It’s unclear how directly engaged the Department of Transportation’s point person was — a DOT spokesman wouldn’t say — but even if he was meeting with lawmakers every day, the once nonpartisan issue has become an almost impossible lift.
Since the beginning of the Obama administration, the White House has been long on rhetoric and short on muscle when it comes to transportation. Critics say they squandered an opportunity in the 2009 economic stimulus bill to funnel more money to long-term, ambitious projects. In 2010, they expended their political might on health care, which left little room for anything else big.
At the end of this month, a surface transportation bill expires. And like so many times (32 to be exact) in the past six years, Congress is expected to pass a short-term extension — a band-aid over a gaping wound.
“Now this is kind of a joke that there’s not even a bill, and we are 26 days away,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), at a congressional hearing on the issue this week.
“I have to say, I’ve been a senator now for 18 months, and my frustration with our approach to infrastructure as a nation just grows with every day,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
To be fair, the White House sent a six-year, $478 billion highway bill to the Hill at the end of March, to be paid for with repatriation taxes, collecting money U.S.-based companies hold overseas, but that requires movement on another big lift: tax reform.
Which, despite DOT’s best efforts — including a social media campaign and a bus tour — has always been the hold up. It’s a true bipartisan failing, with Republicans and Democrats alike unwilling to make unpopular choices (like raising the federal gasoline tax for the first time since 1993) to pay for roads and bridges.
“DOT is not particularly relevant to the discussion moving forward — this is not a policy problem — this is purely a revenue issue,”Jeff Davis, a senior fellow with the Eno Center for Transportation told the Loop. “DOT doesn’t have the ability to wheel and deal on tax policy.”
So maybe, despite the ballyhoo of bringing in a highway bill point person, there was only so much he could ever do.