this realistic? And if the Republican House leadership is open to other revenue sources from the oil industry, such as reversing some of the industry’s existing tax benefits, would the Joint Committee allow this money to be dedicated to HTF, rather than be used for deficit reduction?

Of equal importance to BPC’s Transportation Policy Project, and discussed at some length by the panel at the recent Bridge-Builder Breakfast was whether the Senate and/or House versions of a new surface transportation authorization bill will contain real programmatic reforms and the emphasis on goals, outcomes, performance, and accountability for which NTPP has advocated, since its June 2009 report. NTPP has played an important role, in changing the terms of the debate over national transportation policy, but will the Committees’ bills take important and substantive steps in the direction of these reforms.

Finally, all the panelists urged that transportation be funded from user charges, in a form and at a level that will have users bear the real costs of reconstructing and operating the system and to influence how the system is used. The outlook for a beginning in such a transformation in transportation funding also remains uncertain, as House and Senate apparently appear ready to take the next steps, in considering a new bill.

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