It's been a long road leading up to this Election Day, most would agree. But what about the roads after Nov. 4? Not to mention the highways, rail systems and airways.
Top transportation experts, along with advisers to John McCain and Barack Obama, sought to answer that question at a National Journal Group policy breakfast this morning in Washington hosted by Atlantic Media Company Political Director Ronald Brownstein. They delved into what Congress, the next administration and various interest groups can do to address the myriad obstacles -- most prominently, quickly diminishing funds -- that face the country's transportation system.
Front and center in the debate was how the next president, regardless of who it is, will continue to fund the existing highway and transit program. Lisa Caruso, a National Journal reporter whose recent story on the subject was the jumping-off point for the discussion, emphasized that Congress is going to have to get "creative" finding ways to fund the sector.
"Gas tax revenues can't support the program," Caruso said. "Congress is going to have to grapple with how to find the revenue." She added that the federal program no longer has the "unifying, national purpose" it did when it started in 1956. "It's become a program where all the states and Congress fight for a piece of the pie."
Mortimer Downey, an Obama adviser and chairman of the Coalition for America's Gateway and Trade Corridors, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, senior adviser to McCain, echoed Caruso's criticisms of the gas tax. Neither presidential candidate supports it, but neither has proposed any concrete, viable funding alternatives, either.
A core part of the Obama transportation plan [PDF] would be to found a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, Downey said, an independent federal entity created specifically to fund transportation projects. It would ensure that projects are funded transparently and that the government isn't just "tossing out earmarks," he said.
Holtz-Eakin, however, criticized Obama's bank proposal, calling it "reminiscent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac." He also found time to underscore McCain's opposition to earmarks, especially within the transportation sector. "We have to get into the system and get better bang for the buck, invest more wisely," he said. The core aspects of McCain's transportation plan, which is closely linked with his energy plan, the Lexington Project, include balancing the federal government's role with that of state and local governments and looking to private investors to fund projects.
Raising revenue through a carbon cap-and-trade system would also make sense, said many of the panelists, since transportation accounts for nearly a third of the U.S.'s greenhouse gas emissions. But even though both candidates have pointed to such a system as an ideal source of money, James Burnley, transportation secretary under President Reagan, wasn't optimistic that it was a realistic option. He noted that the emissions bill the Senate debated last summer didn't "dedicate one dime to transportation infrastructure."
He also described a dismal outlook for addressing the funding issue any time soon. "We have a perennial crisis of revenue sources of transportation. And neither campaign has an answer," Burnley said. "I don't fault them for that, because there aren't any, really, at this point."
Michael Replogle, transportation director of the Environmental Defense Fund, echoed Burnley's pessimism about finding funds through any cap-and-trade system. "There are a lot of competing demands for that greenhouse gas emissions revenue," he said. "There are some very tough political questions. It's not by any means something that the transportation sector should count on as a source of revenue."
Adding to the costs and complications, the nation's transportation woes are hardly confined to highways, a point stressed by Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Whether it floats, flies or rolls, it's important," Kavinoky said. "And it's something both these campaigns need to start thinking about."
Toward the end of the discussion, the speakers paid particular attention to a bill that would modernize the air traffic control system and reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. Lawmakers passed a temporary extension in September in response to delays in passing the overhaul bill, which they're due to consider again in March.
Kavinoky said the air traffic control system is so complicated that just throwing funding at the problem isn't likely to fix it. "I'm not convinced that it's so much about the money, but that it's about the management of getting air traffic modernization moving," she said. Burnley chimed in that one major reason why the FAA's reauthorization has been held up is union efforts on behalf of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
The panelists had already devoted some time to the topic when they took a question from an unexpectedly appropriate member of the audience. Amid an uproar of laughter from the audience, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's communications director, Doug Church, sought to briefly clarify the role he sees his organization filling in reauthorizing the FAA.
"The controllers union is not holding up the current reauthorization, which is held up in the Senate," Church said. "This is a battle on the user-fee issues alone, and that was what both parties have said. We are leading the push for reauthorization, as National Journal was a recipient of many of our ad dollars promoting that fact."