Chairman Oberstar and the leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee want to spend $500 billion on surface transportation over the next six years. This is a huge increase over the $338 billion authorized over the last six years.
Page 4 of the plan’s executive summary “provides $337.4 billion for highways.” But, in fact, only $100 billion of this is dedicated to highways; most of the rest is in “flexible funds” such as CMAQ and the Surface Transportation Fund that can be spent on either highways or transit. Nearly $100 billion goes for transit, and $50 billion goes for high-speed rail. The remaining $12.4 billion goes for safety programs.
We get some more clues about the $337.4 billion that supposedly goes for highways in the detailed plan. The chapter for the Federal Highway Administration proposes to consolidate the major programs normally dedicated to highways, including the Interstate Maintenance Fund and National Highway System Fund, into one fund that gets $100 million. This fund is dismissed after a mere three of the 25 pages discussing the Federal Highway Administration (pp. 16-18).
Most of the rest of the so-called highway chapter describes “flexible” funds, meaning they can be spent on either highways or transit. The highway chapter also has provisions for “livability” and smart-growth planning.
For example, as a part of highway planning, Oberstar proposes to require that metropolitan areas engage in land-use planning that aims to reduce single-occupancy driving, protect farmlands, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions — in other words, smart growth (p. 24). He also wants to reorganize the Department of Transportation, creating an “Office of Livability” within the Federal Highway Administration (p. 38) and an “Office of Intermodalism” overseeing the highway and other bureaus (p. 7).
The previous reauthorization effectively allocated 20 percent of funds to transit and 80 percent to highways. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Oberstar’s plan turns this upside down, dedicating only 20 percent to highways and potentially spending 80 percent on transit and high-speed rail.
Page 38 explains that this is because past transit investments have “paid off” so well: transit carried 10.7 billion trips in 2008. The fact that this represents less than 1 percent of passenger transport is discreetly overlooked. But cyclists will be glad to know that the plan creates a national system of bike routes.
For those who truly care about mobility and not rhetoric, the saving grace is that the government is running out of money and cannot possibly afford Oberstar’s program. Even the Highway Trust Fund has run dry, long before they spent the $338 billion authorized in the last bill. No one has any idea where Oberstar thinks he is going to find $500 billion.
As a result, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, on behalf of the Obama administration, wants to delay reauthorization for 18 months. Of course, Oberstar thinks this is a bad idea — it delays his moment in the sun, possibly until a time when he no longer chairs the committee. What a tragedy that would be.