On the heels of Senator George Voinovich’s announcement earlier this week that the Senate will take up the long-term reauthorization of the U.S. transportation bill this year, Voinovich (R-OH) and several colleagues gathered at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. this morning to discuss the future of transportation spending. All were eager to get to work on reauthorization. “We need to start preconferencing the bill right now,” Voinovich said.
The panelists, which included Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) and former Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) showed support for a performance-based transportation funding system, in which money would be allocated based on projects’ ability to further national transportation goals.
Expressing hope for bipartisan cooperation on reauthorization, the legislators maintained that there are greater opportunities to reach across party lines on transportation as opposed to other issues. Senator Gorton discussed how the divides over transportation are more often between states or urban and rural areas, and are driven by the formula funding system. Blumenauer reflected that he’s never seen such alignment of interest on infrastructure-related issues, likely driven in part by the economic crisis. Dedicating adequate funding to transportation will allow Congress to “create jobs in an area where we know jobs will be created” and give the public confidence in at least one sector of the economy, said Voinovich.
Voinovich stressed that conservatives will support reauthorization for its infrastructure, economic and environmental benefits – and the fact that it will cover its costs. However, this ability to pay relies on a gas tax increase, enthusiastically billed as “the right thing to do” by Voinovich but an unpopular measure in Congress. Carper emphasized the need for the White House to provide cover for lawmakers who want to support the increase. However, the Obama administration has not supported raising the gas tax.
Voinovich called on the White House to be more present in the overall transportation bill process, noting that they have not been at the table. Blumenauer cited the need for dialogue between President Obama and John Boehner, Minority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Panelists concurred that addressing transportation funding is integral to dealing with the deficit. “User fees are the way we’re going to break the larger fiscal conundrum,” said Blumenauer.
The Congressmen also stressed the need for a national transportation vision, akin to one put forth by the Eisenhower administration when promoting the Interstate system. Gorton credited the program’s popularity to the fact that the American public understood its goals and saw a return on their investment as highways were built.
The panelists pointed out several additional issues that need work in the coming ten months:
- Redefining the federal-state relationship, with each party taking on an appropriate financial burden
- Resolving the issue of donor-donee states, the competition for funding between states that send more in federal fuel tax dollars than they receive in federal funding and those that receive more than they contribute
- Achieving the right level of flexibility in state and local use of funding
- The eventual need to move to a system where fees are based on vehicle miles traveled. This is currently being piloted in Oregon, and Blumenauer is promoting legislation that would expand the pilot to every state.
- How revenue from a climate cap-and-trade system could fund transportation, and whether it will supplement or replace an increase in the gas tax