WASHINGTON — While most Americans turn their attention away from the election, the transportation policy community in the Beltway is consumed by two questions: Who will head the Department of Transportation, and who will be the next chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Nearly everyone has a guess or opinion, but out of the half dozen people I’ve spoken to no one knows for certain who will fill these top spots that will shape freight transportation policy for the coming years. Besides, it’s not even clear whether DOT Secretary Ray LaHood will leave. The former Republican congressman and transport policy darling has recently hinted that he’d be willing to stay on if the Obama administration wants. Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, both transportation advocates, have been rumored as potential replacements.
Keeping LaHood as DOT chief could help Obama achieve his goal of focusing on nation building during his second term, and there would be no learning curve since the Peoria native has already displayed prowess in working with Congress, said Mortimer Downey, a former DOT deputy secretary. He pointed to how former DOT Secretary Norman Mineta succeeded in pushing key legislation, including SAFETEA-LU, after former President George W. Bush kept him as agency head after his re-election.
Whoever heads DOT needs to “be very persuasive. (He or she) has a real opportunity but that person needs to be someone who can work with both sides in Congress,” said Jack Basso, director of program finance and management at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
It isn’t certain that the House T&I Committee will get a new chair, either. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said he is still interested in staying on as committee head and might seek a waiver to the term limit. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., has been angling for the spot for more than a year and made his intentions official Thursday.
“Transportation is essential to our economy and our future. I am focused on continuing to work together to promote competitiveness and economic growth, reform programs, focus our resources where they are needed most, and better manage our federal assets,’ he wrote in a statement.
Shuster has a deep interest in transportation policy and “isn’t just looking (at the chair position) as way to expand his power,” said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of Eno Transportation Foundation. He added that Shuster appears to be close with House leadership, and possibly even closer than Mica. Being looped in with House Speaker John Boehner could keep transportation needs known as leaders of Congress craft a grand bargain to avert the fiscal cliff.
The Republican leadership in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is also changing. Sen. David Vitter, of Louisiana, is in line to replace to Sen. James Inhofe, of Oklahoma, as the ranking Republican commitee member. Transportation advocates hope that despite their political differences, Vitter and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the committee chair, will continue to take a bipartisan approach like that of the latter and Inhofe. Boxer and Inhofe were able to get the Senate to pass a surface transportation bill this year, while the Republican-controlled House failed and used a 90-day highway funding extension to begin conferencing with the opposing chamber.
Vitter wants to begin working on a Water Resources Development Act and is pushing to speed up maritime projects by reforming the Army Corps of Engineers, said Deborah Colbert, senior vice president at the Waterways Council. The Senate EPW committee is slated to hold a hearing on the legislation key to authorizing port and inland waterway projects Thursday. Vitter will also likely push for the life cycle of proposed transportation projects to be included in the total cost estimate. He introduced legislation last year requiring an analysis of construction, maintenance and repair costs over a 50-year life cycle whenever the federal share of projects is more than $5 million.
The transportation policy experts are also keeping a close eye on Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. The fiscal conservative is expected to become the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and has not been shy in trying to block bills that he doesn’t think are fiscally prudent. DeMint also tried to block the electronic on-board record mandate for the trucking industry and supports giving states more freedom to spend federal transportation dollars as they see fit.