President's Budget: Solid Priorities for Investment, Wrong Turn on Revenue

The President’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 is now out, and the transportation policy and investment looks pretty familiar. There are a lot of good ideas in here, including:

  • Consolidation of 55 programs down to five on the highway account side of the ledger;
  • Robust dedicated support for public transportation, rightly described as “unprecedented” due to its size;
  • Renewed and increased support for effective merit-based, competitive programs, specifically the Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program;
  • In the same vein a new $20 billion “competitive grant program designed to create incentives for State and local partners to adopt critical reforms in a variety of areas, including safety, livability, and demand management” and which with TIGER is better than handing over blank checks to state highway agencies;
  • A substantial investment -- $47 billion over six years – in high-speed and passenger rail, which bears further evaluation vis-à-vis environmental benefits since, for example, it is a costly way to reduce air pollution compared to other investments;
  • More funding for NextGen, the Next Generation Air Transportation System of satellite- as opposed to ground-based flight routing, which would boost safety and save fuel due to more efficient trajectories; and
  • In the boring-but-important category, a prioritization of repair and maintenance spending (“fix-it-first”) for both highways and transit, along with “highway condition and performance measures” reporting by recipients of federal monies to ensure accountability.

Overall, it’s a pretty good package. Unfortunately the budget proposes to pay for this not with an increase in user fees but by transferring a so-called “peace dividend” due to military force drawdowns overseas. Everyone seems to be allergic to user fees nowadays except for a certain Republican Senator (Mike Enzi) from Wyoming, who stuck his neck out and proposed indexing the gas tax to inflation last week with Senators from both sides of the aisle including Coburn (R-OK), Rockefeller (D-WV) and Carper (D-DE) expressing support (but notably not calling for a vote on the proposal).

This is a step in the wrong direction, something I criticized the House Republican Leadership for earlier today. The priorities laid out for DOT in the budget are environmentally beneficial and laudable, but dodging the all-important revenue issue is fiscally irresponsible and disappointing.