Obama's Transportation Budget Unlikely to Gain Traction

The president has an ambitious proposal that probably won't be considered seriously by Congress.
by | February 13, 2012

As both chambers of Congress this week debate their respective highway and transit bills, President Barack Obama proposed his own version that many have already declared a non-starter in Congress.

In his budget request, the president calls for a six-year, $476 billion surface transportation re-authorization bill. The legislation funds much of the country's transportation infrastructure -- namely highways and transit -- and is critical to state and local governments who rely on it to get federal aid for their own projects.

But the previous authorization expired more than two years ago, and Congress has only been passing temporary extensions since then, causing frustration among state and local leaders who say that system has introduced much uncertainty into their budgets.

Each chamber of Congress has spent the last year working on re-authorization bills and could vote on them this week. But the spending in Obama's proposal -- more than $79 million annually -- vastly exceeds either version in the House and Senate.

Both chambers have struggled to craft their own legislation due to questions of how to fund it.

It was the second time Obama has proposed a surface re-authorization that was vastly greater than what most in Congress have discussed. Last year’s White House budget called for a six-year, $556 billion surface transportation bill.

“It’s kind of hard to take this kind of stuff seriously anymore,” said Joshua Schank, head of the transportation policy think tank Eno Center for Transportation. “It’s more than anybody can realistically think is possible to get through Congress.”

The proposal calls for funding the spending increases with war savings, known as a “peace dividend.” Some critics have suggested that’s an accounting gimmick, since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were never intended to continue indefinitely, but on a conference call with reporters, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said it's "real, substantial dollars."

Additionally, the proposal calls for an extra $50 billion for roads, bridges transit and rail – a sort of mini-stimulus. President Obama made a similar call last year as part of his American Jobs Act.

The president has also pitched another previously-unsuccessful proposal: billions of dollars for high-speed rail as part of his goal of providing 80 percent of Americans with access to such a system within 25 years.  He’s advocating for $2.7 billion in 2013 and $47 billion over six years for high speed rail. That funding was eliminated in November.

The budget reduces airport grants by $926 million to $2.4 billion and eliminates guaranteed funding for large- and medium-hub airports. The hope is to empower those facilities to have more means of generating funding on their own.

Some observers say that the transportation budget's rhetoric, which focuses on job creation, is simply designed to bolster the president's image in an election year.

"I think the motivation is more political than for a genuine transportation bill," said Ken Orski, a former transportation official under President Nixon and President Ford who now publishes a transportation newsletter. "[T]hey must know this will not go anywhere in the House, and maybe not even in the Senate."

Administration officials say they're serious about the large-scale investment. "There is nothing fiscally disciplined about deferred maintenance," said Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, during a press briefing Monday. With high unemployment in the construction sector and low interest rates, the administration reasons, it makes economic sense to pump money into infrastructure projects right now.

Officials with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials had a measured response to the budget. "[H]is budget again sounds the theme that this is the way that creates jobs," said AASHTO executive director John Horsley. "I think he's in our corner."

But some have suggested that the president shouldn’t even be addressing transportation at all. Last week, after Obama expressed his support for the Senate's surface transportation bill, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he wished the president had kept his mouth shut. "While I appreciate President Obama's support for our highway bill, I must reiterate that this bill has enjoyed bipartisan success precisely because the president has stayed out of it."

“Whenever the President gets involved in transportation infrastructure, he turns it into a partisan, political issue,” he added.

Schank, who worked as a transportation policy adviser to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton during development of the last surface transportation authorization, says the Obama administration is marginalizing the role it can play in the transportation discussion by being unrealistic.

“This is going to be seen as largely irrelevant,” Schank says of the budget. “They’re not coming out and saying 'Here’s how we can influence the debate in a positive way.’ They’re just out of the debate, for better or for worse.”

The president's budget does not call for an increase in gas taxes which many transportation advocates believe is the only way to continue to have a steady and adequate stream of funds for highway and transit projects.

“It’s a very ambitious program – that’s good – but with really no reference to how it’s going to be paid for,” says Emil Frankel, a former assistant secretary for transportation policy under President George W. Bush. He says that lawmakers should increase the resources available to fund the transportation program, or craft one that’s within its means.

LaHood was more upbeat about the proposal’s outlook, arguing that since neither the House nor the Senate has passed its surface authorization bills, the president’s proposal remains in play. “We’re all at the starting gate,” LaHood said. “Nobody’s ahead of anybody else."


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