While it feels as if the National Football League’s season is teetering on the brink of shuttering due to issues related to the pandemic, the game of political football inside the nation’s capital remains alive and well.
That was made more than clear in late September, at the end of the fiscal year, when the White House signed a one-year continuing resolution for the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, the five-year federal surface transportation authorization that was set to expire on September 30.
In theory, this signing is a good thing, but at the end of the day it’s not enough—and not much more than kicking the political football a little further down the field. What’s more, whether President Trump holds office or should the Democratic nominee Joe Biden take over, the winner will need to be up to the moment and address this years-long challenge.
That was a key theme of a recent conversation I had with James Burnley, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based law firm Venable LLP and former Secretary of Transportation under the late President Ronald Reagan. In our discussion, he was direct, as he always is, in outlining the partisan impacts of the election on transportation infrastructure.
“There are issues that will be very succinctly influenced by the outcome of the election, such as the extent to which the Green New Deal approach is the basis for a bill, which is what I expect will happen if the Democrats win the presidency and the Senate,” said Burnley. “If the Republicans hold the Senate and the presidency and gain some House seats, if not the majority, then I think we would see the basis for a bill, at least on the highway part, that would look much more like the bill that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee issued earlier this year.”
As for the current state of bills proposed on each side of the aisle, in July 2019 the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously passed a $287 billion, five-year surface transportation bill. But three other Republican-led Senate committees—Commerce, Science and Transportation; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and Finance—have sat on it and failed to act.
And the Democratic-led House passed a five-year, $494 billion bill on July 20, 2020, without any Republican support. Senate Republicans have shown no interest in compromise on that measure.
Regardless of these alarmingly typical impasses, it all goes back to what Burnley described as the immutable question hanging over the entire process: How will any future authorization be funded? No surprises there. Even if you can move the ball, if you end up punting it probably wasn’t much of a drive to begin with.
“Unfortunately that has been the case for a very long time because the Highway Trust Fund [HTF] is now so far underwater that Congress will need to promote a new fundraising scheme, whether it’s for raising fuel taxes or a whole new approach, like a vehicle miles traveled tax or a combination thereof to pay for programs going forward to surface transportation,” Burnley explained.
And it’s not a game that can go on forever, added Burnley, who noted that it’s unlikely that committees in congress that are not involved in surface transportation are going to continue to just acquiesce for ever-increasing transfers out of the general treasury fund to the HTF.
That has been going on for years, and it’s not working.
When asked if the one-year extension of the FAST Act could be viewed as a positive, Burnley said that it’s better than not having it extended, as not doing it would lead to a crisis. But, as he has said many times, when it comes to a multi-year authorization bill, these short-term extensions—whether they’re for a month or a year—simply don’t get the job done.
“To put it another way, I think we’re at the point where the gap is just too big between revenues and outlays…given the revenue shortfall,” said Burnley. “Whatever the next administration’s plan may be, that will have to be dealt with. I don’t think you can view the extension as anything other than Congress kicking the ball down the field. I don’t think it’s particularly positive, and it’s not going to suffice. The new Congress and presidential outcome will put a lot of pressure on key decision makers to come to grips with the huge gap between revenues dedicated to the HTF and what’s actually needed.”
There are more questions than answers, but it’s fourth and long, and the punt team is coming out onto the field….again
About the Author
Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman