Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood went out on a political limb earlier this week when he said a multiyear surface transport reauthorization bill would be passed by Congress and signed into law by the August summer recess.
LaHood, who spoke at the SMC3 annual winter meeting in Atlanta, based his comments on two points: First, after helping shepherd two prior reauthorization bills through Congress during his 14 years in the House of Representatives, he knows the process—despite its many fits and starts—can work. Second, the need for transportation investment, and the productivity and economic benefits that flow from it, is a bipartisan issue that lawmakers on both sides can agree upon.
As LaHood told the SMC3 gathering on Wednesday, "There are no Republican or Democratic runways. There are no Republican or Democratic highways. There are no Republican or Democratic bridges."
LaHood's comments come as the political winds driving reauthorization have shifted. James L. Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who had chaired the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and repeatedly clashed with the administration over the issue, lost his re-election bid in the November midterm election avalanche that turned control of the House over to Republicans. Oberstar was succeeded by Florida Republican John L. Mica, the committee's ranking minority member.
The stars then suddenly began to align. LaHood, a Republican and a member of the committee during his time in Congress, had worked with Mica. And both Mica and the administration found themselves in agreement that motor fuel taxes should not be increased to fund transport programs.
Two months before the midterms, President Barack Obama moved the needle by proposing a six-year reauthorization. The move was a marked change from the administration's prior mood; soured over repeated clashes with then-Rep. Oberstar, especially over the length of the reauthorization and the congressman's desire to push through fuel tax increases, the administration had seemed willing to kick the can into 2013 and not address the issue until a second term for President Obama, should he be re-elected.
James H Burnley IV, who served as transportation secretary under President Reagan and now heads the transport practice at Washington law firm Venable LLP, said he was hopeful progress can be made this year. That, too, represents a change from Burnley's earlier position; in an interview with DC Velocity a year ago, he predicted a multiyear reauthorization bill would not be enacted, at least during President Obama's first term.
Burnley said the administration and the GOP House leadership—including Mica—are aligned in their opposition to fuel tax increases. "Thus, it's possible that they [would] agree eventually to support legislation sized to fit the available revenue flow," Burnley said in an e-mail. "That would be a huge change from Oberstar's futile insistence on moving a bill that required a substantial fuel tax increase."
Burnley said LaHood's party affiliation is of little consequence to making inroads on a multiyear bill. He added that no one should be under any illusions that Rome won't continue to burn while Congress, the White House, and states with a huge stake in the debate continue to fiddle.
"We do have an infrastructure crisis, which federal and state governments are going to have to address sooner rather than later," he said.
John R. Bagileo, a long-time transportation attorney and principal of the Washington firm that bears his name, was not optimistic about Congress's meeting LaHood's timetable. Bagileo told the SMC3 conference that the process is too complex, unwieldy, and loaded with earmarks for consensus to be reached on a broad bill in such a short period of time.
"I just don't see it happening in the time frame discussed," he said.