While we begin a new year with a public policy narrative dominated by weighty topics such as immigration reform and gun safety, the actual logistics of governing have consumed much of the activity in the Nation’s Capital over the last month. As such, now is a good time to overview the players and issues that will impact the federal transportation programs over the next two years.
The beginning of President Obama’s second term brings a much expected re-shuffling of key Administration officials—of notable interest for the transportation construction industry is Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s decision to step down. Similarly, on Capitol Hill, the 2012 elections have delivered eighty-seven new members of the House and Senate. In addition to new faces, another hallmark of the 113th Congress is new leadership at the helms of House and Senate Committees, including panels with jurisdiction over the federal transportation programs.
The personnel adjustments going on all over official Washington, however, do not change the simple fact the 2012 elections produced a largely status quo result. Republicans continue to have a comfortable governing majority in the House, Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate, and President Obama remains in the White House. Consequently, the overriding lesson from the last two years that bipartisan agreement is a must for any significant legislation is also unchanged.
2013-14 Transportation Radar Screen
Even though the 113th Congress begins six months after the enactment of a multi-year reauthorization bill (MAP-21), Congress and the Obama Administration will have to address a host of transportation-related policy and investment matters over the next two years.
The most immediate issue involves the automatic spending cuts that were scheduled to go into effect January 2, but were delayed for two months. These cuts of eight to ten percent in defense and non-defense spending are the result of a failure by members of Congress from both parties to reach an agreement on how to reduce the deficit by more than $1 trillion as required by 2011 legislation authorizing an increase in the U.S. Treasury’s borrowing limit. While most core federal transportation programs would be exempt from these cuts as currently structured, the transit capital program and aviation operation activities would be impacted. It should be noted, however, that elected officials of both parties are working to mitigate the impacts of the cuts and there is no guarantee any future alternative approach will protect transportation investment.
Congress must also complete the FY 2013 appropriations process to fund federal government operations, including the transportation programs, for the remainder of the year. Congress approved a six-month interim measure that kept all programs at their FY 2012 funding levels last in September of 2012. In so doing, the measure delayed the nearly $600 million highway investment increase provided by the MAP-21 reauthorization bill. The short-term bill expires March 27. ARTBA will be urging all members of Congress to ensure the final bill provides the fully paid for MAP-21 highway and public transportation investment levels. Shortly after concluding the FY 2013 funding process, members will be faced with the need to develop appropriation bills to fund these same activities in FY 2014—which begins in October!
It also appears that for the first time in a number of years there will be serious efforts in both chambers to push a reauthorization of the federal port and waterway programs. ARTBA recently entered into a formal partnership with the American Association of Port Authorities and will be very involved in supporting new water transportation infrastructure legislation.
Members of Congress and President Obama continue to express interest in advancing a deficit reduction package that reforms the U.S. tax code. A comprehensive tax reform debate could serve as an opportunity to address the Highway Trust Fund’s long-term revenue outlook. While the 2012 surface transportation bill makes a number of ARTBA-supported policy reforms and temporarily stabilizes the trust fund, the fact remains that when the measure expires in October 2014, federal highway and transit investment will be facing the prospect of cuts in excess of 60 percent. Furthermore, continuing to supplement existing trust fund revenues with non-transportation related resources to prevent devastating investment cuts would add $140 billion to the deficit over the next ten years.
Certainly, the political will to establish a long-term trust fund revenue fix has been lacking in recent years. However, the MAP-21 debate made clear to most members of Congress that this is not a situation that can be avoided without consequence (such as job losses or expanding the deficit). It is also noteworthy that for the first time in decades key congressional leaders of both parties and chambers are openly discussing the need to enhance the Highway Trust Fund’s revenue base.
Key Transportation Leaders on Capitol Hill
There are or will be new faces throughout Congress and the Obama Administration following the 2012 elections. A brief overview of the posts with particular significance for federal transportation policy and investment is below.
- U.S. Secretary of Transportation: as of this writing, a successor for Ray LaHood has not been announced.
- House Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee: Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) ascends to the chairmanship of the T&I Committee and Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.) continues to be the panel’s top Democrat. Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) resumes the position he held nearly ten years ago as chair of the T&I Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) remains as the subcommittee’s top Democrat. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) will chair the Aviation Subcommittee and his Democratic counterpart will be Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.).
- Senate Environment & Public Works (EPW) Committee: Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) will continue to chair the Senate panel with jurisdiction over the federal highway and water infrastructure programs. Senator David Vitter (R-La.) will take over the top Republican post on the committee. The EPW subcommittee leadership assignments have not yet been announced.
- Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee: Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) will continue to chair the panel that presides over the federal aviation, rail, and behavioral traffic safety programs. Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) is the new lead Republican on the panel. Subcommittee leadership posts for the Commerce Committee have also not been named.
No Time to Sit Back
The federal landscape certainly presents a number of challenges for the transportation construction industry in the coming year. At the same time, there are new opportunities to stabilize and grow federal surface and water transportation infrastructure investment unlike any we have seen in the last decade. As is always the case, however, the degree to which we can take advantage of these opportunities rests entirely on our ability and willingness to directly engage policymakers about the importance of federal transportation investment to the nation’s economy and long-term productivity.
We look forward to working with you to meet our challenges head-on and produce solutions that enhance the U.S. transportation construct market for years to come.
The preceding article has been reprinted with permission from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA). AGC of Texas is an affiliate of ARTBA. For more information, visit www.artba.org.