‘Congress passes major tax increase to increase spending’

For anyone curious about the fate of the US transportation system, there is good news and bad news coming out of Washington, DC.

Capitol Hill:
knitting a transport
bill ‘one stitch at
a time’

The good news is that key people in Washington really do understand the problems facing the country’s transportation system: its much-needed expansion; the legacy commitments to fix old, crumbling roads; and an over-arching lack of money to do it all.

The bad news? There is no consensus on how to fix these problems – and least of all how to pay for the solutions.

The good news is brought to you in part by organisations like the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors. The Coalition, a lobbying group composed of local governments, ports, state departments of transportation, engineering firms and the like, went to Capitol Hill on 26 May to demand a dedicated fund for America’s freight infrastructure – and to present the private sector with a way to lend a hand in its financing.

Gloomy update

Wearing buttons that said “Give freight a fund!” the coalition members took this message directly to the halls of Congress – where many members showed up to talk in front of the group and give an update on the fate of the next transportation bill.

“There is probably not going to be another transportation bill this year,” John Mica, the Republican leader of the committee, flatly declared in front of the group. “I just don’t see it.”

Put that in the bad news category. The most important thing in Washington is, as ever, winning the next election. And Congress isn’t willing to raise taxes to pay for another transportation bill before November’s election, Mica said. So Congress will put the task off to next year. But next year, the presidential election cycle will begin. So you can see how there really isn’t much resolve to fix America’s transportation system anytime soon.

And Americans aren’t exactly pitch-forking for transportation reform right now. “Unless a bridge falls down,” concluded Alex Herrgott, a staffer on the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, “people aren’t going to care”. Another challenge, pointed out committee staffer Tom Lynch, is that there is a general perception among the public that the government is “buying luxury items with your money”.

(Lynch declined to mention that taxpayers now own an insurance company that can insure those luxury items, but that’s beside the point).

Even if we pass the Oberstar programme tomorrow, it wouldn’t even come close to meeting the needs that we have

Even if the Senate were to take a cue from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and pass the $500 billion bill being championed by committee chair Jim Oberstar, the next day would see headlines on Fox News proclaiming, “Congress passes major tax increase to increase spending”, Lynch predicted.

“Even though this is spending that meets your needs,” he added.

Mind you: “Even if we pass the Oberstar programme tomorrow, it wouldn’t even come close to meeting the needs that we have,” Herrgott added.

Put faith in the market

So what can be done? “Incentivise private investment in infrastructure,” said Paul Fisher, chief executive officer of CenterPoint Properties, the CalPERS-owned industrial real estate investor. That is, let the market have a seat at the table in the next transportation bill because “the market is actually solving these problems” through public-private partnerships.

But public-private partnerships, cautioned Peter DeFazio, one of the ranking members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure, are “nice little things” that really won’t make a difference in funding US transportation.

Leslie Blakey, the executive director of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, likens the effort to pass a transportation bill with knitting a sweater.

“You really take it one stitch at a time and you go row by row by row and it’s a process that takes a lot of knitting,” she said in an interview. The coalition was “able to tick a lot of stitches” during its meeting in Washington. “But the sweater is still missing some arms, and a neck,” she added. “So we keep knitting.”