Sugar in the Tank

When Representative John Mica, a Republican from Florida and chair of the House Transportation Committee released his proposal for the overdue Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill earlier this month, liberals condemned the plan's lack of investment in infrastructure. They missed, however, a bigger failing: Transportation spending is not just underfunded in this country; it's broken, and we can't afford to wait another six years to fix it. House Republicans, though, haven't proposed sensible transportation policy changes, even ones conservatives should support.

Smart-growth advocates, unions, and environmentalists had been excited by President Barack Obama's $556 billion proposal for the six-year transportation bill, but Mica's plan offers a mere $230 billion because Republicans are unwilling to raise the gasoline tax, which pays for federal transportation spending. They are also unwilling to create new sources of funding such as a tax on vehicle miles traveled (this would be achieved using GPS monitoring). But gasoline-tax revenues are actually declining, not just holding steady, because of lower usage during the recession and increasing vehicle efficiency. Whereas President George W. Bush was happy to cover the shortfall between gas-tax revenues and authorized transportation spending by taking money from general funds, these newly principled Republicans won't do that. So per-year spending on transportation would decline from $52 billion to $35 billion per year when it should be going up to meet our growing needs.

The commitment to squeezing domestic discretionary spending, however, is more important to House Republicans. Mica actually supports raising funds for transportation -- he co-sponsored a much larger proposal with former Chair Jim Oberstar last year -- but he cannot get Republican support for it in the current environment. "He's collared by the fact that the Ryan budget only allows this much money for [transportation]," says David Burwell, author of a recently released comprehensive report on surface transportation reauthorization from the Carnegie Endowment.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, may introduce a two-year extension that would implement reforms while we wait for the economic and political circumstances for raising the gas tax to improve. But House Republicans are going a different route, proposing a full six-year extension that leaves out many of the performance and accountability standards we should adopt. For a party that talks a good game about improving efficiency in government programs, the GOP sure isn't acting like it.

The truth is that there was little political appetite for a gasoline-tax increase before Republicans took control of the House and, going into an election year, there is none today. The Obama administration has repeatedly poured cold water on rumors that officials were secretly working on a gasoline-tax increase or vehicle-miles-traveled proposal.

But transportation wonks and the Obama administration have a whole list of reforms to include in the transportation reauthorization, which could spend the money we do have more effectively. Most of the proposals floating around in the think-tank world involve bringing the kind of business best practices to federal transportation spending that Republicans claim to love. Most of them have been left out of Mica's proposal.

Currently, the federal government passes money to states and localities for transportation projects without metrics on what should be achieved. Instead, we should set goals for our transportation policy, such as reducing carbon emissions and dependence on oil, measure whether projects have helped us to meet them, and hold states accountable. The Republican proposal, though, says that formulas will determine 90 percent of funding. You can't hold states accountable if you can't withhold their money. Nor is it even clear what goals we would measure progress against.

"Right now, there is no purpose to the program," explains Robert Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution. "Money comes into the federal government and goes out based on public support. It should have an objective, such as bridge repair or reducing carbon emissions, and then choose on that basis and measure success at it."

Mica's proposal also did not address how American highways have scarred our landscape and made us dependent on cars. It's not a given that large roads can't accommodate pedestrians and bicycles. Urban boulevards from before the mid-20th century have tree-lined sidewalks, bike lanes, and street parking. They work within the street grid and enhance, rather than destroy, neighborhoods. But our federally subsidized highways have generally made no accommodations for other modes of travel. To make matters worse, Mica's bill would eliminate the 1 percent of transportation spending currently set aside to help communities build bicycle or pedestrian paths.

Mass transit will fair poorly, too. By cutting funding without adjusting the traditional 80/20 formula for roads and mass transit, new projects are almost certain not to get federal support. "It's pretty bad news for transit," says David Goldberg, communications director at Transportation for America. "The Mica bill puts emphasis on formula grants to transit agencies, almost to the exclusion of project funding. There's a bunch of projects in the pipeline now, the new starts program is oversubscribed as it is, and communities are waiting in line. With less money, the waits would be even longer. Pretty much anything new seeking federal funds would be out of luck."

Providing transportation choices, rather than deciding in Washington that everyone should drive, and foisting that decision on citizens through federal spending that favors roads, is hardly a conservative principle. The conservative principle of disinvestment, though, is more important to many Republicans. As Goldberg notes, "It could have been worse. There were some in Mica's caucus who would have eliminated transit altogether."

Another tactic that Republicans should embrace is private-public partnerships. In certain areas, such as suburban Virginia, business owners have seen the benefits of extended mass transit and have volunteered to help fund construction of stations near them. This, though, happens on only a local and ad-hoc basis. While the Republican proposal contains some hand-waving language regarding private-public partnerships, considerable investment in such strategies won't happen without a plan to leverage them in appropriate ways in different places. Creating a national infrastructure bank to manage and provide seed money for these projects is a good idea that Obama proposed but Mica has not.

Finally, for supposed advocates of local control and the magic of the market, House Republicans have failed to promote either adequately when it comes transportation. Take congestion pricing: Currently, states are not allowed to put tolls on their section of an Interstate highway. But the best way to unclog highways would be with tolling at high-volume times or for single-occupancy vehicles. Some states would do this if given the freedom. Yet Republicans have not proposed letting local governments harness the market's ability to price a good more effectively.

To be fair, the Republicans' bill contains bright spots. The GOP would streamline the bureaucracy by combining or eliminating outdated programs, although experts caution that the devil will be in the still-unannounced details. States will be allowed to add tolls to non-Interstate highways that receive federal funding and to toll new lanes on Interstates. Overall, however, the Republicans' resistance to spending money, or even spending it wisely, means we will continue to fall behind other countries when it comes to building our transportation infrastructure.

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