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In Search of a Sustainable Path for Transportation

There continues to be a great deal of activity, if little actual progress, in the efforts to reauthorize the nation’s highway, transit, and highway safety programs. Early last month, in an extraordinary demonstration of bipartisanship, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW), led by Chairman Barbara Boxer and Ranking Member James Inhofe, reported out a comprehensive highway portion of this bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), that received the votes of all 18 members of the Committee.

As the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) noted in a letter to Senators Boxer and Inhofe, MAP-21 proposed essential first steps toward establishing a performance-based transportation system, focused on goals, outcomes, and accountability, values for which NTPP has advocated for the last three years. The Senate surface transportation authorization bill, which would maintain current program funding levels, however, still lacks a funding or revenue, title.

More recently, a bipartisan group of Members in the House of Representatives has urged the president to support a long-term surface transportation authorization bill.  The letter acknowledged that such a bill “. . . will need to be paid-for” and promised to work with the Administration “. . . on a variety of funding options.”  Again, the revenue specifics are absent.  Certainly, these Members of Congress did not call for an increase in the federal gasoline tax, the most evident, if politically fraught, way to pay for a long-term authorization of federal surface transportation programs at current, let alone increased, funding levels.  

Although House Speaker Boehner has suggested that a long-term surface transportation bill at current program levels could be paid for by revenues for a broad expansion of domestic drilling for oil and gas, the specifics of this plan remain unknown.

As the House leadership has now indicated that consideration of this legislation will not occur, until early in 2012, the prospects for enactment remain very uncertain.  Moreover, two fundamental issues remain unresolved – first, the scope of the national interest in surface transportation and, second, sustainable funding to support such a program.  MAP-21 begins to address some fundamental issues, but does not yet resolve the “sustainable funding” conundrum.  So far, the House of Representatives remains silent on both of these fundamental issues.  

This week, NTPP will be holding a workshop on the first of these fundamental questions, that is, the scope of the national interest in transportation, consistent with the recommendations that it has made over the last few years.  We continue to be hopeful that Congress will enact legislation before the most recent extension of the current legislative authority (SAFETEA-LU) expires at the end of March 2012, legislation that will, at least, propose some important first steps, in resolving these fundamental questions of public policy.

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