WASHINGTON — A Department of Transportation official received a tongue-lashing from House lawmakers yesterday during a subcommittee hearing on whether a long-term transportation bill would help to prolong any economic recovery generated by the two-year stimulus law.
The Obama administration proposed an 18-month extension of the current law, which was approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Wednesday and will be considered by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Tuesday. But House Transportation Committee leaders from both parties have publicly admonished President Obama for advocating a delay in considering a multi-year bill to replace the current law that expires Sept. 30.
House Transportation Committee chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., said at the hearing held by the highway and transit subcommittee that he hopes the White House will get the message intended by the hearing, “so we don’t have to send the administration through Head Start to understand what we need to do.”
David Bruffy, general manager of the Mountain Line Transit Authority in Morgantown, W.Va., said it is important that the administration continue to provide state and local governments with federal funds that can be used in conjunction with other funds for transportation projects. His authority could have used stimulus funding to buy two buses, but chose instead to buy three buses using stimulus funds and local reserve funds. “We’d like to see that pipeline continue,” he said.
But Roy Kienitz, undersecretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said that before passing a new bill, “we need to draw upon the best available economic analysis to guide our transportation infrastructure investment decisions.”
He said the administration hopes that during the 18-month extension of the current law at fiscal 2009 spending levels, grant recipients would collect data and help perform economic analyses needed to help draft the next multi-year bill.
States and localities that apply for discretionary grants and high-speed rail funding are currently doing this by submitting cost-benefit analyses of proposed transportation projects.
Time provided by the extension would “also allow this time to be used to incorporate the valuable lessons from the innovations in transportation investment in the recovery act,” he said, “such as the processes by which money is spent at the state and local levels, as well as the various geographic priorities for investment.”
The federal government also would use the 18 months to implement “a few targeted reforms” before a new law is enacted, Kienitz said, without specifying them.
Kienitz agreed with committee members that long-term authorizations with committed federal funding levels allow states, metropolitan planning organizations, and transit authorities to plan long-term programs — a contention that Oberstar and others used in opposing the extension. But the DOT official said the best way to create a reliable system with everyone’s support would be through an 18-month extension.
Oberstar said that while Kienitz’s observations are correct, his conclusion is wrong.
After the extension, “we would once again find ourselves with the same difficult decisions, the same outdated and inefficient programs, and even higher investment needs in all modes of our transportation system,” he said.
The subcommittee’s chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., noted that during the last highway bill reauthorization process — which took 22 months and 12 short-term extensions like the one currently being proposed — states “significantly pulled back on investments in highway and transit construction projects” because of funding uncertainty.