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Member of SAFETEA-LU Blue Ribbon Commission Weighs in on Senate, House Bills

Posted by Larry Ehl on Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Transportation Issues Daily

Four years ago a Congressionally-appointed bipartisan Commission offered recommendations for post-SAFETEA-LU federal transportation policy and funding. We asked a member of that Commission, Frank Busalacchi, to comment on the current Senate and House legislative proposals.

Busalacchi, former Secretary of the Wisconsin DOT, served on the bi-partisan National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. This group was established by Congress in SAFETEA-LU, and was charged with “completing a comprehensive study of the national surface transportation system and the Highway Trust Fund,” identifying future needs and develop financing recommendations. The group held ten field hearings seven public sessions. The final report was presented to Congress in January 2008, a year before SAFETEA-LU was scheduled to expire.

Insiders generally regarded Busalacchi’s participation as particularly important because he brought the perspective of program delivery and decision making by State DOTs to the table.  He was a particularly strong advocate for safety and passenger rail, as well as labor issues.

Mr. Busalacchi currently serves as Director of the Transportation and Public Works Department for Milwaukee County, and as Chair of ACT (American Crisis in Transportation Coalition).  He served as Wisconsin DOT Secretary from 2003 through 2011, and as Chair of the States for Passenger Rail Coalition for six years.

Congressional Transportation Proposals Contain Good Policies but Passed on Some Opportunities

by Frank Busalacchi

The United States is facing a crisis.  The country’s transportation infrastructure is deteriorating, threatening the economic vitality of our nation as well as the safety and mobility of the traveling public.  To those familiar with the transportation industry, this is not news.  There’s near consensus among experts and stakeholder organizations that we need to invest more in our transportation system.  To the public, this crisis is apparent in the frustrating congestion and service delays experienced by millions of Americans each day.

Congress recognizes the threat that further infrastructure deterioration poses to our quality of life.  The House and Senate are currently taking steps to enact legislation funding our transportation systems.  As our leaders work toward a solution, it’s important to recognize that transportation is not a partisan issue.  Transportation is a direct contributor to the United States’ economic well-being, enhancing competitiveness and creating jobs. Strong transportation infrastructure also enhances our nation’s security. Consequently, it’s in everybody’s interest—Republicans and Democrats alike – to enact comprehensive legislation that sustains our transportation system and promotes moving people and goods safely and efficiently.

A bipartisan framework already exists in the solutions proposed by the Congressionally-appointed National Surface Transportation Policy and revenue Study Commission. 

During the Bush Administration, Congress convened the Commission to research the nation’s transportation needs and recommend a path forwards.  As Secretary of Transportation for a Democratic governor from Wisconsin, I served on the Commission with experts from both sides of the aisle and both the private and public sectors.  During the study we held field hearings in ten cities, received testimony from hundreds of stakeholders, and assembled a Blue Ribbon Panel of nearly 80 transportation experts.  Additionally, Commission staff and the U.S. Department of Transportation performed technical analyses to study the effects of potential policy changes.

We published the Commission’s report, “Transportation for Tomorrow,” in December 2007 and held hearings to brief members of Congress.  The report called for a substantial increase in funding levels to bring our surface transportation system into a state of good repair and construct new infrastructure to sustain and promote economic development.  Our recommendations stressed the importance of all modes of transportation, recognizing that a multimodal transportation system enhances access and mobility for all users.  Additionally, the report called for reforms to existing processes and programs, including consolidating federal surface transportation programs and streamlining project delivery.

To pay the bill, the Commission recommended that all options be on the table –fuel taxes, public-private partnerships, tolls, congestion pricing and so on.  In the short-term, the Commission found that the best way to fund a new surface transportation bill was to increase the fuel tax.  Supported by both Commission Republicans and Democrats, a fuel tax surcharge was not meant to be a long-term fix, but the most sensible, user-based option to fund our near-term transportation needs.  This would give us time to explore and further develop other funding mechanisms, such as a vehicle-miles traveled user fee.  There is no silver bullet for our funding shortfalls, but only by keeping all options on the table can we achieve a mix of revenue streams that properly addresses our transportation needs.

Subsequent commissions, as well as countless transportation experts and stakeholder organizations, have come to strikingly similar conclusions.  

Unfortunately, the Commission’s recommendations fell on deaf ears. In the time that’s passed, the transportation debate has been highly politicized, fueled by partisan divisiveness and ideology.  This is a grave disservice to the American people, and compromises economic development at a time when it’s most needed.  The proposed House transportation bill eliminates dedicated transit funding, undermining the multimodal system that so many Americans have come to rely on to get to and from work.  Both the proposed Senate and House bills provide for woefully inadequate funding levels – less than three times the levels recommended by the Commission.  At proposed federal fund levels, we’ll be unable to maintain our existing transportation system, much less construct the infrastructure needed to accommodate our growing population.

The good news, though, is that the proposed House and Senate bills support policies promoted by the Commission’s report and transportation experts, including reforms that streamline project delivery, reduce bureaucracy, encourage innovation, and get Americans working more quickly.

As Congress debates the details of reauthorization legislation, we must urge our leaders to set differences aside to adopt sensible, bipartisan transportation policies.

It’s not just Congress that needs to take action, though.

The public – not just industry stakeholders – must demand that their representatives promote a comprehensive transportation bill that supports all modes of transportation.  But most importantly, we must insist that any legislation fully funds our transportation needs and keeps all options on the table.   Anything less is a compromise on our nation’s ability to move people and goods safely and efficiently, maintain our economic preeminence, and create good jobs.

Read full article ( Member of SAFETEA-LU Blue Ribbon Commission Weighs in on Senate, House Bills

Larry Ehl is the founder and publisher of Transportation Issues Daily. In the public sector, Larry was Federal Relations Manager for Washington State DOT; Chief of Staff to US Senator Slade Gorton; and was twice elected to the Edmonds School Board.

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