9 Reasons Why A Transportation Bill is Attainable
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As U.S. Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue said in an opinion piece published in the Examiner and FreeEnterprise.com earlier this week, "If lawmakers do it [pass a highway and transit bill], they’ll bring badly needed reforms to our outdated highway and transit programs, restore certainty for our nation’s job creators, and create employment for workers. They can help strengthen our economy, enhance U.S. productivity and competitiveness, reduce congestion, improve the environment, and save lives.”
There is enough foundation for compromise, as we pointed out in the letter to Congress dated June 18, that conferees on both sides should redouble their efforts to negotiate in good faith and get this bill done this summer.
Frankly, time spent discussing an extension right now is wasted time and a distraction from the real work that needs to get done. The conferees should look at the Chamber’s letter as a challenge to make significant progress by next week in the nine items of common ground, including negotiating the environmental streamlining and project delivery reforms, determine if another extension is needed to reconcile the remaining issues, draft legislative language, pass the conference report, and get it to the President's desk.
Here are the 9 areas of common ground.
1) Consolidating and Focusing Programs
Both the House and Senate are pressing for a major consolidation of federal transportation programs, which number close to 90 today. Without elimination of excessive or duplicative programs created over the last 50 years, unnecessary and redundant federal mandates will dilute investment in the most critical areas and among the highest priorities. Absent these reforms, funding will continue to flow inefficiently to states and metropolitan areas.
2) Increasing State Flexibility
The Senate and House legislation both emphasize the need for more flexibility for the states to ensure that federal dollars are spent where they are most needed. This flexibility is accomplished by devolving many of the mandated maintenance and investment decisions back to states. Instead of a one-size-fits-all program, both the House and Senate proposals would support state and local planning and investment decisions that take into account the national priorities such as congestion reduction and freight connectivity.
3) Requiring Accountability
Increased flexibility should not come without accountability for how funds are used. To help focus transportation investments on projects that would have the greatest return to the economy, both the House and Senate call for performance-based approaches to guide the planning and project selection processes. By setting performance targets and requiring periodic progress reports from states and metropolitan planning organizations, the federal programs would help guide key outcomes, such as a reduction in fatalities and system congestion, improvement of road and bridge conditions, and improvement of freight movement.
4) Accelerating Project Delivery by Reducing Federal Bureaucracy
A necessary area of compromise is project delivery and environmental streamlining. With the average highway project taking 13 years from start to finish, the Senate bill, and the House legislation to a greater degree, would speed project delivery, saving time and money in the process. Both bills would reduce bureaucratic red tape, allow for early right-of-way acquisitions, expand the use of innovative contracting methods, encourage early coordination between relevant agencies to avoid delays later in the review process, consolidate environmental documentation, and strengthen dispute resolution procedures. It’s important to note that his is a critical area for the conferees to compromise on: the Senate should agree to several House provisions that would materially shorten the amount of time it takes for a project to go from start to finish. Without compromise in this area, the transportation bill may be doomed.
5) Improving Freight Movement
The reliable and timely movement of goods is critical to U.S. economic health. Unfortunately, the condition and capacity of the transportation system has failed to keep up with the growth in trade volume and freight movement. Congestion caused by bottlenecks threatens to choke future economic growth. The Chamber believes the Senate-passed bill includes strong provisions to establish a freight program that would improve regional and national freight movement by targeting investments and improvements that would demonstrably facilitate the movement of freight, such as truck-only lanes, railway-highway grade separations, and improvements to freight intermodal connectors.
6) Improving Highway Safety
The House and Senate packages both focus on reducing the injuries and fatalities on roadways with provisions that would make significant improvements to the performance and accountability of the dedicated Highway Safety Improvement Program.
7) Improving Transit
Without effective and well functioning transit systems, the United States would experience considerably exacerbated mobility and congestion problems. Huge bottlenecks would impair the ability of people and freight to move through metropolitan areas. Both the House and Senate bills would reduce duplicative and costly federal steps in the New Starts process and help deliver new transit projects more quickly and cost effectively. These reforms are essential to reducing the average time–ten years– it takes to deliver critical transit system projects designed to alleviate congestion. Furthermore, the House and Senate have made considerable strides to increase the amount of formula grant funding available to transit authorities.
8) Enhancing Research and Technology
As states and municipalities struggle with limited resources to maintain and expand roads, bridges, and transit systems that are nearing the end of their useful service lives, Congress should provide incentives for harnessing the private sector’s ingenuity and the research community’s innovation in the construction and operation of the transportation network. Both Senate and House proposals would encourage the use of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) enabling states and metropolitan areas to make more efficient use of finite resources and the existing infrastructure.
9) Expanding Public Private Partnerships and Private Participation
Both the Senate and the House packages would expand the TIFIA program to $1 billion per year, which would provide low cost loans, loan guarantees and standby lines of credit to surface transportation projects. TIFIA efficiently leverages federal resources—for every $1 of federal budget authority, approximately $10 of federal lending is supported. TIFIA makes many projects financeable by bringing down interest costs and serving as a patient lender.
Strong consensus on the aforementioned policy reforms threatens to dissolve over differences on how to structure a user-based revenue source. But if Congress fails to provide for revenues through the end of Fiscal Year 2013 in the final conference agreement, transit and safety programs will be forced to shut down in 2013 or face more than 50% cuts due to a lack of funds in the Highway Trust Fund.
The best path forward for Congress in this contentious environment is to employ general fund resources, reject provisions that would levy retroactive tax increases or other punitive tax increases, and establish a road map for a long-term sustainable user-fee based revenue model. Otherwise, the shared policy reforms of the House and Senate packages would die on the vine and outdated and inefficient transportation laws would continue. The economic growth potential of infrastructure investment would be squandered and job losses would likely continue in the coming months and years.