Better late than never: Transportation infrastructure

Everyone agrees that this country's transportation infrastructure needs help. Our highway system in particular has been overused, underfunded and ignored for so long that it now threatens future economic growth. We're struggling with a patchwork of construction and repair programs driven by lobbying pressures rather than any rational strategy that considers transportation an interlocking system. Every

Everyone agrees that this country's transportation infrastructure needs help. Our highway system in particular has been overused, underfunded and ignored for so long that it now threatens future economic growth. We're struggling with a patchwork of construction and repair programs driven by lobbying pressures rather than any rational strategy that considers transportation an interlocking system.

Every six years we get a shot at bringing some intelligence to this problem when Congress turns its attention to the legislation required to authorize Federal surface transportation spending and regulation. Known informally as the Highway Reauthorization Bill, the current version expires at the end of next month.

In the past, that intelligence has been in short supply. Instead, the process of passing reauthorization legislation can charitably be described as a chaotic mess. They've also historically been late, often years late, with temporary bills used to limp along until Congress could finally hammer out the reauthorization.

So now we face the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 with a deadline, at least in theory, less than 60 days away. Just to complicate things, we also have sides lining up behind two very different approaches.

First we have President Obama and his Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood. They want an 18-month extension of the current bill, which they say will give Congress and the Administration time to develop what some have called “a transformational transportation bill.” The Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, chaired by Barbara Boxer (D-CA), has also approved the extension by a vote of 18-1.

However, Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN) says, “Delay is unacceptable.” And as the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, his opinion carries some weight. He wants a full six-year reauthorization act and has outlined his ideas on what it should look like. A number of important lobbying groups, including the American Trucking Assns., have also indicated that they have concerns about the extension approach.

With the President, DOT and key senators favoring quick passage of the 18-month extension, my money is on the punt approach. While it might delay some safety and infrastructure programs, it's not such a bad idea. Again, at least in theory.

Eighteen months should give Congress and the Administration time to develop a true infrastructure plan, one that over the six-year life of the act could make real progress in creating a rational transportation network where each mode complements rather than competes with the others.

My worry, though, is that instead of developing a well-considered plan, the parties involved will turn their attention to much more immediate concerns, and 16 months from now we'll again be talking about how to put a reauthorization bill together in 60 days.

One solution is to create a high-level panel with representatives from all interested parties right now and give them a year to come up with the outlines of a true reauthorization bill. I'm sure it would be messy and noisy, but it might actually result in that transformational transportation plan everyone says we need.

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