One of the first actions by the new Republican-led House last week was to pass a set of procedural rules that take transportation funding out of the realm of long-term planning and subject it to the whims of yearly budget negotiations, reversing a policy in place since 1998.
Until last week’s vote, House rules required that annual budgets provide the Highway Trust Fund (which pays for roads, transit, and biking and walking projects) with at least the funding levels guaranteed through the multi-year federal transportation authorization bill. The rule change now allows the House to set highway and transit funding levels below the level authorized in SAFETEA-LU, the current bill.
As Tanya Snyder at Streetsblog Capitol Hill points out, the rule change also limits funding only to those programs authorized by the transportation bill, jeopardizing funding for innovative programs like TIGER and the livability grants authorized under the 2009 stimulus bill.
What are the current federal transportation spending levels?
Without any agreement from Washington D.C. on how to pay for the next multi-year transportation bill, Congress and President Obama continue to rely on temporary extensions of SAFETEA-LU, which expires again on March 4, 2011. SAFETEA-LU authorizes roughly $50 billion a year for transportation ($38B for highways and $7B for transit, with the rest paying for aviation, maritime, water infrastructure, etc.) but the Highway Trust Fund now receives only about $35 billion a year from the 18.4 cents/gallon gas tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1993.
In recent years, Congress has relied on general fund transfers to meet the $10-15 billion yearly Highway Trust Fund shortfall. Under the new rules, it doesn’t have to.
How will the new House rule impact transportation funding going forward?
The new House majority, including new House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair, Rep. Mica (R-FL), has made clear its intention to address the country’s accelerating critical infrastructure needs by limiting spending to “what we can afford.” Cutting transportation spending back to match gas tax revenues would amount to a cut of about 30% from the transportation program. Even though the Senate could challenge such cuts, the new rule would allow House appropriators to enter budget negotiations with significantly lower funding for transportation.
Transportation for America also points out that subjecting federal transportation spending to the annual appropriations process will make it less predictable and in turn make project implementation at the state and local level more difficult.
The rules change passed over strong opposition from transportation powerhouses like AASHTO, American Road & Transportation Builders Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and also the American Public Transportation Association and the National League of Cities. Many of these are “road gang”-type groups generally opposed to reform. In theory, the call for fiscal austerity presents an opportunity for transportation reformers, who have been calling for greater scrutiny of federal spending to ensure the public is getting the biggest bang for the buck. With less money to go around, lawmakers should ask, “what have we been getting, and what do we want to achieve, with our country’s transportation investments?”
As MTR readers know, the backlog of our region’s roads, bridges, transit and safety needs is accelerating beyond the political will currently available to confront these challenges at both the state and national level. However, as bloggers like Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic suggest, the conservatism in the 112th Congress may simply target transit and livability projects rather than lead to a real examination of how transportation dollars are spent.