Stuck in traffic

It was perhaps an inauspicious omen when, on 24 April, Representative Jim Oberstar did not make it in time to a press conference in Washington DC on public transit solutions. The Minnesota Democrat, chairman of the powerful US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was stuck in traffic on the way to the event.

Two months later, fresh after unveiling his $500 billion, six-year Surface Transportation Reauthorisation Act of 2009, Oberstar had to watch his ambitious effort to reform the US transportation system get caught in traffic, too. President Obama decided to prioritise healthcare reform above all else and quickly came out in favour of a smaller, shorter 18-month reauthorisation of the US’ current surface transportation spending programme known as SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users). That set off a summer-long gridlock between Congress and the administration on how to proceed with the reauthorisation .

Enacted in 2005, SAFETEA-LU, which is set to end with the government’s fiscal year-end on 30 September, guaranteed $244.1 billion of federal spending for US transportation. That amount has proven so inadequate that last year Congress had to pass an emergency $8 billion emergency reauthorisation to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent. And as Oberstar unveiled his reauthorisation bill in June, history threatened to repeat itself: the Department of Transportation advised that the Highway Trust Fund, which relies on dwindling gas tax revenues for its support, could be running on empty as early as August.

Both the Obama administration and Oberstar used this to their advantage. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood began to stump for an immediate 18-month reauthorisation of SAFETEA-LU and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works passed a bill to that effect. In the House, Oberstar and 42 other Congressmen quickly seized the opportunity to use the trust fund’s woes as a catalyst for their bill. They argued in a 24 June letter to President Obama that an 18 month extension would “leave States without the certainty and reliable funding source that they need to plan, design and construct significant multi-year highway and transit projects,” and vowed to press forward with the full reauthorisation bill instead.

The full reauthorisation bill, which would take effect on 1 October, largely side-steps private sector financing of America’s infrastructure. Instead, it carves out a much larger role for the federal government by more than doubling surface transportation spending to $500 billion, with highway construction ($337 billion), mass transit ($100 billion) and high-speed rail ($50 billion) as its top spending categories.

A $50 billion infrastructure bank was also included in the legislation’s initial draft, along with a reform of the way money is allocated to surface transportation projects. The bill would eliminate 75 spending programmes and repackage the rest into four priority areas of critical asset investment, highway safety improvement, surface transportation and congestion mitigation and air quality improvement.

Though the bill mustered enough strength to make it to the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for markup, it became clear that sooner or later it would run into gridlock. The House Ways and Means Committee, which would need to approve revenue sources for the ambitious spending programme, was fully focused on healthcare and a looming presidential deadline to get a bill out of the house before the Congress’ August recess. In the end, as it was clear that Congress could not leave for recess without doing something about the Highway Trust Fund’s looming insolvency, both the House and the Senate voted in favour of an interim $7 billion refill for the fund through the current fiscal year.

What happens next, though, is far from certain. When Congress returns from its August recess, chances are that lawmakers in both houses will press ahead with their respective reauthorisation measures. But if it’s any indication of whether the US will have a full-blown six-year reauthorisation or an 18-month band aid, President Obama’s efforts to reform healthcare ended up in the emergency room after Congress failed to meet his August deadline for passing a healthcare bill. And healthcare’s prospects in the fall are far from certain.

As Congress works to resuscitate the healthcare effort, chances are that Oberstar’s reauthorisation will continue to languish in traffic.