Short-Term Win On A Transportation Jobs Bill; Now On To The Next Infrastructure Fight

Isaiah J. Poole

It looks as if Congress got our message on the need to pass, without right-wing poison pills, a two-year transportation jobs bill.

Our essential demand was that the House adopt a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate, rather than an ideologically extreme and politically (and, in fact, literally) toxic bill passed by House Republicans. A report released by the House-Senate conference committee working to find common ground between the two bills indicates that our demand was largely met.

“In the end, the key to unsticking the gears seems to have been to drop much of the most contentious provisions that House Republicans insisted be part of the conference,” Politico reported. “The final deal won’t contain language expediting the Keystone XL pipeline, and it also won’t contain language related to coal ash.”

House conservatives did succeed in weakening some important environmental programs and regulations tied to transportation funding. The fight to reverse the deterioration of environmental protections that are expected to result from the passage of this legislation will have to continue.

In the meantime, though, 2 million workers whose jobs are tied to improving and expanding the nation’s transportation network can breathe a sigh of relief, as can the 1 million unemployed people who will not get work as a result of this bill’s passage.

This is a victory, but a shallow one. In fact, it’s a bit more like outscoring the opposition in one inning of a ball game. It’s not winning the whole game. In fact, because the legislation that Congress is expected to pass will only be in effect for two years, the next inning is right around the corner.

This is where the country will have to come to grips with the failures of our transportation policy, which have been exacerbated by the penny-wise, pound-foolishness of conservatives in Congress and in the Bush administration that signed the last full surface transportation reauthorization.

The bill now coming to Congress for a final vote “provides funding for the federal-aid highway program through fiscal 2014 at current funding levels with a small inflationary adjustment.” No serious transportation expert believes that is adequate for the the economy we are trying to build. And no serious economist would argue that this parsimony is appropriate in an economy in which unemployment exceeds 8 percent, inflation is low, and the federal government can borrow at virtually no cost.

At the heart of the problem is our reliance on a gasoline excise tax that hasn’t been increased since the mid-1990s. When inflation is taken into account, we’ve cut our main transportation funding source by a third. No wonder that in recent years the federal government had to augment gas tax revenues from the general fund, and no wonder that the latest bill touts “encouraging additional non-Federal”—read “private”—investment as a major accomplishment. It also includes a dubious “pension smoothing” scheme designed to raise federal transportation revenue but at the likely price of allowing corporations to shortchange pension funding. This would not need to be done at all, and certainly not in the context of a transportation bill, if we were having a sensible debate about transportation funding.

The gasoline tax is eventually going to become an anachronism as more hybrids, electric cars and alternative fuel vehicles catch on in the marketplace. We need to start the debate now on 21st-century ways to pay for a 21st-century transportation network. Unfortunately, the political class in Washington has not shown the capacity to have an adult discussion about what that future should look like. So it is up to us to set the direction, and clear away the shibboleths members of Congress in both parties use to duck the decisions we must make to have the robust infrastructure for a robust working-class economy. And we now know that we have less than two years to do it.

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