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The Train, The Train! Federal Transportation Legislation: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hi all! Sorry I haven’t been writing much of late; I’ve been dealing with the minor matters of filing a dissertation and finding myself gainful employment. The first step is complete: I get to call myself a doctor now, though it is a source of considerable disappointment to my friends that after almost eight years of study I’m not the kind of doctor who can prescribe them medical marijuana. The second step is complete too: I’ll be joining the faculty at Clemson University in South Carolina as an assistant professor in the fall. I’m thrilled to be going to Clemson as I think very highly of the department, the setting, and winning college football.

Anyway, I’m going to try to get back in the habit of writing more regularly, this time about my dreams for transportation—which are turning out to be nightmares. Like one of those stories where a genie gives you three wishes and every one of them boomerangs. Or even better, a bad episode of Fantasy Island:

ME: Mr. Roarke, thank god you’re here! You’ve got to get me out of this!

MR. ROARK: But Eric Morris, your fantasy was for a more healthy political give-and-take about transportation policy in America, an end to wasteful transportation spending, and saving money and the environment with better fuel economy. Isn’t this everything you dreamed of?

ME: But all it’s gotten me is partisan gridlock and financial bankruptcy. Plus these fruity tropical drinks are giving me a headache. Please, Mr. Roarke, take me back to the days of gas guzzlers and pork barrel politics!

(Photo: Pranav Bhatt)

To explain: every few years, Congress has to pass a mammoth bill to authorize the federal share of US surface transportation funding, both for autos (roads, bridges) and mass transit. The stakes are very high, as these bills involve huge amounts of spending: the most recent, SAFETEA-LU, came in at $284 billion dollars. One authorization bill was passed in 1982, with others in 1987, 1991, and 1998. Since 2005, SAFETEA-LU has been governing the system.

And governing it… and governing it… because despite the fact that SAFETEA-LU expired in 2009, we’ve been unable to reach agreement on a successor. Congress has been passing emergency extensions of the old legislation—at last count, nine of them, with a tenth on the way—while digging in along partisan lines. The failure to enact a federal program, whatever its contents, is problematic, since given the size, scope, and long time horizon of many transportation projects, funding stability is important. 

Why gridlock now when things bumped along relatively smoothly in the past? As I have written about, transportation spending has traditionally been a beacon of bipartisan cooperation, at least compared to other aspects of federal governance. For example, Obama’s Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, is a Republican, and George W. Bush’s, Norman Mineta, is a Democrat. In fact, I cursed us all by speculating that a bit more partisan discord might be helpful in producing more spirited debate about the important issues facing American transportation. Now we are suffering badly from an excess of spirit.

Why have things changed? Certainly, the general polarization in Washington, which seems to be reaching new heights, has a lot to do with it. The Democratic Senate and Republican House are in the process of producing much different versions of new transportation legislation.

And some other factors behind the malaise involve truly cruel irony. One is an end to, or at least muzzling of, politically-inspired greed. Hard to believe this could be a problem, but it is.

The number of earmarks—specific projects included in the legislation which are not evaluated for costs and benefits in the usual way, or funded according to an (arguably) impartial formula —had been inexorably rising over the decades. There were 10 in 1982, 152 in 1987, 538 in 1991, 1,850 in 1998, and 6,371 in 2005. This was troubling, since projects that get earmarked tend to be about bringing home bacon to congressmen’s home districts, not allocating the funding to where it is most needed or would bring the highest benefit. The “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska happened to be the earmark the media got ahold of, but there have been many other projects like it.

Pretty much everybody in transportation—including me—agreed this was a terrible trend. Remarkably, even the very congressmen who were stuffing the bills with pork eventually agreed. So in a remarkable show of bipartisan thinking, both sides have now agreed to turn their addiction over to their higher power and forswear earmarking. Unfortunately, this means they have also forsworn legislating.

It turns out that earmarks were crucial for fashioning the compromises needed to pass such a broad and far-reaching piece of legislation. Without their pet projects involved, congressmen have much less interest in passing a bill that involves some ideological flexibility. Hence paralysis. Question for you readers: is it worth tolerating some wasteful spending if it is an essential political lubricant that keeps the gears in Washington turning and prevents even larger problems?

And Mr. Roarke has reason to arch his eyebrows even higher in mock surprise as I beg for my fantasy to end. Like any right-thinking person on either side of the political divide, I have vehemently wished for better vehicle fuel economy. My fantasy has been delivered. Cool new technologies, which are both technologically and economically quite feasible, are bringing about terrific improvements in miles per gallon. Even the car makers have agreed to the Obama administration’s new standards, with new cars’ headline mpg (a complicated issue for another post) set to rise from 28 mpg in 2011 to 54.5 mpg in 2025. 

On balance, of course, this is a very good thing. But it will be the source of wrenching and perhaps paralyzing debate. Since transportation is mostly funded by gas taxes that are levied on a per-gallon basis, are rarely raised, and are not even indexed for inflation, the transportation finance system is—sorry—running out of gas. Already, general funds are being diverted to keep the Highway Trust Fund, where transportation revenues are sequestered, solvent. As fuel consumption—and thus gas tax revenues—plummets in the years ahead, a fundamental rethinking of how we pay for transportation will be necessary, and that rethinking must begin with the reauthorization debate: even not acting would be a choice. This couldn’t be coming at a worse time, as partisan gridlock has gripped Washington and new taxes are, at least on one side of the aisle, anathema.

And there is one final indignity. The has-been stars who dropped in on Fantasy Island at least got compensation that made it all worthwhile. Yet I have yet to be approached by a fabulous beauty whose fantasy is to fall in love with a transportation professor. Oh, well. More on these issues in the future; for now, be careful what you wish for.