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Prospects for Transportation Legislation and Other Infrastructure Ventures

Posted by Ken Orski on Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Innovation NewsBriefs
Vol. 21, No. 25

What are the prospects for surface transportation legislation in the 112th Congress? We explored this question informally in conversations on the sidelines of several recent meetings and conferences, by reviewing debates on the National Journal’s Transportation Blog and by soliciting observations from colleagues in the transportation community. This, let it be clear, was not a scientifically conducted survey but an attempt to reflect and distill the views of a group of informed transportation professionals and Washington insiders. All comments were solicited on an off-the-record and not-for-attribution basis.

The responses came in two forms. Some respondents told us what they think should be in the legislation, other speculated what will be in the legislation. There was a wide disparity between the two views. What the transportation community wants to see in the bill differs widely from what it expects to see in the bill. Typical of the first view was a desire to see the Congress pass a multi-year surface transportation bill that ensures a strong federal role, a long-term financial commitment and a substantial increase in funding. Unless Congress acts promptly and decisively, “deficiencies in our transportation system will seriously compromise both the near-term prospects for economic recovery and our long-term economic productivity,” wrote former Secretaries Samuel Skinner and Norman Mineta in the National Journal’s Transportation Experts blog. The outcome of the mid-term elections and the prospect of a divided government, they thought, should not  mean additional delays and stop-gap measures.

The advocates of higher spending left the key question of how to pay for an expanded program largely unanswered. Only a few individuals still suggested a gas tax increase as a way to bridge the funding gap (that idea has been put to rest by John Mica, the likely chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the next Congress, who dismissed it as a “non-starter”).

A majority of the individuals we talked to, however, thought that the expected political realignment  in Congress will inevitably affect the size, scope and reach of the next transportation bill. Given a Congress that will likely be heavily motivated to cut spending and reduce the reach of government, the bill they might come up with might be shorter in duration (2-3 years instead of the traditional 6-years), smaller in scope, contain fewer earmarks and focus more heavily on matters of genuine federal interest. Virtually every one we talked to thought that any bill passed in the 112th Congress would be considerably smaller in size than the $500 billion bill proposed by Rep. Oberstar.

Most people we interviewed thought that there is a good chance of a modest “transitional” bill passing during the next session of Congress, although a few pessimists felt that in the absence of additional funding (meaning a gas tax increase), the existing program might have to limp along under continuing resolutions until after the presidential election of 2012. The optimists pointed to Rep. Mica’s declared desire to see a multi-year authorization enacted during the next session of Congress, the White House’s equally strong interest in seeing it done and the bipartisan nature of transportation legislation. The pessimist warned of a prospect of political gridlock and legislative stalemate on all discretionary big-ticket spending measures in the next Congress. In any event, the window of opportunity for any major piece of legislation was thought to be only the first 8-10 months of the next Congressional session. Beyond that period, presidential campaign politics will likely preempt any major legislative activity.

There was a general consensus that the new legislation would contain some reforms but not as extensive or “transformational” as urged by some transportation advocates. Mentioned as possible reforms were program consolidation, more flexibility for states to use tolling, greater facilitation of public-private partnerships, an expanded TIFIA credit program and a wider use of performance metrics. Chances of creating a National Infrastructure Bank as proposed by the White House were judged small in view of the bipartisan Senate opposition to establishing an autonomous grant-making entity outside the reach of Congress. Equally remote was thought the prospect of narrowing the scope of the Highway Trust Fund to highway-based programs only as advocated by some conservative voices; or the expansion of the Trust Fund to all modes as promoted by proponents of multi-modalism. Nor was total elimination of congressional earmarks considered politically realistic. In sum, the weight of opinion suggested that the policy and program reforms are likely to be less dramatic and the money far less plentiful than the advocacy-oriented elements of the transportation community have hoped to see.

Prospects for High Speed Rail

Opinions about the future of High-Speed Rail (HSR) in this country ranged from mildly positive to highly skeptical. Optimists pointed to the high level of interest throughout the nation (as evidenced by the number of application for rail grants), the generally receptive public opinion and the influence of White House advocacy backed by a substantial sum of money. Skeptics tended to stress the high cost of building a network of high-speed lines; the difficulty of finding a long-term source of dedicated capital to sustain what would probably be a multi-generational effort; and the problems associated with shared-use passenger-freight operation in capacity-constrained rail corridors.

Also mentioned as a potential barrier was the continued skepticism of the rail industry. Typical were the sentiments of Wick Moorman, chief executive of Norfolk Southern who spoke at a rail conference in Washington on October 18. Forced government attempts to impose new costly and burdensome requirements on freight railroads, Moorman said, such as Positive Train Control and higher liability limits for passenger rail accidents, may be well-intentioned but they introduce an element of risk that cannot be tolerated. “If we cannot invest in our infrastructure and make at least a moderate return on investment, we’re not going to be interested in running more passenger trains,” Moorman stated. As one railroad industry attendee remarked to us, while Moorman spoke for his own company, he might as well have spoken for the entire industry.

Still other hurdles standing in the way of fiscally-strapped states are the U.S. DOT requirement for a 20 percent local match for HSR grants and the added operating and maintenance costs of high-speed operations.

In sum, we found many voices in and out of the railroad industry saying that there are still large uncertainties surrounding deployment of high-speed rail service and that the future of high-speed rail in this country is by no means assured.

Reflections on Governor Christie’s Trans-Hudson Tunnel  (ARC) Decision

We believe that Governor Chris Christie was right to have terminated the trans-Hudson tunnel project as currently conceived. In its current state, ARC is purely a local commuter rail connection to Manhattan with a terminus adjacent to Penn Station but not even tied into its Amtrak intercity lines. An investment on this scale should be considered in a larger context of the proposed Amtrak’s NE Corridor high-speed line. As such, it is properly a project of regional or even national significance and should be funded primarily by the federal government and not by New Jersey taxpayers.

As we have noted earlier, if there is one corridor in this country that justifies and deserves true high-speed rail service by virtue of its urban densities, passenger flows, economic activity and sheer size and importance, it’s the Boston-to-Washington corridor. More than any other transportation initiative of recent years, the Amtrak concept plan evokes the tradition of what Felix Rohatyn has called America’s “bold endeavors” — a series of grand transportation enterprises that began with the Erie Canal and the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century and continued into the 20th century with the Panama Canal and the Interstate Highway System. The Northeast Corridor High-Speed Rail Line would be a truly worthy 21st century inheritor of that tradition. And the Trans-Hudson Tunnel could be a fitting beginning to this bold venture.

We agree with the N.J. Alliance for Action that the $3 billion federal commitment to the ARC tunnel should be redirected to Amtrak for construction of the trans-Hudson tunnel as an integral part and essential first element of Amtrak’s plans to develop high-speed rail service in the Northeast Corridor. We further believe, along with Rep John Mica (R-FL), that any future federal high-speed rail assistance should be focused primarily on making the Amtrak vision a reality rather than dissipated among many “high-speed” rail corridors of questionable merit.

C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, now in its 21st year of publication.

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