Transport Attracting Lobbyists

Posted July 23, 2008 at 4:11pm

Transportation issues have never lacked lobbyists. From aviation to freight rail to AAA, the industry has an abundance of voices making its case on Capitol Hill.

But lawmakers can add another group to their list for next Congress: big business. As the debate over the 2009 transportation bill gets under way and the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill makes its way through the Senate, groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are adding their voice to the mix.

While transportation issues have never topped NAM’s agenda, the group is looking to play a major role in the upcoming transportation bill.

Spurred by increasing energy prices and congestion concerns, the association is entering uncharted territory with its Alliance for Improving America’s Infrastructure, one of the many blossoming coalitions forming to help sway lawmakers on transportation issues.

“Our members are interested in having access to a reliable transportation system,” said Robyn Boerstling, director of transportation and infrastructure policy at NAM. “It’s important to have as many voices as possible. No one will be sitting on their hands.”

NAM isn’t alone. The Chamber of Commerce is also poised to play a much larger role in transportation issues in the next Congress.

Janet Kavinoky, who runs the chamber’s Americans for Transportation Mobility Coalition, says everything is on the table at this point.

“I think there is a real sensitivity that we can’t come right out of the gate asking about how much money we need and how we can get it,” Kavinoky said. “We have to have the serious discussion on overall investment and what is the future of the federal role in transportation.”

NAM and the chamber’s increased concerns about transportation issues may not be unfounded. For instance, the FAA reauthorization bill has been languishing in the Senate over the past year and the 2003 transportation bill was delayed two years before its passage.

Plus, the issues continue to get more complex, with the aviation industry undergoing a makeover for the next generation and serious concerns about keeping the Highway Trust Fund solvent.

“There’s so much going on right now with the shape of the air traffic system,” said Ed Faberman, co-chairman of Wiley Rein’s aviation practice. “Airport congestion, the price of fuel, competition issues, the state of the industry has been very problematic.”

Still industry lobbyists are optimistic about passing both pieces of legislation next year.

While no one is predicting that Congress will finish the transportation bill by the end of September — when the current legislation expires — several industry lobbyists argue that there will nonetheless be more pressure next year for a timely conclusion.

The biggest impetus: increased economic pressures on the aviation and transportation industries.

Lobbyists also point to a new executive branch as a means for opening up dialogue on the FAA bill.

“Depending on the outcome of the elections, that could have an impact on the public policy discussions related to the [FAA] bill,” said Todd Hauptli, a lobbyist for the American Association of Airport Executives. “Everybody at this point is in a defensive crouch waiting for the election.”

Gridlock over the FAA reauthorization bill in the Senate and a widening gap between gas tax revenue and the cost of the highway transportation bill has led some within the industry to suggest that Congress needs to take a radical look at the current system of financing the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

“As we go into this next Congress, everybody has got a lot of proposals and most of them are still going to have the dust left on them from the last time they were put up,” said Jim May, head of the Air Transport Association. “I think it’s time to really sit back and approach this with a different mindset.”

So far, there are several proposals over how to make the trust fund more financially stable, including increasing the gas tax and moving to a system based on miles driven instead of the amount of gas purchased.

“The whole issue of funding is going to be very important because there’s only a certain amount of funding that’s available and the need is so much greater,” said former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who is now at Hill & Knowlton.

Since his resignation from the Bush administration in 2006, Mineta has continued to advocate public-private partnerships to fill the gap between the needs of the system and the gas tax.

Foreign investment is one of the likely contentious issues to come up as a means of closing that funding gap. For years, countries such as Spain have had public-private partnerships and have started to infiltrate the U.S. system, slowly taking over long-term leases on toll roads in Chicago.

“There is this sort of suspicion of foreign investment,” said Martin Whitmer, former deputy chief of staff of the Department of Transportation in the Bush administration, who is now at Whitmer & Worrall.

“If there’s skepticism of foreign investment on the Hill, it’s partly because foreign investment companies haven’t been up there enough,” added Whitmer, who represents the Spanish transportation company Abertis Infraestructuras.

Beyond restructuring funding for transportation issues, another key point for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association is creating a national freight system

The association, which co-chairs the Transportation Construction Coalition and comprises labor groups and construction workers, would like to see a concentrated effort on freight, ARTBA’s David Bauer said.

“There is a hodgepodge of projects as opposed to a national system,” Bauer said. “There is no national strategy for trying to deal with that.”

The Association of American Railroads, which is part of another freight stakeholders’ coalition, is advocating for more public-private partnerships under the current system. AAR President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Hamberger says he expects a “freight fund” to be created in the next transportation bill.

One idea the association is promoting is an investment tax credit that would be used for expanding rail capacity.

“Our concern is how are they going to do it,” Hamberger said. “We’re not against it, but we are still hammering out the principles to measure them.”