Despite the challenges of deciphering political outcomes in the age of hyper-partisanship, life in Washington DC does have its moments of predictability. The unveiling of the Administration’s budget is one of them. Yes, just like spring it arrives with a colorful array of perennial favorites, a smattering of new varietals and even some hybrids to make things interesting. And just like spring in the modern age, its timing is not quite as easy to predict thanks to political climate change … what used to arrive in February now comes out in March or April.
With that context, the FY2015 budget released today by the Obama Administration is no exception. It contains the details of a four-year $302 billion surface transportation reauthorization proposal including:
New $4 billion discretionary grant program to accelerate local and regional coordination and performance improvements and a new $10 billion Freight Program. (Note: Congress has not shown an appetite for discretionary grant programs)
Modest funding increases for core programs (16% for highways and 68% for transit but mostly in discretionary categories not formula programs) and larger increases for popular transportation programs such as TIGER ($1.25 billion/year) and New Starts.
Hybrid programs such as America Fast Forward and the Rebuild America Partnership (rebrands and tweaks of previous Administration proposals that have not gained Congressional traction) to promote attract private capital, address climate resiliency and create “Opportunity for All.”
More transparency, greater focus on performance measures and streamlining of the permitting and federal review process.
Invested savings from Comprehensive Business Tax Reform to offset Highway Trust Fund solvency.
Clearly the administration wants to use its budget to spark pointed conversations on these topics. Congressman Paul Ryan is working on a Republic counterproposal and no doubt there will be many, many areas of tension between the two. Chairman Camp of the House Ways and Means Committee unveiled his proposal last week for a comprehensive tax reform bill, along with the admission it will not likely be acted on this year. There is almost unanimous agreement that Congress will kick the can until after the mid-term elections to deal with comprehensive tax reform, which is critically tied to reauthorization as there must be a way to pay for infrastructure investments. And yet MAP-21 is set to expire at the end of September and run out of money even sooner!
Powerful insiders such as Senator Harry Reid and Former USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood don’t hold much hope for reauthorization happening on schedule. I choose to be more optimistic – in part because of the strong and diverse coalition of transportation, business, and community stakeholders who remain steadfast in demanding Congressional action to invest in America and avoid the impending Highway Trust Fund bankruptcy. Through his Budget proposal, the President is clearly articulating that transportation is a priority for his legacy and he appears willing to finally discuss ways to pay for it. Let’s hope this provides an opening for those still willing in Congress to actually govern and get things done that help America’s economy and provide tangible benefits to essentially every American whether they drive, bike, walk, ride transit, or consume goods and services (I think that covers us all!).
For more information on the President’s Budget see Fact Sheets and Summary Tables prepared by the Office of Management and Budget, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the US Department of Transportation, or check with your favorite advocacy or industry group for their analysis.