It’s not high-speed rail. It’s not a stimulus program to fill potholes. It’s not an infrastructure bank. President Obama is shedding several of his failed White House efforts on infrastructure and instead daring Congress to pass a six-year surface transportation bill.
Make no mistake, it is a dare. Lawmakers have been stymied all year over one question on the law that would update the funding system for the nation’s roads, bridges, railways, and runways: How do we pay for it? Thus far, there have been no easy answers. The Senate transportation chiefs punted and offered up a two-year bill that costs $109 billion, and they are still at least $12 billion short. The House is expected to vote on as-yet-unveiled legislation that will extend for six years, cost about $260 billion, and be paid for with new domestic oil drilling.
The House measure will amount to nothing more than a political stunt, carefully timed to nick at Americans’ anger as gas prices take their annual climb into the spring and summer driving season. Most Democrats won’t accept domestic drilling as a matter of environmental principle. Transportation aficionados hate the idea. They say drilling won’t produce enough funds, and it moves away from the “user-fee” concept that has always driven transportation funding.
Obama is countering with his own political stunt, suggesting that $200 billion in war savings be used to help pay for a six-year highway bill, according to a senior administration official. The idea won’t pass muster on Capitol Hill, where people consider war savings reserved for long-term deficit reduction. But it will please the transportation industry and the gurus in Congress who have been asking for the president to put his muscle behind a highway bill.
Last year, Obama talked about crumbling bridges. He mentioned job creation from highway projects. He even suggested that 80 percent of Americans should have access to high-speed rail. But he didn’t ask Congress for a bill. This year, Obama is putting the ball squarely in their court.