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April 2012 Archives
With conferees scheduled to meet next week to begin hammering out a new transportation reauthorization, all eyes are now turning back to the legislative details: what are key points of contention and where is there room for compromise?
We all know there will be a showdown over the Keystone XL pipeline. Let's not worry about that because there are no negotiations. Instead, let's look at another area that can and should be negotiated--the intersection between environmental backstops on transportation and the need to speed up infrastructure projects.
That was previewed, in part, on the House floor in mid-April as representatives debated the shell bill that paved the way to conference. House Transportation and Infrastructure Ranking Member Nick Rahall, D-W.V., and Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Ranking Member Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, took to the floor then to protest an amendment that copied over a set of environmental streamlining provisions from Mica's abandoned House GOP bill.
Proponents of the provisions say they would eliminate unnecessary delays, getting people to work faster on transportation projects. Opponents say they circumvent important environmental regulations. ("Congress is threatening to take a butcher knife to [the National Environmental Policy Act] in its transportation bill," Deron Lovaas, Federal Transportation Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in a blog post last week.)
We had a chance to speak with DeFazio, a conferee, about the provisions and he suggested that, while the streamlining provisions went too far in ceding regulatory power to states, there was some room to negotiate.
"There is basic agreement over some degree of streamlining," DeFazio said. "All of us are impatient with the amount of time it takes to move a project through all the hoops."
Are regulations really tripping up projects that badly? If so, what's a reasonable way to speed things along? Should there be categorical exclusions for certain types of projects? If so, what kinds? (DeFazio suggested, for example, excluding projects where streetcar tracks are put into paved roads, saying "that means we're going to have fewer cars on that road. Why would we have to spend a lot of time and money studying it?") What constitutes smart environmental streamlining? What's a step too far? How can conferees find a happy compromise?
Everybody take a deep breath. Congress is poised this week to appoint conferees to a long-awaited conference committee that will negotiate a highway bill. Finally. I know that President Obama has dangled a veto threat over the House version, and I know that Republicans are determined to link the politically volatile Keystone XL pipeline to a bipartisan infrastructure bill. It doesn't matter. Fundamentally, this conference committee is a good thing. It gives lawmakers who are familiar with the ins and outs of transportation policy the opportunity to actually hammer out some decent tweaks to the federal highway program.
Streamline the Transportation Department's funding silos? Members in both parties are all for it. Speed up infrastructure projects? Damn right. The concepts have support, but the details also matter. That's the beauty of a conference committee--it focuses on details. And when the political leaders decide they need to act to extend the highway program, as they always do, those details will be ready to go. Other members will talk on the floor about gas prices and energy production. But who cares? In the end, lawmakers aren't going to turn their backs on a longer-term highway bill if all the major players have signed off on it.
Now, if they could just get to that point. Negotiators have about two months to make enough progress to show that they're serious about finishing a bill this year. After that, members will be looking forward to an August break and the fall elections, and they will be more than willing to push off the talks until next year. The fact that they haven't punted yet indicates that they intend to make a go of it. They have an advantage in that the big problems already have solutions, even if they aren't great. A funding mechanism already exists in the form of the Senate bill. And it's clear the new law can't go longer than two years unless someone pulls a budget rabbit out of a hat.
What are the chances that lawmakers succeed on negotiating a smaller bill? How far apart are Republicans and Democrats on the structure of the revamped highway program? Do the Keystone and gas price talking points add to or detract from that conversation, if they have an impact at all? Will the policy conversations that take place over the next few months benefit future highway bills?
By Niraj Chokshi and Fawn Johnson
Many policy analysts agree that a "vehicle-miles traveled" fee, a literal tax for actual road use, is an effective replacement for the current gas tax to pay for our roads and bridges. A penny-per-mile tax would raise enough to match the existing 18.4 cent-per-gallon fuel tax, while two cents-per-mile would raise enough to maintain infrastructure investment in the long run, according to the oft-cited report from a Miller Center conference co-chaired by former Transportation Secretaries Norman Mineta and Samuel Skinner. As the report makes brutally clear, a lot still stands in the way.
The most obvious hurdle to overcome is privacy: How can the government assure citizens that it won't abuse the power to track individuals? How will that data be protected? Should vehicles be taxed differently based on their footprint or when they are used (i.e., peak v. non-peak hours)? How will the fees collected be divvied up fairly? And, critically, how can such a major change be packed into a pill the American public can swallow?
This is the time of year when the price of gas rises, and with it the political rhetoric. House Speaker John Boehner is determined to make gas prices a core political critique aimed at President Obama and Democrats leading up to the election. In Congress, it is also a time when policymakers are facing difficult questions about how to thread a very thin needle of a highway bill. If they don't act in the next few months, they will be forced to extend the current surface transportation program for another year at a political cost to both parties and the great disappointment of the transportation community.
Perhaps we have a touch of Pollyanna in us, but we think now would be a good time to talk about whether the VMT ever will be a viable option for funding infrastructure. We may live in partisan times. But we are not backward technologically. Will the driving tax ever happen? If so, how do we get there? Is the technology ready? Is the public ready? Are lawmakers ready? Give us your scenarios.
Editor's Note: Fawn Johnson is off this week.
With gas prices rising, the economy plodding toward a recovery and tax day nearly upon us, the handful of available transportation-related tax deductions may be looking increasingly appealing to Americans seeking an alternative to the expensive drive to work, as the experts at H&R Block point out.
"For taxpayers whose employers provide transportation fringe benefits, using a van pool, transit pass, qualified parking and biking to work can be ways to save money," Kathy Pickering, executive director of the H&R Block Tax Institute, said in a recent release.
The deductions may be small, but they can add up. The most common pre-tax benefits offered by employers, according to H&R Block, include:
- A maximum of $125 per month for commuter highway transportation, such as a van pool;
- A maximum of $125 per month for mass transit passes and tokens;
- Up to $240 per month for parking in a workplace-provided lot, or a mass-transit parking lot;
- And up to $20 per month for bicycle-related expenses.
More people using different modes of transportation like bicycles or public transit means more voters exposed to the effects of tightened budgets, good or bad. Do these deductions help to raise awareness by encouraging Americans to seek out new ways of getting around? Do they have any other indirect effects? Are transportation-related deductions useful or useless? Should they be expanded, scrapped, reformed?
Last week was a high-drama in Washington as lawmakers ticked down to the final days before the federal highway authority was set to expire. They extended it. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Congress went home for two weeks.
They still haven't answered the $300 billion question: How do you pay for a long-term reauthorization of the surface transportation program? Isn't it ironic that the parts of the bill that the congressional transportation czars have the least control over are also the ones causing the most problems? House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Md., actually aren't too far apart on some of the wonkier aspects of their highway bill proposals. They both agree on streamlining federal programs, for example, and on speeding up project financing.
How to pay for highway legislation is a decision well above Boxer and Mica's pay grades. It is a question for House and Senate leaders to hammer out. (Or, in the case of last week, to put off until later.) And let's be clear. The House and Senate leaders don't care about a highway bill nearly as much as Boxer and Mica. They certainly aren't going to spend the same time and effort that went into writing the policy proposals coming up with an accompanying revenue plan.
Where does this leave us? We have a policy without a pay-for. Have the revenues used to finance highways always been disassociated with the policy? How can the money and the policy be more closely matched? Are "user fees" like the gas tax the only way to link money and surface transportation? Should the transportation experts be more involved in the money-raising side of the debate, or vice versa?