A casual viewer at last week's hearing in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee would have thought Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., were superheroes for achieving a deal on a surface-transportation bill. "The fact that this committee was able to reach agreement on a bipartisan basis is nothing short of miraculous," said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. By contrast, House Republicans and Democrats are at loggerheads over a six-year, $230 billion surface-transportation bill.
The Senate outline, yet to be drafted into actual legislation, is the product of compromise. It doesn't please anyone completely, but it's considered better than the alternative of a six-month or one-year stopgap. Because of funding shortages, Boxer and Inhofe had to sacrifice their goal of a six-year bill, settling for a two-year reauthorization. After much back and forth, they also have agreed on language to streamline red tape for transportation projects. Their framework also adds new reporting requirements that will put state transportation departments on the spot to make sure they're meeting deadlines. Funding for bicycle paths and other alternative-transportation forms have been retained in the bill, but with new flexibility that won Inhofe's approval.
How will the Boxer and Inhofe framework impact the conversation about a new surface-transportation bill? How important is it that they compromised? Is a two-year bill a reasonable solution to the budget shortfalls? Or (to borrow a phrase from debt-ceiling talks) are they simply kicking the can down the road? Will the smaller components of the agreement--for example, on bicycle paths and project acceleration--help motivate the larger process of reauthorizing surface-transportation programs.