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Action Needed as Deadline Looms

This week, Congress will begin reconsideration of six-year legislation that steers our nation’s surface transportation programs.

The previous reauthorization bill expired 18 months ago, and we have since operated under a series of temporary extensions that keep our highway, transit and safety programs in a state of financial uncertainty and programmatic flux. All of this comes at a time when states are grappling with increased traffic congestion, delayed construction projects and the threat of job losses.

The Bush administration doesn’t want a seventh extension, and the president’s $284 billion SAFETEA proposal — the largest in history — makes that clear. For 18 months, we have talked almost exclusively about the bottom line. Today it is time to begin in earnest the debate about how we spend that money.

As the former chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, I know full well that many people often view large authorizations as massive pork-barrel spending bills. But I also know that it is bills like these that have helped to build the best and most modern transportation system in the world.

While spending levels are a critical component of any authorization, these new federal investments must go hand-in-hand with sound policies to ensure the funding is used efficiently. That means attracting additional resources, more innovation and new technologies.

The proposal includes a number of important provisions to allow states the flexibility to consider tolls and other pricing mechanisms. It would give them the ability to expand and manage their transportation systems, encourage greater private sector participation and competition, and strengthen federal financing assistance for innovative projects.

Road pricing, often in the form of tolling, is a proven congestion buster. Under SAFETEA, states would have the option to toll federal-aid highways, provided that the funds are reinvested in transportation to manage congestion or improve air quality. Priced lanes can give drivers a choice they don’t currently have when they need a quicker, less congested route driving to work, home or the day care center. For example, a recent Washington Post survey found that residents prefer tolls to new taxes to fund new road construction by a 2-to-1 margin. Other surveys have found similar results.

The proposal also would change federal tax rules that strongly discourage the world’s most vibrant private sector from investing in surface transportation facilities that benefit the public. SAFETEA proposes allowing state and local governments to turn over bond proceeds from a tax-exempt issuance to private entities willing to construct highways or intermodal freight facilities. This prohibition has long been cited as a primary reason the United States lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to attracting large amounts of private capital to transportation infrastructure. The private sector can bring innovation, greater efficiency and cost savings to the table, resulting in transportation projects that are completed faster and at less expense to taxpayers.

Likewise, the Bush administration seeks to expand an already successful program that helps states secure transportation funding from nontraditional sources. The program, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, was enacted as part of TEA-21. Federal credit played an integral part in financing California’s landmark Alameda Corridor that moves freight between the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, freight yards in downtown Los Angeles and beyond.

As a former governor, President Bush knows that state and local governments are best positioned to understand and solve their traffic congestion challenges. As a former mayor and the chief sponsor of the 1991 ISTEA legislation, I know that the best way to help state and local governments do their jobs is to make laws that empower them to find practical intermodal solutions. That is why I urge Congress to give them the autonomy they need to make the best use of available transportation resources.

The House and Senate should complete work on this proposal as soon as possible so we can beat the May deadline when the current funding extension expires. Doing so will give states the go-ahead they need to resume the business of improving our nation’s highways and other surface transportation systems on behalf of the nations’ commuters.

We stand ready to help.

Norman Mineta previously was a Democratic Congressman from California and is currently the Transportation secretary.

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