Stimulus Could Hurt Transportation Bill
By Stephen C. Fehr, Staff Writer
Congress' expected approval of the planned economic stimulus package, which will include billions of dollars for infrastructure projects, could scuttle an effort later this spring to enact a separate spending program covering the future needs of the nation's transportation system, according to government and industry officials.
President-elect Barack Obama's planned job stimulus package, which could be about $775 billion over two years, will include an undetermined amount of money for roads, rails, bridges and other infrastructure.
Separately, Congress is planning this year to revamp the nation's long-term highway and transit program, which is the main source of federal transportation dollars for states. The current program expires Sept. 30, and lawmakers had hoped to draw up a new, forward-looking program that would better sync the U.S. transportation network's needs with the country's economic goals. That could cost about $500 billion over five years.
The fear now, according to government and industry officials, is that if Congress drags out consideration of the stimulus package into February or later, it would be harder for members to approve the transportation program later this spring. Voters would ask why Congress is spending tens of billions of dollars on transportation projects in the stimulus package and then turning around and spending billions more in the highway and transit program. Congress might ask that too.
"I think there's a potential at the congressional level of a sense that, 'We've taken care of infrastructure needs (in the stimulus package), what do you mean we need an infrastructure bill?'" said state Sen. Bruce Starr, a Republican from Oregon .
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), chairman of the National Governors Association , told a group of transportation policymakers Jan. 12 at the Brookings Institution that Obama's stimulus package addresses a short term, one-time need to create jobs by funding quick, shovel-ready projects around the country. But apart from adding jobs, he said, there is still a long term need to overhaul the U.S. transportation system, which is the intent of the multi-year highway and transit bill.
"I worry we'll have a stimulus plan of about $100 billion (for transportation) and that box will sort of get checked off" of the to-do list, he said. Obama's stimulus plan has helped put a spotlight on the nation's infrastructure needs, Rendell said, but "now we need to keep the momentum going" the rest of the year on the long-range funding.
John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials, which represents state transportation agencies, agreed. "The stimulus package has overshadowed the highway (bill)," he said. The association has proposed a $545 billion highway bill.
Obama had hoped Congress would approve the stimulus plan before the Jan. 20 inauguration, but lawmakers now are unsure how long it will be before the Senate and House vote. The longer it takes Congress to approve an economic stimulus package, officials said, the harder it may be to convince lawmakers to approve a separate highway spending bill.
Congress cannot afford to delay reauthorization of the highway program, the government and industry officials warned. For one thing, the Highway Trust Fund , into which federal gasoline tax receipts are deposited to spend on highway and transit projects, will probably run out of money by Sept. 30 because receipts aren't keeping up with expenses. Congress, which injected $8 billion in the depleted fund last fall, vowed to determine how to raise revenue to shore up the trust fund when it rewrites the highway and transit bill this year.
If lawmakers wind up delaying approval of the highway bill, they would probably pass a stopgap measure to continue the current $286.5 billion program at the same funding levels. But they still would have to resolve the financing of the Highway Trust Fund as it drains.
Congressional committee staffers say they have a relatively short window for the highway bill to clear Congress. The bill must be approved before summer, when Congress usually begins considering spending bills that often take up the rest of the summer.
"I am nervous if we have a stimulus package larger than our highway program, it will give people an excuse to put off the highway (program)," James O'Keefe, senior economist for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, recently told a group of state legislators meeting in Atlanta .
"We have to be off the floor by the end of May" or there will be no bill, O'Keefe said. "We really need to get cracking."
Adding to the difficulty this year, officials said, is that a new president and his administration probably will want to help shape the priorities in the highway bill, but Obama has not yet named such key officials as federal highway and transit administrators. Obama did choose U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood (R) of Illinois as the transportation secretary on Dec. 19. A long delay in waiting for a proposal from the Obama administration could stymie the highway bill.
"We expect they'll want to play a role in the bill," said Jim Kolb, staff director of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transportation of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Some officials said they believe that Obama and Congress can make separate cases to the American people for spending on the stimulus package and the multiyear highway and transit program.
"I think we're all smart people. We can hold two ideas at the same time," said state Sen. D. Scott Dibble, a Democrat from Minnesota .
Tony Dorsey, a spokesman for the state transportation officials' association, said he is confident people will see the sequence of events, starting with the rescue of the Highway Trust Fund last fall to the economic stimulus package to the multiyear highway and transit program later this year.
"People see the different chapters," he said. "The public is going to get it."