Ray LaHood may be one of the few optimists left in Washington.
In January, the Secretary of Transportation told the SMC3 winter meeting in Atlanta that he believes prospects are good for Congress's passing a new surface transportation bill by the August recess.
I'm not sure what the odds are of a sharply divided Congress coming to terms on such a major funding authorization, but I would suspect they are long. Even though most federal spending on highways comes from the highway trust fund, it seems inevitable that the measure will get caught up in the fierce debate over budget deficits. In fact, a rule adopted by the new Republican House majority at the start of the new Congress makes that all but certain. The rule eliminated the "firewall" that reserved funds in the highway trust fund for highway and transit spending, making it easier to move those revenues to the general fund and in consequence, more difficult to pass long-term spending bills. The House adopted the rule even though a broad range of business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Trucking Associations, urged members to reject it, arguing it would create too much uncertainty for the long-term planning required for major infrastructure projects.
The road to passing a new highway bill has already been a rough one. The previous law—the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU)—expired at the end of September 2009, and only short-term extensions have kept the law alive.
Yet LaHood remains optimistic. As reported previously in DC Velocity, he based his optimism partly on his own long experience as a Republican member of the House and his expectation that members of Congress will understand the productivity and economic benefits that come with infrastructure investment. "There are no Republican or Democratic runways. There are no Republican or Democratic highways. There are no Republican or Democratic bridges," he told the SMC3 conference.
On top of that, LaHood, who was a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee while in Congress, has worked closely with its new chairman, Rep. John Mica of Florida. Mica told The Wall Street Journal that he wants to shield infrastructure spending from the stark austerity Republicans promise for long-term federal spending programs. (He opposed the rule eliminating the firewall, while supporting the overall rules change package.) President Obama also highlighted the importance of infrastructure investment in his recent State of the Union address.
Let's hope his optimism is warranted. Passage of a comprehensive long-term bill is essential for a number of reasons. Not least of all, business supply chains depend on a reliable transportation network, and the efficiency of that network is critical to U.S. competitiveness. Few disagree, but getting to yes will be hard.