Since the middle of 2009, when the previous six-year highway bill ended, federal transportation funding has been allocated by a series of temporary spending bills.
That process has frustrated state and local transportation leaders to no end, since the ad-hoc funding has made long-term difficult planning nearly impossible. As Congress crafts a new successor to that highway bill, the administration, key congressional leaders, and most transportation officials have made it clear: They want nothing short of a six-year bill this time.
But a growing chorus of leaders has suggested a two-year bill may be a better option.
While a six-year bill would provide more consistent funding for state and local governments, some have suggested that federal funding is so tight that a shorter, two-year bill would be a better option, since more funding could become available once the economy improves.
At a Senate hearing last month, Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper testified that a two-year bill might be a good choice. Sen. Max Baucus said the same thing.
"[I]f we can't find revenue to pay for a full six-year bill, it might be better to go for a shorter (bill), which is fully funded for at least those two years," Baucus said at the April 14 hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.
But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, questioned by reporters after an event at the Brookings Institution today, didn't address the prospects of a two-year bill.
"First I've heard of that," LaHood said when asked about Baucus's suggestion. "What we are going to do is work with Congress to get a bill."
LaHood also touted the administration's transportation budget, which calls for a six-year, $556 billion surface transportation bill but is viewed by most transportation experts as wildly optimistic given Congress's emphasis on reduced spending and deficit reduction. SAFETEA-LU, the previous six-year bill that expired in 2009, was initially funded at $286.4 billion.
Reporters asked LaHood where that extra funding would come from, but he didn't provide answers. "We've given [Congress] a very good plan," LaHood said. "When you look at the president's six-year plan, it's the biggest, boldest plan anybody can remember that a president has put out for transportation."
"It's up to Congress now ... to come up with their plan and do their debate. We've given them an extraordinary blueprint -- one that people haven't seen in a long time."
Interestingly, LaHood said that the administration's version of its transportation bill was distributed to Congressional lawmakers and their staffs within the last 10 days -- which would have been before an undated, leaked version
that the White House bill began circulating last week.
LaHood, when pressed by reporters for details, declined to release a copy of the draft. "It's with the people that it needs to be with -- the staff that are working on the bill," LaHood told reporters. "Go up there [to the Capitol] and look at it. You're free to do that, aren't you?"
Governing has requested a copy of the draft bill from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
The leaked draft called for a $300 million pilot program to test the feasibility of a vehicle miles traveled fee, a concept touted by transportation experts as a potential replacement to the gas tax. The White House distanced itself from that proposal, but LaHood spoke in even more unambiguous terms today.
"I'm not pushing for a VMT at all," LaHood told Governing. When asked whether the department would push for a VMT pilot program in the highway bill, LaHood reiterated his comments. "We are not for a VMT."