By Jason Mark
Once upon a time — in a political environment that seems otherwordly compared to what we have in the United States today — the federal transportation bill was a bi-partisan endeavor. Now things are different. Congress went into spring recess last week and once again left hanging a reauthorization of the transportation bill, which expired two and a half years ago. Congress was just barely able to approve a temporary, 90-day extension of the lapsed law so that current infrastructure projects can keep moving along.
Why the impasse on something that usually wins consensus? It comes down, in part, to a disagreement over how (or even whether) the federal government should fund mass transit programs.
The transportation bill moving through the House eliminates the provision that dedicates to mass transit 20 percent of monies from the gas-tax supported Highway Trust Fund — an arrangement that has been in place since Ronald Reagan was president. It also slashes support for high-speed rail projects, cuts subsidies to Amtrak, and eliminates designated funding for bike and pedestrian infrastructure as well as the “Safe Routes to School” program. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (a former Republican Congressman) called the House measure “the worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service.”
Compare that with the Senate version, which passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support (74-22). The Senate’s two-year bill, crafted by odd bedfellows Barbara Boxer and Jim Inhofe, would largely maintain the status quo. The easiest thing would be for the House to take up the Senate version, pass it with bi-partisan numbers, and send the law to the president.
But that would rankle Speaker John Boehner’s hard-right base. Here’s how Congressman Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, summed up the situation:
“[The House leadership’s] problem is they have about 80 or 90 people who want to kill off the federal transportation program in their caucus. Then they’re hamstrung because they’ve got 20 or 25 [who] are still rational and say, ‘Hey, if you’re going to kill off transit funding, we won’t vote for the bill.’ So if they do what the flat earth people want, then they lose the moderates, and if they do what the moderates want they lose the flat earth people.” … Read more: