By Rob Talley
Editor’s Note: The Washington Report is a regular feature of the NMA’s quarterly Driving Freedoms member magazine. Our representative in DC, Rob Talley, wrote the original version of this newsletter for the spring issue of the magazine before the pandemic halted its publication. So Rob recently updated his dispatch to include more recent developments on Capitol Hill, and we are pleased to share it with you here.
The outlook in Washington for any issue, much less transportation policy, was completely upended with the outbreak of the coronavirus and associated US responses beginning in February.
Before the national crisis, House and Senate policymakers were working on transportation-related legislation that would have established funding levels for major highway and transportation safety programs for the next five years. In 2019, the Senate Committee working on the legislation passed a bipartisan proposal that authorized $287 billion in funding over five years.
In January, key Democratic leaders released a much more comprehensive infrastructure framework that would authorize $760 billion in funding. A significant portion, $329 billion, would go toward highways infrastructure according to discussions with staff working on the proposal. Another $105 billion would go toward improving public transit. Also included were non-traditional transportation proposals such as funding $34.3 billion worth of clean energy investment, and modernizing the electric grid to allow for more electric vehicle charging stations. House Republicans have not endorsed the proposal, expressing concerns about the expansive nature of the bill and objecting to some of the priorities.
While policy differences are an overarching problem in finding middle ground, the difference in funding levels is also a significant hurdle to passage. Even the more modest Senate proposed a $287 billion funding level that requires new funding mechanisms as the current gas tax fails to keep up with infrastructure funding needs. Before the pandemic, policy leaders were looking at options that include the vehicle miles traveled tax and even surcharges on electric vehicles to cover EV road use, but these have proven politically sticky.
The NMA has expressed objections to policy leaders endorsing these proposals over the inclusion of funding for Vision Zero and Complete Streets programs. The Complete Streets program proposed by Congress would seriously degrade the consideration of automotive needs in transportation decisions. In communities that enact these programs, Vision Zero Coordinators, often full-time government staff, have no objective but to make sure that road usage is constrained, not enhanced, to protect the public and get people out of their cars. The Senate proposal creates a linkage between funding to states and localities and passage of Complete Streets programs that come close to creating a federal directive for setting local transportation decisions.
The NMA also continues to push the DETER Act, a bill to eliminate the use of ticket quotas in determining allocations of funding to states and localities for highway safety programs. We will seek to have the proposal attached to the highway authorization bill as it moves forward in the process.
Most recently, the discussion of stimulus-related legislation has sparked interest by some legislators for the inclusion of a transportation bill in a massive economic package. President Trump tweeted his support for as much as $2 trillion in overall infrastructure investment in the next stimulus bill. Still, signals for support are mixed, and the situation is very fluid. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), has endorsed and subsequently retracted support for such an effort in a stimulus bill.
Further clouding the outlook, decisions on the inclusion of provisions in previous stimulus bills have been made by a handful of senior policymakers in a closed room, not through regular legislative processes. Until Congress can get back to Washington and begin a more regular schedule, predicting the future of legislative action is very difficult. In the end, the greater the economic stress, the more likely major federal spending on things like infrastructure becomes.