Phantom Revenue

There’s been a lot of handwringing in Washington over the seeming end of the happy era of nonpartisanship in transportation matters. Issues once decided in collegial agreement, the lament goes, now inexplicably are part of the bloody ideological combat that’s come to Congress.

But all sides put their cards on the table in the past month, and it looks from here that tax-and-spend Democrats and Tea Party-paralyzed Republicans actually are in some kind of rough agreement, although it’s hardly an agreement worth celebrating.

It’s an agreement that the benefits of transportation investment should be defined very narrowly and they should come without any particular cost.

That’s a charge hurled often enough at the Democratic side, but in fact it’s entirely nonpartisan.

Just look at the two seemingly disparate events that happened in official Washington last week.

First, President Obama released a budget that includes plans to spend some $476 billion over the next six years without any realistic way to pay for what infrastructure advocates call investment. That’s drawn plenty of derision, but it also puts the White House solidly in the mainstream of transportation planning in Washington.

The administration budget doesn’t exactly say the funding for transportation can’t be found. But the White House finds the $30 billion annually needed for its plan in what’s been called a “peace dividend” as military actions wind down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Counting as revenue money not spent as revenue is dubious by just about any accounting standard, even government accounting.

The House transportation spending plan is no better, which is why the thing fractured shortly after Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, put it out for display. The additional revenue from Mica’s plan would come from increased energy development, including drilling in protected areas that is currently banned and highly contentious and shale oil development that doesn’t even exist yet.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said the funding was based on “fake oil revenues that are never going to materialize.”

To listen to the barbs flying back and forth, you’d think the dispute in transportation funding is over the spending. But it’s really a dispute over whose plan for phantom revenue is most acceptable.

Meanwhile, real transportation concerns are being pushed aside. Planning for highways, intermodal connectors and more narrow matters such as driver work rules and the Harbor Maintenance Tax remain in limbo.

Private industry, which suffers from the lack of adequate infrastructure to move goods, can throw up its hands and lament the lost opportunities. But the highly imperfect matters that floated to the surface this month suggest some progress.

Now, the private industry groups that have issued their couched and careful statements on the various proposals could help that process by helping government officials identify real revenue rather than the kind that is simply fashioned from political intentions.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at Follow Paul Page on Twitter,

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