Should Feds End Role in Transportation Funding and Policy?

A Congressional Committee will review the federal role in transportation issues. Image – U.S. Capitol, Architect of the Capitol.

Some Republicans believe the federal government should get out of the transportation policy and funding business and leave it to state and local governments, and the private sector. Demonstrating that he’s a rock solid supporter of the federal role, House Transportation Chair Bill Shuster has arranged for the Committee’s first hearing of the year to focus on how federal involvement strengthens the nation’s infrastructure. Stakeholders hope it will set the tone for coming hearings on the next surface transportation bill, a new passenger rail bill, and a maritime transportation bill.

Announcing the Wednesday morning hearing, “The Federal Role in America’s Infrastructure,” Shuster notes that

“Transportation and infrastructure have long been recognized as federal responsibilities shared with the States.  Understanding the federal role in financing, building, and maintaining an efficient system of infrastructure is critical to ensuring U.S. economic growth and global competitiveness.”

Hearing speakers include U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue, Building America’s Future Co-Chair and former Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell, and Laborers’ International Union of North America General President Terry O’Sullivan.

Those are articulate, knowledgeable advocates for transportation investments and their benefits.  But I’m not sure they represent organizations that could change the mind of Tea-Party devolutionists. Then again, I’m not sure who could.

One possible reason for including the Laborers’ Union is to convince any wavering Democrats.  Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog notes that the lobby for devolution to the states is growing beyond conservative Republicans:

“Rohit Aggarwala — former director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City and now top advisor to the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group — made the same [devolution] case a few weeks ago in a Bloomberg News op-ed” Aggarwala wrote “A strong, smart, well-funded federal program would be great. But if Congress can’t pass one now, it should just get itself out of the way, by eliminating the federal gas tax entirely and cutting Washington’s role in surface transportation. It would streamline government. And it would probably lead to more investment in infrastructure and greener transportation policies.”

Snyder notes the irony: “Shuster and Aggarwala have flipped traditional roles, with the green sustainability leader now calling for Washington to get out of the transportation biz and the conservative rural Republican defending the importance of federal involvement.”

Sidenote: Aggarwala believes devolution “would probably increase investment nationally, and it would also lead to greener transportation policies.” I’m not so sure. Many of the investment decisions would be made by state legislatures, which in most states mirror Congressional attitudes about transportation investment.

My state, Washington, is a good example. Our state Senate is controlled by a Republican coalition, while the House and Governor’s seat is controlled by the Democrats. There is a mixed attitude toward roads, transit, bike-ped, and passenger rail – not to mention complete streets projects. Perhaps more relevant: any tax and fee increases must be approved by 2/3 of the House and Senate, a very tough order. Increasing transportation fees and taxes may be only marginally easier in Washington state, compared to Washington D.C.

Some regions aren’t waiting to see how the devolution debate turns out. Steve Heminger, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (San Francisco’s MPO) noted at a conference last week that his region already is raising over 2/3 of the funds it is investing in regional transportation. The best part, he observed, is that no one else is taking a cut off the top, and no one in the federal or state capital is telling the region how it must spend the funds.  Constituents of the region are making the decisions about how to raise and spend the funds. His advice to conference attendees: don’t wait for the federal government to solve your challenges.

I have to admit, Heminger’s argument (which was for charging ahead, not for devolution) was pretty persuasive and caused me to see devolution in a different light. Ultimately, I think I still fall in the Robert Puentes-Emil Frankl camp of reform the federal program, don’t devolve it.  More on their thinking in a story later this week.

More information about Wednesday’s House Committee hearing will be posted here as it becomes available.

Stories coming later this week: “A Cheat Sheet in Favor of Devolving Federal Transportation” and “Reform, Don’t Devolve, Federal Role in Transportation.”

Sources:

Committee Hearing to Focus on Federal Role in America’s Infrastructure,” House Transportation Committee news release

Shuster Pre-empts Devolutionists With Defense of Federal Role,” Streetsblog Capitol Hill