Written by Jason Mark
Once upon a time — in a political environment that seems otherwordly compared to what we have in the United States today — the federal transportation bill was a bi-partisan endeavor. Now things are different. Congress went into spring recess last week and once again left hanging a reauthorization of the transportation bill, which expired two and a half years ago. Congress was just barely able to approve a temporary, 90-day extension of the lapsed law so that current infrastructure projects can keep moving along.
Why the impasse on something that usually wins consensus? It comes down, in part, to a disagreement over how (or even whether) the federal government should fund mass transit programs.
The transportation bill moving through the House eliminates the provision that dedicates to mass transit 20 percent of monies from the gas-tax supported Highway Trust Fund — an arrangement that has been in place since Ronald Reagan was president. It also slashes support for high-speed rail projects, cuts subsidies to Amtrak, and eliminates designated funding for bike and pedestrian infrastructure as well as the “Safe Routes to School” program. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (a former Republican Congressman) called the House measure “the worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service.”
Compare that with the Senate version, which passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support (74-22). The Senate’s two-year bill, crafted by odd bedfellows Barbara Boxer and Jim Inhofe, would largely maintain the status quo. The easiest thing would be for the House to take up the Senate version, pass it with bi-partisan numbers, and send the law to the president.
But that would rankle Speaker John Boehner’s hard-right base. Here’s how Congressman Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, summed up the situation:
“[The House leadership’s] problem is they have about 80 or 90 people who want to kill off the federal transportation program in their caucus. Then they’re hamstrung because they’ve got 20 or 25 [who] are still rational and say, ‘Hey, if you’re going to kill off transit funding, we won’t vote for the bill.’ So if they do what the flat earth people want, then they lose the moderates, and if they do what the moderates want they lose the flat earth people.”
This legislative train wreck (sorry for the pun) raises a question that’s been nagging me for a while: Why exactly are conservative representatives so antagonistic to public transit?
Here a couple of thoughts.
It’s an urban-rural thing.
Republicans overwhelming come from rural areas. Democrats usually represent cities. (Leaving the two parties to battle it out for the swing votes in the suburbs.) Transport Politic writer Yonah Freemark sums it up: “Republicans in the House of Representatives know that very few of their constituents would benefit directly from increased spending on transit, for instance, so they propose gutting the nation’s commitment to new public transportation lines when they enter office. Starting two years ago, Democrats pushed the opposite agenda, devoting billions to urban-level projects that would have been impossible under the Bush Administration.”
I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with this. Representatives are elected to serve their constituents as well as the national interest. If their constituents live in areas with low population densities that wouldn’t be well served by buses or bike lanes, then it makes sense to prioritize spending on roads. One basic reason Republicans are against making investments in mass transit is that those projects don’t meet the needs of the people who elected them. Not surprisingly, Congressman DeFazio’s whip count of GOP supporters of the Senate legislation mostly includes Republicans who represent suburban areas that benefit from mass transit.
Photo from cliff1066 via flickr
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