When U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican, recently called the House transportation bill the worst such measure he's seen in 35 years of public service, he was being kind. Surely, it's among the worst, most cynically partisan bills to ever threaten U.S. highway and transit infrastructure in all of recorded history.
That's because the serious business of building and maintaining roads, bridges, rail systems and other vital transportation assets is usually among the most bipartisan of Congressional actions. Every community requires such spending whether it's rural, a small town or a big city. Decaying bridges are a danger, and without transit, cities would not function.
But it's clear House Republicans have decided to ignore precedent, and the result has been an absolute mess. As introduced earlier this month, the $260 billion American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act would strip public transportation of its gas tax funding and pour it all into highways, open up protected lands to oil and gas drilling, and roll back contributions to federal employee pensions.
When it became clear that wasn't going to fly, House Speaker John Boehner broke it up into three components, won approval for the drilling and pension changes but pulled back the transportation bill for lack of support. Even so, the measure — HR7 — is expected to land this week on the floor, where it faces some 300 possible amendments.
Even by Congressional standards, this is heavy-handed stuff. The Senate's version of the transportation bill, a more conventional two-year, $109 billion program, has won support from both Democrats and Republicans and is nothing like the House monstrosity. It, too, is soon headed to floor debate.
Even if the House chooses not to gut the nation's transit program, Mr. Boehner and others in the Republican leadership are still pressing to tie future transportation funding to highly speculative domestic oil and gas drilling. They would also require approval of the Keystone XL pipeline — just another sign that politics, not policy, is driving this transportation bill off the veritable bridge to nowhere.
But wait, there's a lot more. The House would eliminate the federal bridge repair program and leave the country's 69,000 deficient bridges up to states and local governments. The plan diverts money that's supposed to be used to improve air quality into road construction (hardly the way to reduce emissions) and even sets new rules on local agencies that provide bus and rail service that experts say will only increase government bureaucracy and waste.
What's particularly distressing about the House's irresponsible proposal is that rarely has the country been in greater need of transportation investment. The federal Highway Trust Fund is running on empty because the federal gas tax hasn't been increased since 1993. Had the tax just been allowed to keep up with inflation since it was created in the 1950s, it would be 7 cents higher than the current 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline.
Admittedly, the Obama administration has failed to show much leadership in this arena. The president's $476 billion, six-year transportation reauthorization included in its Fiscal 2013 budget proposes a level of spending that's appropriately high but unlikely to win Congressional approval. Worse, the administration wants to finance much of it through savings from reduced military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, an uncertain funding source at best.
Polls show Americans hate the gas tax, and clearly, nobody in Washington is brave enough to even suggest raising it. Yet this failure to maintain adequate roads and transit is going to cost consumers as much as rising gasoline prices. As the nation's economy picks up speed, traffic won't. And getting stuck in gridlock while burning $4-a-gallon gasoline will be costly, as will be the time wasted and all the risks to human life posed by unsafe roads (not mention higher repair, insurance and maintenance costs).
Something close to the Senate bill — a short-term patch — is probably the most the nation can expect, at least until Congress and the White House craft a more serious solution to the nation's worsening transportation woes. The motoring public should be at least as outraged by this failure to craft a long-term transportation policy (something well within the grasp of Congress) than upset by prices at the pump which, in a global energy market, are largely out of Washington's control.