When President Obama called for $50 billion in infrastructure spending last year, nothing happened. The same request likely will go nowhere now, but the sentiment is still appreciated in transportation circles. As part of a $447 billion jobs plan proposed to Congress last week, Obama revived his call for $50 billion in immediate spending on highways, transit, rail, and aviation. He also proposed a new infrastructure bank, to be capitalized with $10 billion, to jump-start large projects that also involve state and private-sector investments.
It could be a while before lawmakers can digest the president's infrastructure plan with any real thought. The House and Senate are still coming to terms on simple extensions of both the aviation and surface transportation systems. They are far apart on the substance of longer-term reauthorizations. The Federal Aviation Administration's current authorization expires Friday, Sept. 16, and the surface transportation law expires Sept. 30. House Republicans last week proposed a 5 percent cut to the FAA's funding for a three-month extension, but that extension didn't even make it past the draft stage before being yanked. They then offered a clean, four-month FAA extension. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last week approved a four-month extension of the surface transportation mechanism. House Republicans are proposing a six-month extension.
Democrats involved in transportation applauded the president's blunt statement that the country's clogged highways and decaying bridges are "inexcusable." Republicans concurred, although they noted (correctly) that Obama's infrastructure plan is short on details. "While the President reconfirmed that our highways are clogged and our skies are congested, his well delivered address provided only one specific recommendation for building our nation's infrastructure," said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., referring to the infrastructure bank. Mica rejected the infrastructure bank idea, saying it would tie up the transportation world with red tape.
Will Obama's attention to infrastructure help lawmakers focus on the aviation and surface transportation tasks at hand? Or does the insistence on $50 billion in immediate spending take away from lawmakers' negotiations over a longer-term highway bill? Where does aviation fit into this scenario? What else can the administration do to ensure that the aviation and surface transportation mechanisms continue to be funded? Does it matter that Obama has yet to reveal how any of his proposals will be paid for? What role, if any, does the infrastructure bank proposal play in the debate?