At the end of the month, the federal government loses its authority to spend money on surface transportation. March 31st. 5 days from today. Thankfully, it's not the entire federal government that's gridlocked on this one -- just the House. It's a rather unexpected reversal of the roles the two chambers usually play; the Senate is generally the one that can't get a super-majority of 60 votes, while the House achieves a normal majority just fine.
Not this time! Last week, the US Senate finally passed a new, bipartisan Surface Transportation bill, nearly 3 years after the last one expired. We've been through 8 authorization extensions already, all of which have followed roughly the same course as the original act, called SAFETEA-LU. The current extension ends March 31st.
The Senate's new bill moves in a better direction, shaping America's future for the better. Some quick facts: this is a two-year authorization. Over these two years, the bill would spend $109 billion on highways, transit, and cycle/pedestrian projects. It would save or create ~2.5 million jobs, and repair over 70,000 bridges. Privatized highways will no longer count toward 'state apportionment formulas', making privatization a much less valuable option to states. Transit funding remains roughly equal, though small agencies will now be able to spend federal cash on operations, rather than just new stuff. Federal agencies will be encouraged to fast-track projects in emergency situations -- like the I-35 bridge collapse. Buy America provisions will be strengthened as well, leading to more American jobs.
As with any bill, there are a number of negatives, as well. The most salient, I think, is made by Republican Senator DeMint: "Taxpayers have already bailed out the federal highway trust fund with $35 billion, and this highway bill would force them to provide another $13 billion bailout". He's talking about the last decade or so, and those numbers only count direct infusions -- there are infinitely many more sources of highway and sprawl subsidy, so large nobody even knows their extent. This bill does little to counter these subsidies.
In the end, it seems little of this matters: in the past few days, it's become apparent that the House intends to ignore the Senate bill altogether, and focus instead on yet another extension -- the 9th -- of the 2005 Transportation bill. It's unclear how the situation will change in a few months when that extension expires, but there's a decent chance the Senate won't be able to pull a bill together again, even with this wonderful starting point.
I'm looking on all this positively: at least it ensures I won't be too bored over the next few months. And hey, if we get a decent transportation authorization, that's just gravy.
Written by Nick Matzke