Transportation Progressives Fast Lane vs Conservatives Dirt Road

Isaiah J. Poole

The House of Representatives this afternoon scheduled a vote on a three-month, stopgap transportation funding bill, as conservatives struggle to decide what sort of long-term transportation plan it is willing to put on the House floor for a vote.

The alternative that is being pushed by House Democrats, the White House and by progressive allies such as the AFL-CIO is the two-year, $109 billion transportation reauthorization bill passed by the Senate earlier this month.

The Senate bill is by no means perfect, but it at least in general terms embodies the kind of transportation policy that America needs: it makes an effort to balance of the needs of drivers and public transportation users, it preserves initiatives that promote safety for drivers and pedestrians, and it is not saddled with provisions that encourage increased fossil fuel consumption in an age in which every effort should be made to decrease fossil fuel use, regardless of where that fuel comes from. It also fully meets the definition of bipartisan, having attracted the votes of close to half the Republicans in the Senate as well as all but one Senate Democrat. Two years buys Congress time it should use to come up with a more robust and sustainable transportation funding plan for a future that includes more hybrid and electric vehicles, innovative public transportation options and high-speed rail corridors.

By contrast, House Republicans were trying to cobble together a transportation bill that would also open up broad swaths of the country to oil and gas drilling as well as ram through approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, over the objections of President Obama and a number of communities that would have been affected by the pipeline. But the promise of oil money to supplement the federal gasoline tax that helps pay for transportation projects was not enough to win over a bloc of conservatives who would just as soon shut down the federal highway and public transportation program altogether, turning the responsibility over to cash-strapped states (and, in some cases, Republican-dominated state legislatures that are as opposed to states raising the funds needed to improve transportation as they are the federal government).

This is a race between the catastrophic and the mediocre. Of course, when those are the only choices on the table, labor and some progressive leaders, such as Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, would argue that mediocre is better.

But late this afternoon the Congressional Progressive Caucus released details of its Budget for All, which was previewed last week. That budget will include what should be the baseline for the transportation debate: a $556 billion, six-year proposal.

That proposal comes closest to meeting the actual needs of the nation. Repeated studies have shows that the nation has been behind for years on spending what is needed to keep up with the demand taxing our transportation network. One consequence of this is outlined in a report recently released by the U.S. Treasury Department that concludes that inadequate roads lead to motorists wasting 1.9 billion gallons of fuel a year and losing $100 billion a year.

Not only would a $556 billion commitment over the next six years put the country on a far firmer footing than the two-year Senate bill, and would avert the disastrous policy choices likely to be contained in any House conservative bill, but it would produce more than 5 million jobs. If it were enacted instead of the Senate bill, we could see some of the jobs begin to open up during the summer construction season.

The Progressive Caucus budget containing the transportation funding proposal is expected to be considered by the House on Thursday. Given the inability of conservatives to come up with a transportation plan they can unite around, the Progressive Caucus proposal will stand out as the only legislation spelling out a true, long-term vision of how the nation can get its transportation infrastructure closer to 21st-century standards. It truly will be the fast lane contrast to the dirt road that House conservatives apparently wants the nation to walk.


Updated 4:43 p.m. to reflect release of Congressional Progressive Caucus budget.

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