Reshaping America’s Transportation

With Reauthorization D-Day Nearing, Congress Prepares to Act

Posted May 1, 2003 at 3:10pm

If you haven’t already marked your calendars, make sure Sept. 30 is circled. It’s the day one of the nation’s largest-ever public works funding programs expires. And Congress is working to reauthorize the program and expand it in the process.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, or TEA-21, was passed in 1998 to fund federal programs, new construction and improvements related to the nation’s surface transportation infrastructure.

But the roads and rails aren’t the only reauthorization efforts going on at the current time. A similar program for the nation’s federal aviation programs is set to expire Sept. 30 as well, making transportation one of the more dominant topics of conversation on Capitol Hill. And two phrases seem to be dominating the discourse: transportation security and economic stimulus.

In a nation still jittery following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and struggling to emerge from an economic downturn, many lobbyists and Members are stressing aspects of surface and aviation transportation reauthorization that address security, safety and economic growth.

Transportation bills of years past were often viewed as pork barrel free-for-alls. In the 1990s, then-House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) was notorious for steering millions of dollars worth of highway projects to what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) once called the “state of Altoona,” referring to the once-isolated city in the Allegheny Mountains that was Shuster’s base.

But the days of transportation pork may be numbered — at least in a public relations sense.

Many Members are touting their individual project desires as fitting into an “intermodal” or “national” framework as well as fitting into the models for economic growth and even national security.

“These programs have enormous consequences for the safety and security of our nation, and for the productivity of our economy,” Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, testified before the Budget Committee in March. “Reducing congestion on our highways and aviation system can save the more than $70 billion dollars now lost to the economy from the public sitting in traffic or airport lounges.”

Many individual project requests reflect this policy philosophy.

Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.), a member of the Transportation Committee, believes a completed Interstate 49 through his state would create a seamless corridor between port facilities in New Orleans and the Canadian border, facilitating trade.

Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.) also says road and transit projects in Indianapolis could benefit the entire nation, since the Hoosier capital serves as a major rail, air and road hub for the nation. She testified before the Transportation panel on April 3 that investments in and around Indianapolis could generate 14,000 new jobs and $600 million in economic activity.

“On every billion dollars spent, the return on the investment is 6-to-1,” Boozman said.

As the TEA-21 reauthorization currently stands, highway and transit funding levels were increased to record levels in last month’s budget resolution conference agreement. A conference report raised the level of highway and transit funding to $273 billion for fiscal 2004-2009. The Bush administration reportedly is willing to spend $249 billion over the six-year period. While Members and Congressional staffers said it is too early to tell what the final proposed funding level will be, there aren’t any vocal opponents calling for massive reductions in transportation funding.

Another question is whether TEA-21 will have a replacement by the end of September. When TEA-21’s predecessor, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act, expired in 1997, Congress passed temporary legislation, the Surface Transportation Extension Act, to keep funding flowing for the nation’s transportation needs. Many believe 2003 could see a repeat of 1997.

“That is certainly possible,” Boozman said, adding that “the commitment is to get it done as soon as possible.”

As for Amtrak, the nation’s subsidy-dependent passenger rail network, its future funding is up in the air as well. Before the spring recess, Senate and House budget conferees were not able to agree on the rail network’s funding. The Senate is proposing more than $1.8 billion to fund the system; the House wants to set aside $900 million. Transportation aides are not set at the current time on a timeline for a resolution on Amtrak funding.

One hundred years after the Wright brothers ushered the world into the skies with their successful first flight over the beaches of Kitty Hawk, N.C., aviation interests and Congress are trying to keep the airline industry in the skies. After a downturn in the economy and security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the airline industry has struggled, with multiple carriers in the red or descending into — or at least flirting with — bankruptcy reorganization.

Just before Congress worked a second airline bailout — much like the one that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — into the appropriations supplemental, the Transportation Department pushed forward the Bush administration’s flight reauthorization effort, known as the Centennial of Flight Aviation Authorization Act, or “Flight-100.”

Unveiled on March 25, the Bush plan would provide investments in safety research, air traffic control and infrastructure, including $3.4 billion for an airport improvement program that would support airport infrastructure upgrades.

The Senate version, released in early April, is called AIR Vision. The House version was released last week.

Unlike its predecessor, the AIR-21 replacement would cover the nation’s federal aviation programs for four years. TEA-21, and its current proposed replacement, is a six-year program.

Another aviation proposal moving through the legislative process is the Air Cargo Security Act, which was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in March. The proposal, introduced by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), is based in part on similar legislation introduced by Hutchison and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) in the 107th Congress.

Transportation 101

ISTEA

Passed in 1991, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act established a new set of program principles and changed the way the nation’s transportation programs and infrastructure improvements were funded. It included local and state governments, along with their federal transportation counterparts, in the planning of infrastructure development. Before ISTEA, it was difficult to shift money earmarked for highway projects to transit projects, causing some massive public works projects, like Washington’s Metrorail system, to be delayed even as funding from canceled highway projects became available. It is pronounced “ice tea.”

Timeline: ISTEA was passed in 1991 and expired Sept. 30, 1997. The Surface Transportation Extension Act temporarily funded transportation programs and projects through 1998.

TEA-21

Replacing ISTEA, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century earmarked $218 billion for the nation’s highway and public transit infrastructure and safety and research programs. The bill was passed in 1998 and it, along with an additional bill, governed transportation funding for fiscal 1999-2003. TEA-21 set up funding guarantees and budgetary barriers for money taxpayers pay into the Highway Trust Fund.

TEA-21 is credited with creating a “transit renaissance” in the nation. Names for a finalized bill will not come until summer, but one proposal would incorporate the name of Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young’s (R-Alaska) wife, Lu, into the acronym. In the meantime, lobbyists, Members and Congressional staffers commonly refer to the proposed replacement as the “highway bill,” “transportation reauthorization” or just “tee-21.” Some still call it by its 1991 moniker, ISTEA.

Timeline: TEA-21 is set to expire at the end of September, along with its aviation authorization counterpart. Although a few names have been thrown around for the TEA-21 reauthorization proposal, no name has been formalized. The replacement legislation would expire in 2009.

AIR-21

The Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century went into effect in 2000 and is the aviation counterpart to TEA-21. Its replacement has different names depending on the varied proposals. The Bush administration’s proposal, released by the Transportation Department on March 25, is called the Centennial of Flight Aviation Authorization Act — reflecting the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ historic first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and subcommittee on aviation released plans for its legislation — commonly called AIR Vision — on April 10, and went into markup last week. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s proposal was submitted last week and is expected to go into markup sometime in mid-May.

Timeline: AIR-21 expires Sept. 30. Its replacement would last for four years.