An unbridgeable divide?

The great partisan gulf that separates Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill is so yawning that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood this week publicly stated that, in his opinion, it is "very unlikely" that passage of a highway reauthorization bill will occur during the current session of Congress.

As reported by Ken Orski in his latest transportation-related Innovation NewsBrief, in Sec. LaHood's view, the differences between the House and the Senate are too great to be resolved in the polarized pre-election climate of the next ten months.


Rep. John Mica is riding herd on the highway bill in the House.

According to Orski, those differences include the insistence of Rep. John L. Mica (R-FL), Chair of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, on a five-year bill vs. the Senate’s equal determination to proceed with a two-year bill.

On top of that, there's a House proposal to fund the bill partly with royalties from increased off-shore oil and gas drilling— a proposal that would find little if any support from Senate Democrats. Yet another roadblock is the lack of specifics offered by the House as to where the drilling would take place, how much revenue it would produce, and when that revenue would become available.

Orski said Sec. LaHood's "overtly expressed pessimism" took many by surprise in the standing-rooom only audience at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington on January 25--- "especially since in recent days there have been some encouraging signs of progress coming from Capitol Hill."

According to Orski, those signs include Chairman Mica’s announcement that he has set the date of February 2 for the committee mark-up of the House reauthorization proposal (now called The American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act); and the as yet unconfirmed report that the Senate Finance Committee has reached a bipartisan agreement on how to provide the $13 billion in offsets needed to fully fund the Senate version of the bill. "To many people," Orski noted, "these developments looked like Congress is finally poised to act."

On the other hand, "Sec. LaHood’s sober outlook for the future was shared by many of his colleagues. Joining him on the podium were former Secretaries Alan Boyd (1967-69); James Burnley IV (1987-89); Samuel Skinner (1989-91); Andrew Card (1992-93); and Rodney Slater (1997-2001). Invited but not present were William Coleman (1975-77) and Norman Mineta (2001-06)."

"These will be difficult times for funding," said Sec. Skinner: "Traditional ways aren’t working any more." "I am hopeful but I am very concerned," said Sec. Boyd. Sec. Burnley thought the Highway Trust Fund has "collapsed:" "Do we resurrect it, replace it with something else or devolve funding to the states?" Sec. Card expressed the dilemma facing policymakers in terms of "needs" vs. "wants." We often justify "wants" by calling them "needs," he said. Faced with current funding constraints, we may have to apply a stricter standard of "needs." States and localities must be involved in this debate because local perceptions of "wants" and "needs" may differ from those entertained inside the Beltway."

Orksi went on to reasonably argue in his piece that "Perhaps the President’s State of the Union message the night before had something to do with the diminished expectations of the distinguished speakers."

He pointed out that unlike on previous occassions, the President "made only a casual reference to 'repairing America’s infrastructure' followed by a vague proposal to use half of the money 'we’re no longer spending at do some nation-building right here at home.' High-speed rail, trumpeted in the past as the President’s 'signature' initiative, failed to earn even a single mention. Nor was the National Infrastructure Bank, another past favorite, mentioned by the President."

Certainly, the President not mentioning even a single specific infrastructure initiative in such a singular speech says loud and clear that his priorities lie elsewhere in this already tumultous election year.

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