Total overhaul pushed for ailing transit
(The following story by Jon Schmitz appeared on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website on June 19, 2009.)
PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Saying the nation's transportation system is "suffering from decades of underinvestment," leaders of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee have proposed a huge spending increase and overhaul of national policy.
Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., and ranking Republican John Mica of Florida yesterday unveiled their blueprint for a new six-year transportation bill calling for a 38 percent increase in spending on highways, bridges and transit. The measure also would devote $50 billion for development of high-speed intercity rail along 11 corridors, including one from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. But yesterday's proposal skirted the most difficult issue faced by Congress in crafting a new transportation bill -- funding.
The federal Highway Trust Fund, supported by dwindling gasoline tax revenues, is projected to go broke in August. Two congressional study commissions have recommended increases in the 18.4-cent-per-gallon levy, which hasn't changed since 1993, and longer-term initiatives to replace the tax with a fee based on miles driven or other revenue streams.
Mr. Oberstar said the issue of financing would be tackled in hearings over the next two months.
He and Mr. Mica assailed an Obama administration proposal to extend the current transportation law, known as SAFETEA-LU, by 18 months, saying that would reduce spending on vital projects and cause job losses. "We don't have time for 18 months. That puts a Damocles sword of uncertainty over the future of transportation. It is unacceptable," Mr. Oberstar said.
"We're going to do everything in our power to move this forward, regardless of what the administration said yesterday," Mr. Mica said. "We're going to do it together, one way or another, come hell or high water, and I don't see any water right now."
The measure calls for $450 billion in highway and transit spending, a 38 percent increase over SAFETEA-LU, which expires in September. Of that, some $337.4 billion would go to highway and bridge projects and $99.8 billion to public transit. The previous bill, when passed in 2005, allocated $189.5 billion for highways and $45.3 billion for transit.
It would require states to develop six-year transportation plans with performance benchmarks in exchange for greater flexibility in how they spend federal funds; stress "intermodality," or the connection of various transportation modes; and create an Office of Expedited Project Delivery to try to trim "unnecessarily long delays" of 10 years or more in delivering major transportation projects.
It would double spending on highway safety programs and create an Office of Livability to advance projects that promote mass-transit use, walking and bicycling, and encourage development of communities that reduce reliance on automotive travel.
A 10-page summary released yesterday of what eventually will be several hundred pages of legislation, called the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009, painted a dire picture of the current state of transportation.
It said almost 61,000 miles, or 37 percent, of the National Highway System are in poor or fair condition, and more than 1 of every 4 U.S. bridges is rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
"The United States has almost no high-speed passenger rail service, even though it is widely recognized that high-speed rail can significantly reduce congestion on our highways and in the air, decrease our dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions," it said.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday told lawmakers that the Obama administration will offer a plan to extend financing of current highway programs for 18 months, saying the task of writing new legislation should not be rushed.
But in a message taped for delivery Monday to the International Bridge Conference in Pittsburgh, Mr. Oberstar said extending the current law would cause a catastrophic 35 percent decline in transportation spending next year. "It will not happen," he said.
Monday, June 22, 2009
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