Sunday, June 28, 2009

Transportation reform to the back burner?

You may wonder why it's taken me so long to comment on the new transportation bill in Congress. The reason is that Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood's statement was so out of sync with what I had heard House Transportation Chairman James Oberstar say when I was at the National Bicycle Summit. That disconnect needed some serious background, or a full-court press of reading and reporting, to understand. Now comes Colby Itkowitz with an insightful report in Congressional Quarterly that clears up many of my questions. I am grateful for the information but dismayed by what it is.

Oberstar, of course, has been a hero to the alternative transportation community because has tried to move pedestrian, bicycle and public transportation higher in national priorities. For about 60 years, ever since postwar suburbs and the interstate highway system appeared on the map, roads and motor cars have been the prime and central priorities for transportation policy and planning. It's Oberstar's dream to redirect federal dollars toward neglected policy objectives rather than merely dividing the Highway Trust Fund pro rata among the states. And I had thought, when I heard LaHood speak at the summit, that he and Oberstar agreed more than not. Well, I was wrong.

As Itkowitz put it in the CQ article linked above, the Obama administration cut Oberstar's legs out from under him. Rather than the comprehensive transportation reform the chairman wanted, the White House is going for a quick reauthorization, putting off reform until 2011 or later. The Highway Trust Fund is running out of money, you see, because fuel tax receipts plunged last summer as Americans cut back on driving. Imagine the alarm the plunging trust fund numbers must inspire among thousands of well-connected highway contractors around the country.

It may well be that the best Oberstar can achieve this year will be improvements at the margin of federal policy. We'll need to read carefully and be especially attentive to how our members of Congress vote.

For the full text of the 775-page bill, click here. This is the Oberstar version. I expect many attempted amendments.

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