Highway policy: confliction and confusion

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We think the [Obama] administration has a bias against highways.” –Greg Cohen, president and CEO, American Highway Users Alliance

Greg Cohen is an angry man – a calm, cool, and collected angry, mind you, but quite irked nonetheless. As president and CEO of American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA), Cohen is watching bigger and bigger government plans being laid to effectively re-route potentially billions of revenue gained from fuel taxes and other highway user fees to almost exclusively non-highway projects – bicycle paths, urban light rail networks, a national high speed rail system, the list goes on.

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Yet at the same time, the stress being placed on America’s highways is only increasing – roads and bridges are wearing out, with traffic congestion beginning to increase again after a recession-induced hiatus. Even getting the steady, nominal amount of transportation funding from Congress is becoming something of a nightmare: not only is the multi-year “highway bill” still stuck in legislative limbo, interim funding bills can’t get passed.

The current extension of SAFETEA-LU highway funding legislation expired Sunday, February 28, and Congress failed to pass another one – meaning almost every program funded by the Highway Trust Fund will be stopped until next week, with employees of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) behavioral-safety offices furloughed as of today, he explained.

“While these agencies are shuttered, states and other recipients of federal-aid highway funds will not receive reimbursements for construction and other work, except for projects funded by the 2009 stimulus bill, which is not funded by the trust fund,” he said. “The shutdown is likely to also delay future reimbursements, even after the failures are resolved.”

The current impasse could have been avoided in one of two ways:1) A Senate vote on a House-passed 30-day extension bill, or 2) A House vote on a Senate-passed “Jobs Bill” a.k.a. the HIRE Act.

The first option got blocked by retiring Senator Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who used a parliamentary maneuver to delay the Senate from considering the extension bill as he demanded offsetting spending cuts be included in the underlying legislation in order to reduce deficit spending.

The second option failed due to a number of House-member objections to the initial Jobs Bill. Republicans blame Democrats for this failure by suggesting that Senate and House Democratic leaders and their bill sponsors should have worked out their differences in advance and should have anticipated the objections within their own caucus before a crisis was at hand.

Either way, the result is the same: no highway funding. Even groups nominally at loggerheads with truckers are finding joint cause in this debacle.

“Congress has let the American people down. By their inaction, funding for transportation programs across the country will be put in jeopardy next week,” noted Kathleen Marvaso, vice president of public affairs for AAA.

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“The transportation system is vital to the nation's economy, safety and quality of life. It has been an important component of the overall economic recovery strategy and allowing the program to shut down, for any amount of time, is irresponsible,” she said.

“Congress needs to take action early next week and extend the transportation program until the end of the calendar year. Then serious work must begin to consider a comprehensive, multi-year transportation bill,” Marvaso stressed. “Americans want, need and deserve a 21st century transportation system that will improve safety and mobility and aid in the economic recovery.”

This is all part of what AHUA’s Cohen believes is an intrinsic bias against highways not only within President Obama’s administration but within Congress as well – and a confused, conflicted bias at that.

“This is not necessarily a Republican or Democratic issue, wither,” Cohen told me last week by phone. “In the last administration [under then-President George W. Bush], more tolling and ‘congestion pricing’ were policy priorities – and they posed problems for motorists and truckers alike. Now, it’s passenger rail and ‘livable community’ projects that the government is enamored of.”

Cohen’s issue is that massive amounts of federal funding is being re-routed to projects with, in his view, few prospects for any sort of economic return – while severely shorting highways of critical infrastructure funding that, ostensibly, should be the sole destination for fuel taxes and highway user fees in the first place.

“For example, take high speed rail: the administration is making an $ 8 billion ‘down payment’ on what’s projected to be a $150 billion national high speed passenger rail system,” he said. “Yet this love affair with passenger rail doesn’t match up with reality.”

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That reality, said Cohen, is very stark. The railroads abandoned passenger service to the U.S. government in the 1970s, leading to the creation of Amtrak. Ever since, massive federal subsidies are needed to keep passenger rail alive as it remains chronically under-used. In his view, building a high-speed rail network won’t necessarily change that – for Americans now rely on other modes, specifically air travel and cars, for such travel.

“Rail carries barely a fraction of the passenger travel in our country, yet we want to take money away from highways to support it ,” he said.

That brings us to the curious policy dichotomy about cars in this country right now – something independent transportation expert Alan Pisarski addressed at AHUA’s annual meeting last October.

“Please buy cars – we need to stimulate jobs in a weak economy. BUT WAIT! PLEASE DON’T USE THEM. They create greenhouse gases and bad stuff – so we have to coerce people out of their cars,” he said. “BUT WAIT! If they don’t use them there will be no gas tax revenue and no way to fund the transit that people will need after we force them from their cars. So … would you mind mailing a check to the U.S. Treasury for the gas tax you would have paid if you had used your car?”

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“We just don’t seem to be a logical position on highway policy anymore,” AHUA’s Cohen told me. “I mean, the government comes out with ‘Cash for Clunkers’ to spur auto sales and protect automotive manufacturing jobs. But then we don’t want you to drive them – we want you to park them and take the train or bike to work.”

Ignoring highway needs is not harmless, either, he stressed. Take for example a single four-mile curve on Highway 56 in Georgia – a curve where 10 people have been killed in car crashes over the last two years. Highway funding shortfalls will prevent the Georgia Department of Transportation from fixing this perilous stretch until at least 2013, Cohen noted – and similar situations abound across the U.S.

The same sort of confusion is occurring in the freight world, said Cohen. He sees a big policy push developing to move freight from trucks to train, with more truck restrictions at the urban level as communities are designed to be more “livable” with less vehicle travel and more walking, biking, and transit rail use.

Yet trucks are needed to move freight to the rail head and from the rail head to final destination – a fact that doesn’t seem to be getting much attention in current transportation policy thinking.

“You know, it takes a lot for a group like us to put out statements highly critical not only of the DOT but the President’s administration as well – but we can’t keep tip toeing around these issues anymore,” Cohen said. “The administration is proposing that over $4 billion of its fiscal year 2011 transportation budget go to discretionary earmarks for DOT officials – this is not peanuts and it’s also not logical.”

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