President Obama finally had on his desk Friday a $305 billion, five-year surface transportation bill – a rare legislative accomplishment in an era where gridlock and obstruction on any government action that would create jobs and grow the economy is the rule.
But, as I indicated in a post last week, President Obama’s signature should not take this issue – and the infrastructure investment issues outside of transportation – off the 2016 election agenda.
I said last week that the bill that cleared both the House and Senate “contains both inadequate funding and bad policy.” Some of the bad policy that was in either the House or the Senate versions of the bill – allowing 18-year-olds to drive interstate rigs or allowing rental car companies to rent vehicles under a recall order that had not yet been repaired – were dropped in the final bill. But the legislation still unsurprisingly has too many marks of the anti-regulatory, anti-environmental and anti-urban mindset of the Republican-controlled Congress.
Arguably the bigger travesty, however, lies in its anemic and hodgepodge funding. Barry Ritholtz at Bloomberg View has a particularly searing analysis of this point: “The bad news is how bereft of intelligence and long-term thinking this congressional infrastructure funding deal actually is,” he writes, “… far more of a testimony to Congress’ incompetence than it is a victory for those who would get something done.”
Not only does the bill not provide what states and municipalities need to fix what’s broken in our transportation system and keep pace with current and future growth, it relies in part on funding sources that are imprudent (selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve at a time when gas prices are low, supplies are bountiful and when our national policy should be focused on lowering fuel consumption) and that set a potentially dangerous precedent (tapping Federal Reserve surplus funds for a congressional appropriation).
“Blame Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform,” Ritholtz concludes. “He has so terrified congressional Republicans about raising any tax, no matter how appropriate” – including the federal gasoline tax, which hasn’t even been adjusted for inflation since 1993 – “that Congress can only do its work in these absurd, backward ways. As an aside, any time you get a flat tire or break an axle on an unmaintained road, I suggest you file a suit in Small Claims Court against Norquist personally for the cost of repairs.”
The transportation legislation gives states and localities enough time and certainty to begin to do the kind of long-term planning they have not been able to so since a multiyear bill signed by President Bush expired in September 2009. But that means that figuring out the next stage of infrastructure spending will fall squarely into the next president’s lap in his or her first term.
That’s why the debate that Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are having over infrastructure spending and how to pay for it remains an urgent debate. Both Clinton and Sanders correctly note that it’s not just our decaying roads, bridges and public transportation that need increased public investment – it’s everything from our water systems to our airways to our less-than-world-class broadband network. We need to not only make sure that we are making the level of investments we need, but we have to make sure that those dollars are spent in ways that spread economic opportunity and equity, and move us toward a greener, more livable America.
Americans will see over the coming months the inadequacies of Congress’ response to our current transportation crisis. Conservatives will use the continuing public discontent to encourage the public to give up on the federal government – and the notion that it should be working for all of us on this issue – and allow the private sector to cherry-pick what it can profit from, and let state and local governments struggle with the rest. It will be up to progressive leaders to channel that frustration into a bolder and more honest debate about our infrastructure needs – one that will take down the constraints the right has placed on the debate and will address what We the People need in a 21st-century economy.