By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009
As stimulus spending on highways and bridges ramps up, Senate Democrats are submitting legislation today that suggests the nation's transportation policy is headed for a major overhaul, with a strong emphasis on reducing automobile use and carbon emissions and boosting public transit, inter-city rail and rail freight service.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) are introducing legislation that they say lays out the guidelines of what they expect the next five-year federal transportation spending plan to accomplish. Their goal is to influence the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is responsible for drafting the spending plan. The House plan is expected in early June, and the bill is due for reauthorization this fall.
Among other goals, the Senate legislation decrees that the plan must reduce per capita motor vehicle miles traveled on an annual basis, reduce national surface transportation-generated carbon dioxide levels by 40 percent by 2030, and increase the proportion of national freight provided by means other than trucks by 10 percent by 2020.
"A national surface transportation policy for our country is long overdue," Lautenberg said. "We need a transportation policy that reestablishes our leadership throughout the world when it comes to transportation -- and meets our country's transportation demands for generations to come."
There was disappointment among both highway boosters and transit advocates that initial versions of the economic stimulus package provided $35 billion for transportation projects, less than five percent of the package. Transit advocates were cheered, though, when the White House added $8 billion for high-speed rail at the last minute.
The focus for those trying to ascertain the administration's transportation agenda has since turned to the five-year bill, which is expected to cost at least $400 billion. One big question is how the government plans to fund transportation spending, with revenue from the gas tax increasingly falling short. The new Senate bill does not address that problem.
Another big question is how much the bill will provide for public transportation. As it now stands, 80 percent of federal transportation money goes to highways. But David Goldberg, an official with the advocacy group Transportation for America, said Congress and the White House are sending signs that the new plan could represent a major break. The White House has already said it hopes to spend $1 billion per year on high-speed rail.
"We are optimistic," Goldberg said.