Now We're Getting Political
By Fawn Johnson
Correspondant, National Journal
The generally bipartisan, if wonky, surface transportation issue got a major dose of political (and partisan) medicine last week when House Republicans unveiled their American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act. The measure combines elements of a highway bill constructed by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., with several hot-button energy proposals that are sure to raise the hackles of Democrats and environmentalists alike--new offshore drilling, opening parts of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, and possibly approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Yikes. It's not like Mica was making too many friends with Democrats when it was just a highway bill. Committee ranking member Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., complained as recently as last month that he still hadn't seen text of the proposal. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a moderate Republican, said it was the worst transportation bill he had ever seen. And conservative Republicans are none too pleased either. The Club for Growth will consider a vote for the measure a black mark against any Republican who wants prove his or her conservative chops.
Still, members of the transportation community dutifully praised the lawmakers for actually, well, paying attention to them. "We are pleased that the House and Senate are moving ahead on a long-term surface transportation authorization," said American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Executive Director John Horsley. "We are encouraged that House Republican leadership has finally allowed the Chairman to proceed with this important national priority," said AAA President Bob Darbelnet.
Is it worth it? Does the forthcoming political brawl offer enough attention to a long-neglected infrastructure bill to make up for the twists of logic that surely will accompany the fight? When the finger-pointing dies down, will the surface transportation measure have made any progress?
Fighting for a Better Bill
Laura Barrett, Executive Director, Transportation Equity Network
When the House version of the 5-year Surface Transportation Authorization Act was released last week, it immediately provoked an uproar from Transportation Equity Network (TEN) and Gamaliel leaders. This reaction from Rev. James Hunt of Chicago, IL was typical: “Many of our communities’ public transit crises won’t be addressed through this bill. Ultimately we need operating assistance if we’re going to get out of this mess.”
TEN and Gamaliel support flexibility in transit operating funds. It is an easy, temporary and cost-free approach to fixing the transit crisis. Rep. Russ Carnahan has been a leader in Congress on the issue - he was motivated by the service cuts to 2,000 bus stops in St. Louis several years ago.
TEN and Gamaliel leaders decided to take their concerns to Congress. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, dozens of faith leaders from across the country pounded the halls. It was a racially and geographically diverse team that featured 5 pastors, 2 twenty-something service corps members, a grandmother from Detroit as well as workers who took a day off to advocate for transit riders.
“We wanted to tell our leaders that they need to step up and lead,” said Rev Hunt. “We’re very proud of Republicans like Representatives LoBiondo and Meehan, who supported Carnahan’s proposal for flexibility in operating funds – but I wish I could have said the same about others.”
In the end on Thursday night, Committee leadership pushed through a watered-down version of local control which won’t help many communities because the triggers are too low. Our economy depends on our ability to get to work, and our ability to get to work depends on public transportation. It's bad news for an already suffering economy.