For four years, as Congress and the Bush administration failed to deal realistically with transportation infrastructure, there's been a loud and insistent call for leadership on the need for investment in the nation's future.
This week, a deadline of sorts passes with the expiration of the 2005 version of the surface transportation spending plan, and with it any hopes that the calls for leadership would be heeded. Instead, there's been failure across the board — from Capitol Hill to the new administration in the White House, and yes, among the transportation interests representing carriers and shippers — to show that anything has changed.
That's especially disconcerting not because it means the last four years haven't produced leadership, but because there's no suggestion with the approaching Sept. 30 expiration date that any leadership is on the way. In fact, we may be further than ever from tackling the core issues of transportation funding.
Just take this fall's race for governor in Virginia, where Democratic nominee R. Creigh Deeds, a state senator, pledged greater investment in Virginia's transportation but also insisted taxes were not in the mix. "No, I'm not going to raise taxes. But I am the only person on this dais who will sign a transportation plan that raises new money," he said in a Sept. 17 gubernatorial debate.
If Deeds has a plan for "new money" that doesn't include "new taxes," many of us would like to hear it, but he's not saying what it is.
If he has a plan, he needs to send it to Congress, because there's no more clarity there on where new money will come from. Under Chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would like to see $500 billion in infrastructure spending over the next six years, but details on where the new money would come from were left up to the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
The result is Congress likely will put off serious consideration of a transportation plan for 18 months, conveniently past next year's midterm elections.
But transportation interests have nothing to crow about regarding their own role in this national debate. At a gathering in Washington two weeks ago of groups from ports to road and rail under the banner of the Freight Stakeholders Coalition, there was plenty of fulminating over the need for action on transportation funding, but there were few concrete ideas on the elephant in the room: where that "new money" would come from.
The most direct, unalloyed plan came from the Association of American Railroads, which unfortunately opened the public session with its long-standing plea for an investment tax credit, proving that the silos and self-interest of the transportation world in Washington are as solid as ever.
Yet these same transportation interests, from groups representing shippers to those representing carriers, have it in their power to write a bold, comprehensive and explicit plan for the investment they think the country needs and the revenue measures they will stand behind. That would be something to celebrate on Sept. 30.
Paul Page is editorial director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at email@example.com