The current legislative year is shaping up to be one of the busiest—and most important—in recent years for public transportation, as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee tackles a range of issues, from the authorization of a surface transportation bill to the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund and its Mass Transit Account.
Passenger Transport recently had the opportunity to pose several questions to Rep. Bill Shuster, chair of the T&I Committee, and Rep. Nick Rahall, the committee’s ranking member, in advance of APTA’s Legislative Conference, March 9-11. Their comments follow.
MAP-21 expires in a few months. Based on your unique leadership position and knowledge of transportation in the U.S., how would you rate the overall success of MAP-21 as a blueprint for the federal role in funding public transportation and highways, and in advancing regulatory change?
Shuster: The strength of our transportation infrastructure has a direct impact on the health of our economy, competitiveness, and prosperity. MAP-21 made some important reforms to the federal surface transportation programs. For example, streamlining the transportation project delivery process made a lot of sense because of the simple fact that the longer projects take, the more they cost. We need to maximize the impact of each dollar going into our transportation infrastructure, and ensuring more reasonable project times helps us to do that.
MAP-21 made other necessary reforms as well, such as program consolidation. However, remember that MAP-21 is less than two years old, so we still need to make sure that U.S. DOT is implementing the law’s reforms as Congress intended.
MAP-21 maintained the long-standing federal role in providing a cohesive national infrastructure, and one of my principles for the next bill is to build upon the work done in MAP-21.
Rahall: MAP-21 provided a lifeline to keep highways, bridges, transit systems, and safety efforts alive for two years. In the next bill, Congress has a responsibility to reaffirm the strong federal leadership role in surface transportation, shore up the Highway Trust Fund, and make badly needed investments to bring our infrastructure into the 21st century.
If we neglect to do so, even the most comprehensive policy reforms won’t help to revive our crumbling infrastructure.
Public transit policy experts estimate that the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund will be nearly out of money by September 2014. What long-term solutions do each of you envision for funding public transportation and restoring solvency to the trust fund? What’s likely to work at the federal level, fiscally and politically?
Shuster: The Highway Trust Fund has worked well historically as a means of funding the federal surface transportation programs, but transportation stakeholders and policymakers understand that we have to address the trust fund’s long-term solvency issues.
I don’t have all the answers and each idea will have its challenges. However, as the committee continues to develop the next bill, I plan to continue listening to all ideas and work with my colleagues on the Ways and Means Committee, in the House, and in the Senate to look for solutions.
Rahall: Since passage of MAP-21, I believe that there has been a growing realization about the magnitude of the Highway Trust Fund’s budgetary challenges on both sides of the aisle. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has historically been the most bipartisan committee in Congress, and I’m confident that we can work together to avoid a crisis.
Honestly, there are no easy answers here because there is no solution to the problem that will please everyone. However, I do believe a consensus will emerge as we move this issue forward.
What is your thinking on improvements that the next bill can make in terms of project delivery and overall program efficiency? What role do you see innovation and technology playing in this regard?
Shuster: MAP-21 took some important first steps in streamlining the project delivery process to get projects done faster. Unfortunately, there are still regulatory burdens that waste time and money. My goal is to build on the reforms in MAP-21 to bring even greater efficiencies to the project delivery process.
Innovation and technology play an important role in the development of our nation’s transportation infrastructure, and one of my goals for the next reauthorization is to promote innovation and to lay a foundation for emerging technology. Innovation and technology are additional tools that help enhance the safety and efficiency of our transportation infrastructure, which is critical when we must make every available resource count.
Rahall: States and communities deliver projects slowly for one primary reason—insufficient funds to pay for a project. During the debate on MAP-21, there was a concerted push to do away with environmental laws as a solution to expediting project delivery.
I called the proposed changes “environmental steamrolling,” and I continue to believe that reducing community input into projects is the absolute wrong way to go. I am very supportive of ways to build projects faster and more innovatively—provided that federal transportation investments are used to create and sustain good-paying jobs here at home, and not outsourced overseas.
MAP-21 covers only two years rather than the five or six years that would allow public transit agencies to make longer-term plans. Do you support a longer-term surface authorization bill, and how can transit advocates help the committee get one passed?
Shuster: As a two-year bill, MAP-21 was better than a series of short-term extensions. However, a long-term surface transportation bill is the best way to provide states and transit agencies with the necessary stability to plan projects that require multiple construction seasons.
My goal is to develop a long-term bill. Transportation stakeholders’ efforts to educate the public and other members of Congress about the economic and job creation benefits of transportation infrastructure can help build support for a long-term bill.
Rahall: Congress has the opportunity to treat MAP-21 as an anomaly and return to the model of a long-term funding bill. A long-term bill provides a level of certainty that is a must for states and communities around the country to plan more robust, more effective, more dynamic, and more innovative highway and transit projects.
With more than 10 billion transit trips taken in the U.S. annually, there is no question that transit is a fundamental part of the mobility solution. Every member of Congress would be well served to understand the unique benefits transit provides to their constituents, including commuters, veterans, and special needs populations in their communities. You, as transit advocates, are the best people to carry this message, and I encourage you to remain actively engaged.
Do you believe that there is a need to invest in intercity passenger rail, including high-speed passenger rail, as part of the nation’s transportation system, and do you have ideas about funding such investments?
Shuster: Intercity passenger rail plays an important role in our transportation network. The Transportation Committee continues to develop a passenger rail reauthorization bill that seeks opportunities for more cost-effective, innovative approaches for efficient rail service, increases competition, leverages the private sector, and streamlines the rail project delivery process.
I don’t believe that, given the nation’s many existing rail infrastructure needs and the ongoing problems with the project in California, we should be diverting our limited available resources to trying to create a nationwide high-speed rail system. We ought to focus on ensuring the infrastructure’s state of good repair for regions like the Northeast Corridor, where intercity passenger rail can work.
Rahall: I think it is critically important that we have a national rail passenger transportation system that connects major cities with rural and non-rural areas across the United States. Without Amtrak, for example, residents of 106 U.S. cities, who have no access to air service, would have to find new transportation alternatives.
The administration just released a proposal to finance passenger rail through dedicated revenues. I intend to review the president’s proposal in depth in the weeks and months ahead as we look toward reauthorization of the passenger rail and surface transportation programs.
About Bill Shuster
Bill Shuster (R-PA) is the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, one of the largest committees in Congress, with jurisdiction over all modes of transportation, including public transit.
He has served on the T&I Committee since he was first elected to the House in 2001. He previously served as the chairman of two of the T&I’s subcommittees: Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials and Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management.
Prior to being elected to Congress, Shuster worked on his family’s farm, with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Corp., and Bandag Inc. He also owned and operated an automobile dealership in Pennsylvania.
About Nick Rahall
Nick J. Rahall (D-WV) is the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. As such, he has been a leader in every federal highway debate since coming to Congress when he was first elected in 1976.
He also served as a member of the House Natural Resources Committee for 34 years and was its chairman from 2007 to 2011.
Rahall is currently serving his 19th term in the House of Representatives. Before his election to Congress, he was a businessman and served as a staff aide for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd.