Bloomberg, Rendell, Schwarzenegger weigh-in on reauthorisation debate

The three founding members of advocacy group Building America’s Future have published four guiding principles for how the government should shape its reauthorisation of the 2005 surface transportation legislation known as SAFETEA-LU.

Three US politicians have called for renewed White House leadership in transportation policy akin to the Eisenhower administration's creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, among other guiding principles they've recommended for the US’ federal transportation programme.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell made the recommendations in a memo published by the policy advocacy organisation they founded, Building America’s Future.

The memo recommends that this year’s reauthorisation of the 2005 surface transportation legislation known as SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users) be carried out along four key principles:

–          Renewal of leadership at the federal level;
–          Increasing of accountability at the federal, state and local levels;
–          Encouragement of innovation and flexibility at the state and local levels;
–          Finding new ways to fund national infrastructure goals.

The first principle is meant to encourage more involvement in transportation policymaking from the White House, similar to the Eisenhower Administration’s championing of the national network of highways and roads in the 1950s. Building America’s future believes such leadership is needed today and has met with President Obama to encourage more federal leadership in shaping transportation policy.

“We are at a historic time when we can really make some major changes in our transportation policy,” Kerry O’Hare, policy director of Building America’s Future, told InfrastructureInvestor.

The second principle is aimed at ensuring that federally funded projects meet national transportation goals instead of simply providing dollars for local projects favored by members of Congress. Known as earmarks, these types of surface transportation allocations have grown from 10 in 1981 to 6,000 in 2005, according to the memo.

The memo said not all earmarks result in “bridges to nowhere” like Alaska’s Gravina Island Bridge, which received $223 million from SAFETEA-LU in 2005 and became a symbol of wasteful government spending in the 2008 presidential election. But Building America’s Future argues “a politicised method of distribution increases the risk of funding inefficient projects that do not meet national objectives”.

The third principle asks that Congress provide incentives for financing mechanisms that are currently gaining traction at the state and local levels. These include public-private partnerships (PPPs), tolled roads and congestion pricing for highways.

O’Hare said there’s been a “sea change” among legislators in the last two years in terms of whether they support or are hostile toward PPPs and similar solutions. More Congressmen are open toward their use and she hopes they won’t place restrictions on their use in the reauthorisation.

The final principle challenges Congress to create “ongoing and stable” streams of public revenue dedicated to transportation. Building America’s Future recommends Congress consider a wide variety of options for these revenue streams, including carbon auction revenues, charges for vehicle miles traveled and capital budget reserves.

SAFETEA-LU guaranteed funding for US highways, highway safety, and public transportation totaling $244.1 billion and is set to sunset with the end of the government’s current fiscal year on 30 September. Its sunset has sparked a debate in congress over how it should re-shape public transportation financing to meet rising demand and falling revenues.

That debate is now underway and legislators hope to pass a reauthorisation bill through the house by the end of next month.