The failure to pass new federal transportation authorization legislation is causing problems for some transportation agencies due to uncertainty regarding long-term funding. The current legislation, SAFETEA-LU, expired in September and has been extended by a stop-gap measure to December 18. The White House and Senate leaders had supported an 18-month extension that would push the new multi-year highway and transit bill into 2011, while House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) had wanted to pass new legislation by the end of the calendar year. More recently, a bipartisan group of Senators have called for a six-month extension that would continue current federal spending until June 2010.
A key question is how to pay for the proposed increases in transportation spending. Most lawmakers have resisted calling for an increase in the federal gas tax, but Sec. LaHood recently remarked that a debate in Congress on such an increase is likely.
Meanwhile, Congress may soon consider a jobs creation bill that could include additional transportation spending. James Oberstar now intends to introduce a two-year jobs/infrastructure bill with the aim of front-loading the spending to further stimulate the economy, followed by a four-year transportation bill with major reforms and changes in the way transportation investments are paid for.
One area that is getting increased funding and support is high-speed rail, as $8 billion in stimulus funding will be awarded starting this winter, and as much as $4 billion more could be included in next year's budget. Howard A. Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, wrote articles this week in the Duluth News Tribune and Winona Daily News arguing that high-speed rail is a key opportunity not just for big cities but also for rural America. He further argues that Congress should provide funding for pilot projects for adopting new transit technologies in rural areas.