Conservatives On Transportation: Throw America Into Reverse

Back in 2010, one of President Obama’s stump-speech lines has him trying to put the economy in “D” to drive it out of the ditch it had fallen into, while Republican obstructionists keep trying to pull the stick shift back into “R.”

It was a baldly partisan pitch then, but in the debate now unfolding in Congress over a transportation bill, the analogy is especially apt. Republicans are literally trying to move the transmission of the nation’s transportation policy into “reverse,” with terrible consequences for the national economy, for the environment, and for the well-being of working people.

A bill being put forward by House Republicans this week grossly underfunds the nation’s transportation needs. It would authorize $228 billion for highways and public transportation over five years, from 2012 to 2017. That compares to the $285 billion authorized in the last long-term transportation bill, signed by President Bush in August 2005 for spending through September 2009. Compare that as well to the minimum of $285 billion a January 2011 Congressional Budget Office study, citing Federal Highway Administration estimates, said it would cost the federal government to maintain the nation’s roads for that five-year period in their current condition, based on past cost-sharing between federal and state governments. And that’s just roads; that doesn’t include public transportation, intercity rail, sidewalks, and bike trails.

Back in 2009, when Democrats controlled the House, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., who was the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a highly respected expert on transportation issues, said that the nation needed to commit $450 billion over a six-year period to bring the nation’s transportation network up to what is needed for a truly efficient and competitive economy.

Oberstar would presumably praise the level of commitment in President Obama’s transportation proposal. It includes $476 billion over six years, including an immediate investment of $50 billion for roads, rails, and runways. Nearly a quarter of that money would fund public transportation systems around the country, expanding their capacity and improving their safety. That dramatic increase in public transportation funding would still allow spending on highway improvements to increase by a third. “Without the ability to move goods and people safely and efficiently, we’re stuck standing still,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote this week.

But standing still—or, more accurately, moving backward—is precisely what LaHood’s former Republican colleagues in Congress are going for.

The conservative approach of starving the nation’s transportation system is bound to prevent it from being an effective engine for economic growth and could potentially lead to the loss of more than a half-million jobs. (How’s that for a bill that calls itself an “infrastructure jobs act”?) But to add to the insult, conservatives are turning the legislation into a virtual pharmacy of poison pills.

Meteor Blades has a fairly comprehensive list of the objectionable features being attached to the House bill. Among other things, the legislation would seek to raise revenue for transportation projects with “royalties on wide-open drilling on additional public lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and in most off-shore areas of the Pacific and Atlantic now barred for good reasons from oil and gas exploration.” It would ram through approval of the environmentally perilous Keystone XL pipeline. It would short-circuit environmental reviews of highway projects, limiting the ability of communities to protect themselves from damaging projects. And, in a direct slap of workers, it would seriously weaken the Fair Labor Standards Act, a law that requires contractors to pay workers prevailing wages that has been the bane of conservatives and Chamber-of-Commerce types who are eager to slash worker pay. As Think Progress reports, there is even a proposed amendment that would open up protected areas of the Grand Canyon to uranium mining.

Add to this the elimination of dedicated funding for public transportation, which has been a mainstay of these authorization bills for decades, and language that would kill funding for high-speed rail and you have a bill that would push transportation policy back to pre-interstate highway days—which some conservatives would in fact openly cheer. Russ Vought at notes that “Conservatives have long sought to devolve or ‘turn back’ the federal highway program to states,” so that “states would take on the responsibility of both maintaining the interstate system and financing it as they see fit.” In that world, a ride on Interstate 10 from Los Angeles to San Antonio, Texas could range from smooth to horrific depending on the whim of state legislatures. There would be little, if anything, to compel states to act in the interest of interstate commerce.

And that’s just the House. A more bipartisan Senate bill, which is not nearly as ambitious as the White House would prefer but nonetheless has its blessing, was being hung up over Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s demand for an amendment denying aid to Egypt over the government’s detention of some America citizens and Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt’s amendment that would permit employers to deny coverage for health services that run counter to the employer’s “religious beliefs and moral convictions.”

According to Talking Points Memo, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Democratic leadership, told reporters, “We didn’t just magically go back 50 years in time when limitations on women’s access to contraception like this were commonplace. But make no mistake, that amendment would take us back there. It is extreme. It is dangerous … We are not going allow the clock to be turned back decades on American women.”

Through this transportation bill, conservatives are pushing the transmission into reverse on everything from environmental policy to workers rights to women’s health. Their efforts would cost the nation’s jobs, make the movement of goods and services less efficient, convert what should be public resources into private profit centers, and keep us mired deep in the 20th century when our global economic competitors are pressing toward the future. President Obama has abandoned his use of that “driving into the ditch” line in his speeches, but conservatives have not given up keeping the economy from shifting into “drive.”


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