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Fourth and long on surface transportation funding

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
December 02, 2011

I am a big football fan despite what the New York Giants are currently doing to my mental state for a few hours each weekend in recent weeks. That said, there is different type of football being played in the nation’s capital when it comes to long-term transportation funding. And that is called political football. It is likely you have heard of it, especially since SAFETEA-LU expired in September 2009.

Since that expiration date, the six-year, $285 billion SAFETEA-LU has been extended at current funding levels eight times (essentially a touchdown and a two-point conversion). That has got to be some sort of record, right?

Over the course of 2011, we have seen some decent proposals for a new authorization from both sides of the aisle. One from Republican Congressman John Mica, Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Democrat Senator Barbara Boxer, Chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, have rolled out respective plans for future transportation bills.

Boxer’s two-year $109 billion bill, entitled Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), vows to reauthorize U.S. transportation programs for two years at a cost of $109 billion and reform these programs to make them more efficient, according to EPW officials. The EPW committee said that this bill is a “bipartisan effort that holds spending at current levels plus inflation, greatly increases leveraging of federal dollars, and modernizes and reforms the nation’s transportation systems to help create jobs and build the foundation for long-term prosperity.”

It also offers up a National Freight Network Program that provides formula funds to states for projects to improve the movement of freight on highways, including freight intermodal connectors, among other freight- and supply chain-related components. The bill’s authors said that the freight network program is a core requirement, as the condition and capacity of the highway system has failed to keep up with the growth in freight movement and is hampering the ability of businesses to efficiently transport goods due to congestion.

And Mica proposed a six-year, $285 billion surface transportation bill that would be funded at current levels. While the Mica bill does not have a freight-specific component like Boxers, it is replete with funding suggestions, which continue to be a challenge on the surface transportation reauthorization front as its primary revenue generator for the highway trust fund, the gasoline tax, has seen myriad shortfalls in recent years.

Some of Mica’s funding options include:
-providing additional funding for TIFIA, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program which provides Federal credit assistance in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees, and standby lines of credit to finance surface transportation projects of national and regional significance; and
-keeping existing lanes on the Interstate Highway System toll-free but allow states to toll any new lanes they build on the Interstate and give states the flexibility to toll non-Interstate highways.

Make no mistake funding is a major issue for both these bills and surface transportation programs in general.

Mica recently said that funding surface transportation at current levels of the six-year, $285 billion expired authorization is needed at a minimum, but Mica said he is hopeful that more money can be allocated on a cost of living or incremental basis for a new six-year authorization. In July, Mica introduced a six-year bill that would authorize $230 billion in spending from the Highway Trust Fund between 2012-2017, which the bill’s authors said is equal to the revenue deposited into the HTF that that six-year period. Since that time, the dollar amount has increased to current funding levels. 

Boxer’s bill needs $12 billion in additional funding to reach the $109 billion total, given the fact that the Highway Trust Fund, which is based on revenue from gasoline taxes that we all pay and have not gone up in nearly 20 years are not getting the job done. Talk about getting sacked on fourth and long.

A long-term bill, he said, is vital, as Congress cannot make long-term commitments with the ongoing extensions and short-term continuing resolutions.

Any action on a new bill will not take place until January at the very earliest. As things currently stand, the most recent extension made a few months back keeps things in check through the end of March.
With the surface transportation extension expiring on March 31, Mica is also eyeing that date as a de-facto deadline to have a new bill signed into law, explaining that the country cannot wait any longer.
“If you want to put people to work in this country, do a long-term transportation bill that has adequate funding,” he said in November. “My plan is simple: we take the programs we have now and make them work better. I am a fan of infrastructure banking and creative financing, and…43 states have existing infrastructure banks but many don’t have money. There are a whole host of problems with a national infrastructure bank, with many projects taking at least a year to get going.”
The ongoing punting in this never-ending game of political football is evident based on a report this week in the Washington Post, which said that state transportation planners’ “efforts to move ahead with new highway and transit projects have been hamstrung by congressional failure to approve a new multi-year plan.”

The report added that Mica said the primary reason for the delay has to do with “finding the means to pay for the bill” remains an issue.

No surprise there, eh?

The way things stand heading into an election year and the padding of a three-month cushion heading into 2012, I suppose things could be worse. But we all saw what happened with so many different pieces of pending legislation during the summer of 2008 during the last election—not much.

For now, we struggle to get first downs or at least forward progress, but hopefully there is enough time left in the game to make something happen.

About the Author

Jeff Berman headshot
Jeff Berman
Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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