Blog Federal Transportation May Skid Off the Road

Proposals are under consideration to change the way transportation is funded nationally, and the consequences are not very promising for transportation, or, for that matter, the federal budget. The reforms put forward by Republicans Bud Schuster and Don Young, and enacted by a Republican Congress, a dozen years ago guaranteed transportation trust fund spending levels. The rules change proposed by the new House GOP leadership would allow the guaranteed level to be lowered by the Appropriations Committee, thereby essentially putting the Transportation Trust Fund budget–still funded mainly by transportation taxes–into the same pot as other general expenditures.
It is a poor idea, but more important, it seems like a bootless enterprise, and a potentially time consuming one. It would cost its Republican proponents some of the momentum they now enjoy. Opponents already are energized. Moreover, it is a big change that should be debated, not rushed through as a rules change, as apparently some intend. This is the very sort of thing that Republicans objected to when it came from Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Beyond that:
1) Transportation is one of the core functions of government since the Founding. There is nothing fuzzy or vague about it. It is not social engineering, but real engineering. It is literally concrete. Transportation is a time honored role of government–harking back to post roads and canals–that, if anything, has been downgraded by all the new obligations that have supplanted it in the affections of the Left. Each decade it becomes a smaller part of the US Budget.
While there has been plenty of Tea Party opposition to certain transportation earmarks, such as the “bridge to nowhere,” there has been no principled or practical opposition to transportation programs per se. Reform of how transportation projects are selected and undertaken would be helpful. For example, there should be more of a role for private finance and for achieving efficiencies through project operations that connect design, building and operate (DBO or DBM–design, build, maintain). It is also worthwhile to consider a requirement for more local matching money for road, bridge and rail projects that primarily benefit an intra-state region as opposed to a true inter-state constituency. But the rules change scheme is something else, a way to use transportation revenues to cover shortfalls in non-transportation programs.
2) Linking transportation spending to transportation revenue was the product of a reform several decades ago. There is a direct linkage now, unlike the various novel programs that have been added to government since the New Deal and the Great Society. Severing such a linkage between transportation tax revenue and transportation spending would destroy a valuable pay-as-you-go precedent and establish a dangerous new spending temptation for future Congresses. It also would decrease whatever predictability transportation planning has now.
3) Transportation infrastructure, as the recent winter storms have underscored, is in bad condition, unable to respond adequately to emergencies as mundane as snow and ice, let alone real man-made or natural disasters. If people can’t move, nothing gets done, personal or corporate or communal. Why pick a time when a fragile economic recovery is underway to stymie transportation improvements? Infrastructure spending is one of the few government stimulus programs that actually stimulate anything.
4) You can be sure that the construction and union lobbies will be out in force against this change, as will Chambers of Commerce, municipalities and states. Public opinion is not likely to be directly mobilized at first because people are not even aware that transportation is threatened. But when they are, they probably will not approve of their transportation tax dollars being spent on other things.
So, politically speaking, even if somehow this change passes the House (with blood flowing copiously in the gutters), it will not be sustained in the Senate, and if it adopted there, it likely would face a Presidential veto.
So what’s the point? The undoing of one reform to achieve another–and only to achieve it as a lost cause? We are not in our financial bind because of transportation spending, and sacrificing it will not help us get out of our bind.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.