Bipartisan leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee have reached an agreement on a broad outline for surface transportation reauthorization. This agreement includes:
- Fund programs at current levels to maintain and modernize our critical transportation infrastructure;
- Eliminate earmarks;
- Consolidate numerous programs to focus resources on key national goals and reduce duplicative and wasteful programs;
- Consolidate numerous programs into a more focused freight program that will improve the movement of goods;
- Create a new section called America Fast Forward, which strengthens the TIFIA program to stretch federal dollars further than they have been stretched before; and
- Expedite project delivery without sacrificing the environment or the rights of people to be heard.
On one hand, this is amazingly unambitious for the Democrats, who don’t seem to be proposing any huge increases in funding for transit or high-speed rail. On the other hand, it is surprising that Republicans like Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma are agreeing to the two new programs, for freight and America Fast Forward.
Perhaps the biggest problem, America Fast Forward is a proposal by the city of Los Angeles for low-interest, long-term federal loans allowing cities to build more rail transit. The Antiplanner doesn’t think the funding mechanism for the Interstate Highway System was ideal, but one of its virtues was that it was a pay-as-you-go system, so it was only built as the money came in. This ensured that states didn’t build a lot that wasn’t needed because unnecessary roads wouldn’t have brought in much money. While L.A. interstates are some of the most heavily used highways in the world, Los Angeles officials never explain just why we need to hasten the construction of trains that will run empty most of the day.
The freight program is worrisome because there really isn’t any need for it. As Don Phillips of Trains magazine recently wrote (not available on line), America’s “freight railroading is now the most profitable, best managed, best organized, most ‘green,’ and almost the best maintained and best planned transportation system in the world.” It is this efficient, says Phillips, because unlike almost every other form of transportation, freight railroads do not depend on government for their right of way or the infrastructure they use. This is pretty good from someone who, a few years ago, was extolling the imaginary virtues of European central planning.
One reason some people want to create a separate freight bureau in the Department of Transportation is that they want to demonize the personal mobility provided by the automobile without appearing to threaten the goods mobility provided by trucks. They think they can focus highway investments on ports and other areas primarily used by trucks even as they let the roads used primarily by cars creep ever closer to gridlock. Of course, the truth is there are very few places trucks go that aren’t also heavily used by cars, but they hope truckers won’t notice that.
Republicans get sucked into this because they don’t want to appear to be against truckers. Mobility supporters can hope that Republicans in the House will take a more principled stand in favor of smaller government.
Update: Some idea of the response from House Republicans might be gained from yesterday’s proposal to privatize Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor in the hope that private investors would finance upgrades to speed up trains. Democrats immediately panned the proposal, probably because they know no private investors will fund such a money-losing proposition. (Railfares in the Northeast Corridor covered operating costs in 2010, but are not likely to ever cover capital costs.) Rail fans feel threatened by the proposal because they know that, if the Northeast Corridor is ever spun off as a private operation, support for Amtrak subsidies in the rest of the nation will dwindle.