Saturday, December 18, 2004

TEA 21- Reauthorization Update

It is not surprising, but last month's lame duck session of the 108th Congress failed to take up the matter of reauthorizing the major transportation funding bill, TEA-21 (now called SAFETEA).

TEA-21 expired in September of 2003 and has been periodically extended. At issue is various discrepancies in funding levels proposed by the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the President.

Currently, the law stands in conference committee waiting for a compromise between the House and Senate versions to be hashed out. The House version of the bill (H.R. 3550) calls for $275 billion over six years. The Senate version (S. 1072) calls for spending levels at $318 billion over the same period; and the White House has indicated that he will veto any bill exceeding $256 billion. With the coming of the 109th Congress in January, new bills will have to be submitted to Congress, but reports indicate that there will not be a significant change in these numbers.

The next few months should be interesting as Congress takes up a compromise bill. Even if the House and Senate split the difference, the funding level will undoubtedly be above what the White House is comfortable with. The Bush Administration's penchant for discipline within the Republican ranks could be disrupted over this bill--which is one reason why Congress failed to go ahead with reauthorization during the election season.

For members of Congress, transportation projects are pointed to as important examples of bringing federal funds to their constituencies and, hence, demonstrating their effectiveness as legislators. The President's policy priorities for his next term--Social Security "reform" and further cutting taxes--are going to require either increasing the deficit significantly or cutting spending. Wall Street, European allies, and international investors are becoming increasingly worried about the US deficit spending, making the pressure for bringing federal budgets under control significant.

Where the future of transportation funding will fall within this complex array of competing interests and needs is still unknown. What should not be underestimated, however, is the importance of a viable transportation system for the sustenance of the nation's economy and the quality of life in our metropolitan areas.

The extended reauthorization process has already tied the hands of many localities who are depending on federal matching funds for important redevelopment efforts.

The latest example to run across my desk is from Warren, New Jersey where a mixed-use downtown redevelopment project is being stalled as local officials wait for funds.

Many locales are rethinking the dominant "sprawl" type development that separates offices, residential sectors, and commercial districts through low density planning by encouraging integrative developments. These more pedestrian-friendly spaces, demand less public infrastructure in the form of highways and are more amenable to a variety of transportation choices.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)