July 29, 2014

Transit, HSR on thin ice with new Congress

(The following article, written by Ken Orski, editor and publisher of Innovation Briefs, is reproduced with permission of Mr. Orski.)

WASHINGTON — Congressional action on transportation this year, including the shape of the next surface transportation bill, will be inevitably influenced by the changed political geography of the 112th Congress.

Not only will the level of funding for transportation be dictated by new, fiscally conservative House appropriators, but the program priorities will be influenced by a new House majority that largely hails from small-town and suburban America.

None of the new GOP majority on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee represents big city transit-oriented districts. A majority come from the heartland. The closest to a major urbanized areas that any of the Republican members come from, are Oklahoma City and Charleston, S.C.

Thus, the committee will likely focus on traditional concerns of keeping roads and bridges in a state of good repair — and try to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund by bringing expenditures in line with expected gas tax receipts. That means a budget of approximately $40 billion to $41 billion annually.

Within these budget limits, transit will maintain its customary standing — although it may receive somewhat less emphasis, given the changed composition of the T&I Committee.

Also likely to be curtailed will be support for high-speed rail, given its cool reception in Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Florida and other Republican-dominated state legislatures.

Discretionary “executive earmarks,” such as the TIGER grants, will most likely be severely cut back if not entirely eliminated. They have not been popular with Republican lawmakers.

Chairman Mica’s resolve to make passage of a multi-year authorization a top priority increases the likelihood that a transportation bill will be brought to the House floor and approved during the first session of the 112th Congress. The Senate is likely go along.

While the next authorization will almost surely be more modest in size and less “transformational” than many in the transportation community would like to see, it will at least restore the federal surface transportation program to a stable and predictable multi-year footing.