Signs abound that Congress won’t get its act together before the highway spending extension expires at the end of the month. With legislators leaving for a month-long summer recess in August and then returning in the throes of the presidential campaign, the chances of a bill passing by the end of the year are also poor. Think that prognosis is too pessimistic? Here’s the evidence:
• House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday hinted he might push for a six-month extension if Congress can’t meet the June 30 deadline, according to Reuters. That he wants an extension to take highway funding past the presidential campaign season signals just how poor the outlook is for passage of a bill. Some sniping on Wednesday offered a preview of just how ugly partisan rhetoric could get. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of sabotaging conference negotiations to hurt the economy, according to Politico. A spokesman for Boehner called the accusation “bull___.” No wonder transportation groups such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials are calling on Congress to focus on the matter at hand: transportation.
• It’s difficult for the House to conference with the Senate when the former doesn’t have its own bill to take into negotiations. After failing to pass its own bill because some members couldn’t agree on the price tag or how to pay for it, the House approved a 90-day extension to get to conference. Striking an accord with the Senate is tricky as it is, but not having enough common ground among your own leadership makes Rep. John Mica’s task nearly Herculean. Unsurprisingly, there are various reports of House staff scoffing at the compromise proposed by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. Don’t expect the counteroffer from the House to get a much warmer welcome.
• The Keystone XL pipeline. The controversial initiative allows supporters and opponents to hammer each other, much to the chagrin of the road construction and transportation industries that have no direct stake in the matter. Arguments over whether to loosen regulation on coal ash further complicate the debate. Besides, members who are particularly sympathetic to environmental protection have enough trouble with House language that would streamline highway projects. At least that push has something to do with highway projects, whereas the Keystone debate is just election-year red meat.
• Back in the good-old days, or several years ago, transportation funding was one of the few issues Democrats and Republicans could agree on. Supporting transportation infrastructure was akin to being against crime and pledging support for education. No longer. Transportation funding is the newest battleground for ideological debates on state versus federal power, and the role of public-private partnerships. The former is seen in a proposal by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to ensure states get 95 percent of the fuel tax revenue they send to the Highway Trust Fund. That approach could find itself in loggerheads with proponents who want a long-delayed national freight transportation policy. Proponents of more state authority argue that regions could come together to pull off multistate initiatives, but that would be tricky to pull off without strong federal guidance.
There is also the issue of how much the government should let private companies into the business of building public infrastructure. Language within the Senate bill would forbid states from using private activity bonds to finance leased highway projects and make such leases less attractive to investors by extending depreciation timetables. Such provisions would make it harder for admirers of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, the architect of one of the largest public-private infrastructure partnerships in U.S. history, to mirror his success.
The prognosis for future surface transportation spending doesn’t look any better. Although Georgia Republican Rep. Paul Broun’s non-binding motion to instruct conferees not to use general fund dollars to plug the Highway Trust Fund shortfall won’t likely connect in this bill, it signals an even larger coming battle. TIGER grants, federal grants to fund freight rail and port projects, are also in jeopardy, because a recently released House bill for fiscal 2013 funding includes no dollars for the program. The prospects of Congress, along with President Obama, supporting a fuel tax increase are also dismal. A vehicle miles traveled tax gets a lot of cheers in Washington, but such policy will find anti-tax and libertarian members with knives out if it gains traction in Congress.
One of the few short-term hopes is that government agencies will use transportation funding more effectively. For instance, the Ohio Department of Transportation announced this week that it cut costs to free up $400 million for highway work. I’ll be following up in the coming week on how states and federal dollars can better spend infrastructure dollars. In the meantime, Congress has roughly three weeks to finalize a bill before the current extension expires. Hold on. The ride isn’t going to get any smoother.