APTA | Passenger Transport
November 22, 2010

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2010 Elections—What Will They Mean For Transit?
BY PAUL DEAN, APTA Director, Government Affairs

Now that the groundbreaking 2010 mid-term congressional elections are on the books and newly elected members are preparing to swarm Capitol Hill, political pundits, journalists, and of course, transit industry professionals—are all attempting to answer one basic question: what does it all mean?

Predicting the exact impact the election results will have on any industry’s legislative priorities is, of course, difficult at best. By taking a close look at the new congressional structure, the new leadership of key committees, and the stated political positions of those leaders, however, we can make some educated guesses at a few of the likely scenarios for the disposition of the transit industry’s legislative priorities in 2011.

A New Landscape
The 2010 election results will bring significant changes to Capitol Hill. Republicans will take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Democrats’ majority in the Senate is diminished after losing six seats. Legislative gridlock is anticipated due to the split control of Congress and little desire by Republicans to grant the Obama administration any major victories before the 2012 presidential election.

Many of the new members were swept into office on a platform of reducing the federal deficit by cutting federal spending. New federal spending was met with fierce opposition from most Republican legislators during the congressional session that is about to come to an end as well. This trend will certainly continue, with the Republican Party in an even stronger position. New taxes, such as an increase in the federal motor fuels tax, are unlikely to gain traction, and any increases in spending will need offsets by cutting other parts of the federal budget.  It is expected, though, that the high unemployment rate will continue for the next two years, and legislators on both sides of the aisle will be under pressure to pass measures that will create new jobs. This presents the possibility that new investments in transportation infrastructure may provide the opportunity for some common ground.

In addition to changes in House leadership, there will be several different chairs of key committees. While many of the new members have previous legislative experience, it is extremely important for the public transit industry to educate these members on how the federal transit program works, the benefits that investment in public transportation produces, and how important it is for federal investment to continue and grow.

The U.S. House of Representatives
The biggest change as a result of the 2010 elections is the shift in control of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.  While the results of a handful of races are still outstanding, the Republicans will gain at least 60 seats, giving them no fewer than 240 in total.

A new majority means new leadership across the board.  Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) will be the speaker, while fellow conservative Eric Cantor (R-VA) is expected to become the majority leader.  As mentioned, the primary platform for the new House leadership is to rein in federal spending, so it is almost certain that attempts will be made early in the session to cut the federal budget.  This could have an impact on the outcome of the still-pending fiscal year 2011 appropriations bills, including the transportation bill that funds transit programs. (See more on this below.)

For the Democrats, current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will become minority leader and current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) will become minority whip. Current Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) will take on the number three leadership position with the title assistant leader.

New leadership will also mean new committee chairs, including those important for public transportation.  Rep. John Mica (R-FL) is expected to take control of the Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) and will be a central figure in the debate over the next surface transportation authorization bill. 

Mica is a longtime advocate for public transportation who understands the need for a strong federal program.  He has long worked with the committee’s Democratic leadership to advance a full six-year authorization bill, and has pledged to continue that work as the new chairman of the T&I Committee. While he has made it clear that he does not support an increase in the gas tax to finance a new bill, he has stated that he will work to find other budget offsets and to promote public-private partnerships to help finance major projects. He is a strong proponent of high-speed rail, although he has stated that he prefers investments be concentrated in specific corridors that can achieve higher speeds along dedicated tracks, rather than marginal gains in speed along existing corridors.

The elections saw the defeat of current T&I Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN), ending his career in Congress after 36 years. Oberstar has been a stalwart advocate of public transportation, and his leadership will be missed. His expected replacement as Democratic ranking member, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-WV), is a veteran of the T&I Committee, and has also advocated for the passage of a long-term authorization bill.

On the financial side of the ledger, the Appropriations Committee will have new leadership, with veteran Republican lawmakers Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), Hal Rogers (R-KY), and possibly Jack Kingston (R-GA) vying for the chairmanship.  Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA) is next in line to chair the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, which provides annual funding for the transit program. However, Latham may seek openings for other appropriations subcommittees, which could result in a different chair. The new ranking member position is slotted for Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA). The important chairmanship of the tax-writing Ways & Means Committee is expected to be held by Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), with current Chairman Sander M. Levin (D-MI) serving as the ranking member. 

The U.S. Senate
The U.S. Senate will remain under Democratic control in the 112th Congress, but the majority will control with a much smaller margin. The Democrats will hold 53 seats next year (51 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with them), while the Republicans will hold 47. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is expected to remain in his leadership position, while Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will retain the minority leader post. Most of the chairmen of the key committees are expected to remain in place, including Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Max Baucus (D-MT) of the Finance Committee, Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) of the Commerce Committee, and Daniel Inouye (D-HI) of the Appropriations Committee. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) narrowly won re-election and is expected to remain chairman of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.

The notable exception will be a change in leadership of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.  Current Chairman Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) did not run for reelection and is expected to be replaced by Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD).  While Johnson has not been heavily involved in public transit issues, he has been an advocate for the small systems in South Dakota, and has been an active supporter of advancing public transportation in rural areas.  The Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development will likely continue to be chaired by strong transit advocate Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).  On the Republican side, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) will remain the ranking member.

Democratic leadership in the Senate is likely to oppose any House Republican efforts to initiate deep cuts or eliminate popular domestic spending programs. However, legislation to expand federal programs or add to the federal deficit will be more difficult to enact. During the last session, major legislation such as health care reform, financial reform, and the stimulus package were able to pass the Senate because a few moderate Republicans voted with the Democrats, providing the crucial 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. This will be more challenging in the 112th Congress, with many more votes needed from a more conservative group to overcome the 60-vote threshold required to pass legislation.

The Public Transit Legislative Agenda
Looking forward, considering the split Congress, it is difficult to see a path for some of the public transit industry’s top legislative priorities.  There are, though, reasons for optimism.

The top priority for APTA and its industry partners is the enactment of a full, six-year surface transportation authorization law. The 111th Congress proved disappointing in this regard, as we saw SAFETEA-LU expire without a new replacement, and we have been operating under short-term extensions since Sept. 30, 2009.  Furthermore, while APTA and many of its partners in the transportation industry have advocated for an increase in the gas tax to fund increases in the budget for our programs, both the Administration and expected incoming Chairman Mica have stated that raising taxes while the economy remains in a fragile state is not an option.

But investment in the nation’s transportation infrastructure may be one area where the Congress and the Administration can find some common ground.  Over the past few months, President Obama has made several statements advocating for investment in transportation infrastructure through a long-term authorization bill. In addition, Mica has voiced his commitment to passing an authorization bill in the coming months.  Both the Administration and Mica have talked of finding alternative resources to enhance trust fund investments by closing tax loopholes, capturing unspent funds, enhancing public-private partnerships, and leveraging private resources through bonding and other means of innovative finance.

Mica is expected to introduce a new authorization proposal early in the next congressional session. His bill will likely change courses from the proposal offered by Oberstar, with a greater emphasis on distributing funds through formula programs. House Republicans have indicated that they will likely not advance authorizing or appropriations legislation that included earmarks, and will be unwilling to cede the authority to distribute funds to a Democratic administration, so eliminating discretionary accounts in favor of formula programs is their likely solution.

The conventional wisdom is that negotiations on a bill must begin early in 2011, well before the 2012 presidential election cycle heats up. In the short term, Congress must extend current authorizing legislation before its expiration on Dec. 31. 

On the transit safety side, Congress will have a more difficult time enacting a sweeping safety oversight system, as proposed by the Administration and Senate Banking Chairman Dodd last year. Mica has indicated that he favors making improvements to the current State Safety Oversight System for rail transit, but is wary of changing the fundamental role of the Federal Transit Administration to a safety standards setting body. His position, combined with the retirement of Dodd in the Senate, will likely lead to a scaled back safety program.  However, there are still strong proponents of safety legislation in both the House and Senate, so the debate will continue.

On tax legislation, the status of important provisions such as the alternative fuel tax credit and the equalization of the commuter tax benefit with the parking benefit remain unclear. Both Republican and Democratic leaders have expressed interest in continuing these important items, but again, with tight budgets expected, it will be difficult to advance those provisions without some offset. While there is a possibility a short term extension could be considered in the lame duck session, it is more likely that these will be debated as part of a larger package of extenders early next year.

The fate of other smaller legislative proposals, such as changes to the Buy America statutes, increases in the rail liability cap, new funding for positive train control, and a whole host of issues, remains unclear. Many of these will likely be resolved in the context of the authorization debate, or fade into the sunset, or rise to the forefront depending on the direction of the debate. What is certain is the upcoming congressional session will have a major impact on the future of the federal transit program, and it will be absolutely critical for our industry to play an active role in the legislative process. Transit industry leaders—from operators, riders, businesses, and workers—must all do their part to let Congress know of the crucial role public transportation plays in their community, and of the many benefits our industry provides on a daily basis.

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