Un-stimulating Debate on Transportation in the Senate

Watching the Senate debate on the economic recovery bill, I am reminded of a remarkable event in 2001. The Surface Transportation Policy Project held an awards dinner to celebrate the tenth anniversary of ISTEA, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.

One of the award recipients was former Senator Patrick Moynihan of New York, who chaired the Environment and Public Works Committee when ISTEA was hammered out. His most memorable comment in his acceptance speech was about what transportation departments planned to do after the Interstate Highway System launched in 1956 was completed: They would simply build another one. When a big project is launched, especially if it involves federal policy, it develops a momentum of its own. And at some point, it may well get into a rut. That's where federal transportation policy was in 1991, and despite ISTEA's remarkable reforms, it is arguably still in a rut.

While in its debate about the recovery bill the House easily adopted an amendment adding public transportation investment and rejected an amendment that would strip intercity rail investment out, the Senate is instead faced with amendments that would tilt federal assistance into the same old rut. And there are some surprising supporters. Thankfully, Grist's Muckraker is on the case.

I urge you to contact your Senators to let them know that now is the time to put Americans to work on our next big transportation project: Building the second-half of the system, the low-carbon, oil-efficient public transportation and rail network the nation needs and deserves.