A small but influential group of individuals gathered recently at the downtown Washington office of University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs at the invitation of its Director, former Gov.Gerald Baliles. The bipartisan group included two former U.S. Transportation Secretaries and some 30 key players and opinion leaders who constitute what could be loosely described as Washington’s unofficial permanent transportation policy establishment.
The purpose of the meeting was to solicit advice on a set of recommendations stemming from the Miller Center’s fall transportation conference. The central challenge was posed succinctly by Gov. Baliles at the outset of the meeting. The transportation sector, he suggested, is being neglected despite the evidence of a mounting crisis – aging infrastructure, growing traffic congestion, strained freight and logistical facilities. Both the Congress and the Administration are extemporizing rather than taking bold steps to avert the looming crisis.
Where is the outrage, Baliles asked. Why is there no popular outcry? And what can we do to overcome this inertia? How can we create a sense of urgency and develop a narrative that will reverberate with the public, capture the media’s attention and goad Congress and the Administration into action? The Governor’s conclusion: we must involve “the three Ps”: the Public, the Press and the Politicians.
Does the public perceive a genuine “transportation crisis?” Opinions differ. While catastrophic failures such as the bridge collapse in the Twin Cities are a powerful reminder of the need for constant vigilance, such dramatic failures are happily few and far between. The public does not necessarily share the transportation officials’ sense of urgency or alarm about “crumbling infrastructure” because its signs are mostly hidden and the Minneapolis bridge collapse is a fading memory. While the severity of metropolitan traffic congestion and its adverse impact on the economy and people’s lives are readily acknowledged, the driving public has grown skeptical that more money or program reform will bring effective congestion relief. Perhaps they have come to accept the truth of the oft-repeated refrain that “you cannot build your way out of traffic congestion.” What is more, traffic congestion leaves vast stretches of rural and small-town America unaffected and unconcerned. As one participant pointed out, the average nationwide commute time of 25.5 minutes has not increased for the past eight years according to Bureau of the Census data. Traffic congestion may be of great concern to many individual communities, but it is not necessarily perceived as a “crisis” of nationwide scope and thus deserving national attention.
Supporting a Transportation Vision
If evoking an impending transportation crisis is not a convincing way to gain public support, could an appeal to the people’s sense of vision be more effective? After all, America’s transportation history has been marked by a series of monumental transportation initiatives – Erie Canal and the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century, the Interstate Highway System, the urban rail transit networks and the air navigation system in the 20th century. Can’t public support be rallied around a bold new transportation infrastructure agenda responding to the needs of the 21st century? The positive reception given to President Obama’s high speed rail initiative would suggest that a new transportation vision can still capture the public’s imagination. And if a giant new infrastructure program on the scale of the Interstate Highway Program no longer is financially feasible, could one not enlist public support for a more modest capital program of infrastructure expansion and modernization? The answer, we believe, is a tentative “yes” – provided, as one meeting participant noted, that the infrastructure plan is presented as a collection of tangible projects whose significance can be grasped by the public rather than as vague and poorly understood promises “to improve transportation performance.”
The popular press and mass media can be captivated by and serve as an effective communicator of bold new transportation visions – especially ones with a high technological content. The daily press and television also can effectively dramatize and draw public attention to spectacular transportation failures such as a bridge collapse or traffic gridlock. But the media’s attention span is short and its ability to stay on subject is limited by a constantly shifting news focus. Moreover, many of the issues central to transportation reform are considered as too arcane by newspaper editors and editorial writers to be of interest to the general public.
Trade and “niche” publications do provide more depth but their outreach and influence are confined to the universe of their subscribers. The same can be said about most of the blogs. They cater to small self-selected audiences and their influence seldom extends beyond the immediate groups of like-minded followers. We are left with a conclusion that getting the message across to the broad public and effectively mobilizing public opinion will require a sophisticated strategy that reaches beyond the conventional communication channels and involves, importantly, opinion-makers and centers of influence at the state and local level.
There are several explanations for the delayed plans to enact a transportation bill and more generally for transportation’s relatively low standing on the list of Congressional and Administration priorities. The most obvious reason is the already crowded Obama policy agenda and the importance of the competing priorities of health care overhaul, the challenge of job creation, financial regulatory reform, and climate change.
Contributing to the legislative inertia on the transportation front is the Administration’s reluctance to use deficit financing or tax increases to support expensive new government initiatives. Administration officials have signaled that the President’s focus next year will bear heavily on bringing down the deficit. This mindset is matched on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are conscious of the political, if not economic, danger of increasing the national debt and reluctant in an election year to consider measures that would add to the soaring deficit. As one participant remarked, the political community appears unwilling to buy into the crisis scenario or to admit that there is an infrastructure problem. More likely, the politicians do see a problem but not serious enough to warrant additional deficit spending.
There is an equal reluctance to consider tax increases. Proposals to enhance the Highway Trust fund revenue by raising the gas tax – to the extent such proposals are still heard these days – are coming from interested stakeholder groups and lobbyists rather than from the grassroots. Interest group pleas are meet with a skeptical reception on Capitol Hill, a bare twelve months before the congressional mid-term elections. One telling indication of congressional reluctance has been the unwillingness of the House Ways and Means Committee to consider a tax increase to fund Rep. Oberstar’s proposed $500 billion surface transportation bill.
Suggestions as to other sources of funding – such as a National Infrastructure Bank, a federal capital budget, mileage (VMT) fees and financial transaction fees – have likewise met with congressional and White House disinterest or outright skepticism.
Short-term vs. Long-term Funding
To be sure, there is the possibility of a short-term infusion of funds in the context of a new job creation initiative. Highway and transit interests have seized on the White House “jobs summit” of December 3 to push for an $84 billion package of “ready-to-go” projects, and the House is readying a jobs bill that would provide up to $70 billion for “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects and aid to small business. However, this places transportation advocates in a quandary. They need to be part of the current job creation dialogue in order to stake out a claim to any stimulus funds that might be forthcoming. However, any short-term infusion of funds will remove – or at least seriously reduce – congressional urgency to act upon the larger need for strategic investment in transportation infrastructure. This dilemma was evident in President Obama’s remarks at the job summit. What’s good for the long term, Obama is reported to have said, may not necessarily work as an immediate short term jobs stimulus, which remains the Administration’s paramount objective. There are tensions in the process of allocating infrastructure spending, the President said, between immediate “shovel-ready” projects as opposed to long-term visionary projects. He intimated that much as he favors infrastructure investment to promote long term economic growth, the short-term goal to spur job growth would take priority.
The Clouded Future
Thus, the prospect for an early enactment of a reform-minded multi-year surface transportation authorization remains murky. Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has abandoned his quest to enact a six-year $500 billion bill by the end of the year in the face of continued Senate and House leadership opposition. Instead, he announced during a press conference on December 2 that he would agree to the Senate-proposed six-month extension of the existing program, provided that there is an agreed upon time line for enacting a longer-term authorization. One possibility could be a staged process consisting of a two-year “front-loaded” transportation bill focused on creating construction and construction-related jobs (and possibly funded with TARP money), followed by a longer-term bill containing broad policy reforms. However, at this point, the constantly shifting dynamics concerning the nature of the second economic stimulus makes any predictions concerning congressional action beyond December 18 a mere speculation (December 18 is the date the current short-term extension is due to expire.) Only one thing is certain: getting the lawmakers to enact an ambitious long-term surface transportation program in the tax- and deficit-averse political climate of an election year will be a daunting challenge.