President Obama’s recent call to nearly double infrastructure investment over the next six years highlights two conflicting forces in transportation policy: a desire to invest more and an unwillingness to embrace a steady funding mechanism.
The $476 billion plan included in the White House 2013 budget proposes spending nearly $30 billion more annually on highways, bridges and mass transit than the roughly $50 billion sought in the House and Senate’s competing surface transportation plans. The catch is that the extra money would come from the trimming of domestic agencies and funding presumably gained through the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I’m kind of skeptical the money would appear and whether it’s good budget policy,” said Emil Frankel, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s director of transportation policy.
Transportation advocates support increased infrastructure investment, but many believe use of a “peace dividend” is unlikely to pass Congress. They would prefer to gain a sustainable revenue stream by raising the fuel tax, which Obama opposes, or charging drivers for miles traveled.
There is a chance, however, Congress could try to pad the later years of a surface transportation bill using the roughly $38.5 billion gained annually as war spending winds down, said Mortimer Downey, senior adviser to construction engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. But he expects fiscal conservatives would push back sharply because they want any savings to go toward lowering the national debt.
Striking a fiscal conservative tone, Rep. John Mica said Obama’s plan “follows the same old pattern of spending more and getting less for hard-earned dollars.” The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman also slammed the proposal for a $50 billion immediate investment as more wasteful stimulus spending.
Mica’s own five-year, $260 transportation bill attracted fiscal conservatives by arguing increased funding could be tapped through the expansion of domestic energy production. But that effort to link up disparate interests fractured.
Democrats never took to it, and House Republicans last week broke the bill in three parts in an effort to minimize divisions over the legislation, which includes the approval of the controversial Keystone pipeline.
The House Republicans’ plan also appears to have financial challenges. The transport package would leave a $9.4 billion shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund expenditures by the end of fiscal 2021, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. The Senate’s competing two-year, $109 billion plan enjoys the support of Obama but still faces a shortfall of its own.
Looking past the surface transportation bill, Obama’s budget signals broad support for intermodal, high-speed and inner city passenger rail.
Frankel said the administration’s push regarding high-speed and passenger rail now seems more focused on expanding existing connections, rather than building new lines. The shift comes after several states, such as Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio, rejected federal funding for high-speed rail because of fears the systems would face cost overruns.
Obama’s plan also reiterates some of the same goals of his 2012 budget proposal, which emphasized sustainable projects that benefit passenger rail service, bicycling and walking.
The budget also includes a request for an $848 million reimbursement of the Harbor Maintenance Fund, a 12 percent increase from the previous budget request. Although the increase falls short of the $1.4 billion collected annually from shippers, the proposed increase suggests heightened pressure to use the tax to dredge, rather than help plug the federal deficit.
“What the president puts in his election-year budget is basically a promise of what he will try do if re-elected,” Downey said. “He could have played it safe and stayed at current (infrastructure) spending levels, but he didn’t.”
However, Obama wasn’t daring — or, with an election months away, foolish — enough to support a fuel tax increase.