Hope, and Reality

Hope, and Reality

If there was anything positive to be said about the uninspired end to the legislative measure that authorized transportation spending four years ago, it was that at least there appeared to be general agreement the country needs to get transportation programs off the political roller-coaster.

Well, welcome back aboard the roller-coaster.

After several years of debate over the fundamentals of how the United States should set transportation and infrastructure priorities and pay for them, the question Congress is coping with really has nothing to do with how to invest in future competitiveness and growth. No, what Congress is considering is exactly how long to put off considering the question.

Some want to put it off for 18 months, and some want to put it off for only six months, when we must assume that Congress would have to consider whether to put it off for another six months or face reality and put it off for 12 months.

If you’re thinking that’s too complicated, or simply too cynical, you may not have followed legislative processes very closely. In fact, it’s a fair description of what to expect from Congress on transportation action in the coming year, and there are signs the transportation world is starting to recognize that this year’s high hopes will have to become next year’s realistic expectations.

There were suggestions of that conflict between hope and reality last week in the call by Kurt Nagle, head of the Association of American Port Authorities, for congressional action.

“Passage of this nationally important bill must be a clear priority for Congress in the coming year,” Nagle wrote in a letter to congressional leaders. “AAPA urges you to prioritize policies and programs to improve the facilitation of goods movement in our transportation system.”

Nagle, like others making the case in Washington for transportation spending, has clear ideas about what those priorities should be, noting ports provide “critical linkage” in freight networks and that investment in short-sea shipping would reduce highway congestion.

Ports are a critical link, and targeted investment may help the country reach important goals. But what we haven’t seen is anyone in Congress, or even in the transportation world, truth be told, stepping forward with a clear set of goals for the country’s infrastructure that cuts across particular interests and sets about a clear, detailed and politically realistic way to get the plan funded.

Instead, Congress last week was sitting on one plan that would have funding run out Dec. 23, and key senators were considering whether to pare their plan for an 18-month delay down to a six-month delay.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at ppage@joc.com. Follow Paul Page on Twitter, www.twitter.com/paulpage.