March 16, 2009
|LEGISLATIVE CONFERENCE COVERAGE
Members of Congress Share Views on Sustainability, Economic Stimulus, and Authorization
By SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor, and JOHN R. BELL, Program Manager-Communications
The two primary Congressional authors of the upcoming transportation authorization bill—Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Rep. James. L. Oberstar (D-MN)—were joined by three House Members who spoke about environmental sustainability, fiscal responsibility, and the role of public transportation in these efforts when they addressed separate sessions at APTA’s Legislative Conference.
Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was the keynote speaker at the Opening General Session. “You must enjoy what you’re doing,” he told the transit professionals regarding the record 10.7 billion rides they provided last year. “You’re doing your job and laying the groundwork for even better things to come.”
He suggested that “OPEC did us a favor” by raising gasoline prices to more than $4 a gallon during 2008. “People found options—such as transit,” he said, “but now that the prices have come down again, if people stop there and go back to driving, we won’t be serving the public well.”
The Congressman enthused over the $8 billion for high-speed rail included in the ARRA legislation, offering examples of the “civilized” high-speed service in Europe. He also stressed the positive “rippling” effect of federal transit funds on the U.S. economy, where a transit agency in one state may order buses or railcars manufactured in another—boosting ridership in one place and creating jobs in another.
“A new bill is coming,” Oberstar said of the next transportation authorization bill, which will follow the expiration of SAFETEA-LU on Sept. 30. “You just help us write it.” Together, he said: “We can make the 21st century the bright age of transit.”
The following morning, Sen. Dodd, who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, led off the General Session. Appearing at the conference for the first time, Dodd has called for the bill to include a vision; funding; transit-oriented development; and a national infrastructure bank.
“Obviously, we meet at a very transformative moment in our nation’s history,” Dodd said, with “the very future of our planet” at stake with the new authorization. With the U.S. population expected to grow another 50 percent in the first half of this century, he noted that this will require millions of new homes and office space—and a dramatic increase in America’s carbon emissions unless bold measures are undertaken.
Dodd also emphasized public transportation’s significant economic benefits. He compared the current economic crisis not to the Great Depression, but to the nearly forgotten Great Panic of 1873 that continued for six years, and was initially caused by a transportation crisis: horse influenza caused the shutdown of horse-drawn street railways and stopped freight delivery.
Major investment is needed to prevent a similar situation now, he said, calling the current overall U.S. transportation system “inefficient, deteriorating, and responsible for a third of our carbon footprint.”
Dodd said he hopes public transit will be “the bedrock of climate change and energy efforts. “We shouldn’t confuse a down payment with a new policy,” he added, “and we shouldn’t confuse ‘shovel ready’ with ‘future ready.’ And we need future-ready projects.”
Also speaking were Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and John Mica (R-FL). Blumenauer cited his sponsorship of the Clean Low-Emissions Affordable New Transportation Equity Act (CLEAN-TEA). That bill calls for cap-and-trade (via auction) of greenhouse gas emissions, with 10 percent of the resulting revenues devoted to “greening” public transportation.
In contrast, DeFazio said he regards reliance on the market to regulate carbon emissions as a threat, rather than a solution, and that such a system would be dictated by derivatives traders on Wall Street and by hedge funds.
Mica, ranking member of the T&I, emphasized that the transportation authorization bill is “not just a highway bill, but a transportation bill for the United States,” and that it needs “strong components for public transit and for rail, both freight and passenger.” He continued: “I strongly advocate that, in the document we produce to replace SAFETEA-LU, that we have a strategic plan based on intermodal components and include all modes. It’s essential that we do that.”
He noted that he and Oberstar worked together in just 437 days to pass a proposal to replace the highway bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed in August 2007. “Normally that process takes seven or eight years,” he said, so “nothing should stop us from moving forward now with some of the transit projects we have.”
During the session, conference participants offered questions and comments to the speakers before going to Capitol Hill to meet with their respective representatives and senators.