Time to Shift Jurisdiction Over Mass Transit

Posted July 30, 2008 at 6:22pm

Thomas Jefferson was not one who thought constitutions and other governmental arrangements should remain unchanged over time. He compared unchanging structures to the man who as an adult continued to wear the coat from his childhood. We live in the age of global warming, and it is a new age that calls for new structures.

After 9/11, Congress moved rather swiftly to create the Department of Homeland Security in response to the need for vigilance against terrorism. In response to the long-delayed acceptance of global warming as a threat to the planet, it is time we examined the structures that will help or hinder our ability to meet this threat.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to draw a distinction between surface transportation policy and climate change policy. An appropriate surface transportation policy will impact climate change, and an appropriate climate change policy will impact surface transportation. Despite this convergence on a policy level, Congressional jurisdiction over surface transportation policy in the Senate remains split between two primary committees, Environment and Public Works and Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. In the House, surface transportation is formulated by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It is time for the Senate to consolidate surface transportation within one committee that deals with transportation and environmental policy.

The rationale of maintaining jurisdiction over mass transit within the Banking Committee is quite dated. The Banking Committee originally got control of mass transit because the first forays into federal assistance for mass transit were located in the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Johnson administration. When those of that day thought about mass transit, they thought about subways and buses in major metropolitan areas, and addressing the problems of cities was the domain of the Banking Committee.

For some time, having the Banking Committee handle mass transit made sense and worked. During the urban crisis of the 1960s and into the 1970s, the Banking Committee attracted Senators from major financial centers that happened to be large cities with troublesome urban problems. These were the days of former Members Jacob Javits (R) of New York and John Heinz (R) of Pittsburgh. Things changed, however, with the savings and loan crisis, which had a much different geography.

In mass transit circles, the word is that the Banking Committee only concentrates on transit policy when it absolutely has to. Typically, the Environment and Public Works Committee reports a highway bill to the Senate floor and the Majority Leader sets a date for floor consideration. Between the time the bill emerges from Environment and Public Works and the time it hits the floor is the window in which the Banking Committee deals with transit policy. This makes for a hurried policy and usually means that mass transit is dominated by the House in conference.

There have been exceptions to this pattern, notably under the leadership of the scholarly former Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), but for the most part the pattern has held.

In “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore admonished us to “take mass transit wherever it is available.” That sentence represents a two-part policy initiative to improve and control the cost of existing transit systems and to create new transit options where they presently do not exist. This is sound policy, but it is going to require a significant expansion of federal resources and policy. In addition, this expanding transit initiative must be in concert with climate change policy.

To achieve a thorough, comprehensive policy that ties the expansion of mass transit options to other surface transportation modes and environmental policy, the current jurisdiction of mass transit policy should be shifted from the Banking Committee to the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Tom Howarth is a mass transit consultant.