Federal Update
Summer blockbuster
Congress and the White House wage battle as the Highway Trust Fund heads for the red and SAFETEA-LU nears its experation date

By David Tanner
staff writer


In early summer, Congress and the White House set the scene for an epic battle over transportation funding.

The conflict heated up to blockbuster status as the Highway Trust Fund faces a shortfall in August and the current highway program known as SAFETEA-LU races toward a Sept. 30 expiration date.

A distinguished player, Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, drew his weapon in June in the form of a six-year, $450 billion authorization bill that would renew the federal role in transportation and set policy and funding goals.

His plan calls for $337 billion to be spent on roads and bridges, $87.6 billion for rail and transit, and $12.6 billion for improving safety among its many facets.

Oberstar’s script borrows heavily from recommendations from two federal infrastructure commissions although it stops short of calling for a tax on vehicle miles traveled, or VMT.

Some are still fearful of the bill’s provisions for tolling and congestion pricing as toll revenue would be authorized to fund mass transit.

Oberstar’s 775-page draft calms in other areas including his proposal to establish infrastructure banks that would loan money for transportation. It heats up again with an increased emphasis on intermodal movement of people and freight and the allowance of 10 percent of the Highway Trust Fund to be used for transportation enhancements including bike paths.

But before the swashbuckler’s ink had even dried, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood dashed onto the scene and urged Congress to put off a highway bill and focus immediately on an 18-month extension of SAFETEA-LU. LaHood also delivered a memorable line that the White House was dead-set against raising fuel taxes.

An 18-month extension of the “status quo” didn’t set well with Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and his highway bill co-stars Peter DeFazio, D-OR, and Republicans John Mica of Florida and John J. Duncan of Tennessee. They say a highway bill is still possible this year.

Other players involved in the funding drama include leading lady Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, who didn’t help the Oberstar contingency when she sided with LaHood’s 18-month SAFETEA-LU extension.

Bit players Sen. David Vitter, R-LA, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-FL, filed bills in their respective chambers to move unobligated cash from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to the Highway Trust Fund.

DeFazio captured a memorable scene of his own by proposing a tax on oil speculators to fund a $190 billion chunk of the new highway bill.

With the expiration of SAFETEA-LU pending, and a Highway Trust Fund on the edge of insolvency, states run the risk of having transportation funds reduced or delayed. That leaves transportation programs operating under a series of short-term measures and stopgaps.

The transportation world has seen that one before. Stay tuned to see which of the proposals becomes the next box-office smash.