Roads are good. Bridges are good. Construction projects are good. Infrastructure is good. That is the message that politicians around the country are repeating to whatever audience they happen to be addressing. If everyone agrees on these basic points and wants to create jobs, they plead, why can't Congress actually accomplish something and pass the long overdue highway bill?
It's a good question, but the premise is a tad misleading. It is true that everyone agrees with the top-level sentiment that infrastructure investment makes sense for the economy. Digging down deeper, it is not true that everyone agrees on how that investment should work. Some scholars, like our own prolific National Journal expert blogger Gabriel Roth, have floated the idea that the states should do all of the financing and the current federal role should be phased out. Others, like the Obama administration, want a heavy federal role that directs competitive grant money at projects they deem worthy.
A large portion of the dispute over surface transportation in Congress involves unrelated issues. Senate debate last week was dominated by birth control, for example. But there are still some fundamental transportation disagreements among lawmakers. There are disputes over Amtrak, mass transit funding, Transportation Department TIGER grants, and the link between the highway trust fund and road construction. The differences of opinion on these factors alone illustrate that the highway bill is no different than any other legislation: Coming to agreement is hard. Passing the measure is even harder.
What are the most radical transportation ideas that have been floated in the current debate? (Tying highway funding to domestic drilling? Eliminating mass transit from the highway trust fund? Something else?) What are the most tired arguments? How do these ideas relate to past highway bill debates? Is it really so different this time? And if so, how?