Foresight isn't one of the strengths of our federal government. Our legislators spend most of their time trying to put out fires rather than planning to prevent future ones. So it was encouraging to hear the new Sec. of Transportation, Mary Peters, say recently that it's time to “get busy” planning for the next highway reauthorization bill due in 2009.
Why worry about something that won't be voted on for another three years? The first reason is to avoid the embarrassing paralysis that caused the last highway bill to be two years late and required 10 emergency extensions from Congress to keep highway funds from drying up. Federal spending plans for all transportation infrastructure projects must be reauthorized by Congress every six years. The $286-billion bill passed late last year was due in 2003, but lack of any true national transportation strategy, combined with the usual local pork-barrel projects traditionally attached to the highway fund authorization, created legislative gridlock for two years.
As expensive as the last bill was, it didn't face up to the most pressing problem for our national transportation infrastructure — the growing economic impact of congestion. Trucking and other motorists continue to contribute heavily to Federal highway funds through fuel taxes, but Congress once again avoided the difficult issue of how those funds are spent today and how they need to be spent in the future to address congestion problems.
Sec. Peters says that now, not two years from now, is the time to start asking questions about how we want to invest in transportation. With the next highway reauthorization bill, she said during a recent press conference, “We have the opportunity to take a board look at our surface transportation needs.” Better still, Sec. Peters said she will “make sure that freight is at the table when we're conducting transportation planning” because “we need to have a [transportation] system that supports freight movement.”
Encouraging words, for sure, but turning them into a plan that makes it through Congress in 2009 is going to be extremely difficult. As a budget appropriation, the highway spending bill is sent by the President to Congress, usually based on recommendations from DOT. On a dual track, the Senate and House appropriations committees also come up with their own spending plans. They are expected to begin work on those plans during the 2008 session.
However, we have Presidential elections at the end of 2008, which means when the bill is due there will be a new President, one who will probably have his or her own ideas about such an enormous budget item. Perhaps more importantly, we have just had a shift in power in Congress, and it's a good bet that the next two years will be largely spent by both parties trying to solidify that new majority or unseat it in the 2008 elections. Neither factor bodes well for any radical or visionary change in future highway investment. Rather, it creates an environment for even more local pork projects and special-interest lobbying.
That's too bad, because the stakes are high. Efficient freight movement is a basic requirement for a healthy economy. If we lose this opportunity to take meaningful action on congestion, trucking won't be the only loser.
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