There is no doubt that Congress has a full agenda. Health care reform has been dominating their time, followed by climate change legislation and issues in the Middle East. The end of its fiscal year is just a few days away and they, like the Michigan Legislature, have yet to pass their funding bills. For example, the current surface transportation law, the Safe, Affordable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU, P.L. 109-53), was adopted in 2005 and expires on September 30, 2009. To give you some idea of how political this bill was -- When Congress finally passed the last transportation bill in 2005, it took two years and 12 extensions to complete. Although Congress has a bill now drafted, the President wants to put off this measure until after the midterm elections in 2010. A delay in the re-authorization will hinder the planning of transportation projects and perhaps put them in jeopardy of ever getting completed.
At stake is the dwindling Highway Trust Fund, financed by a federal gas tax that pays for repairs to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. At issue is an effort by Congress and the President to set the nation’s transportation policy for the rest of the decade and perhaps for decades to come. The outcome will be critical to state and local governments that depend on federal assistance to maintain and improve their transportation systems.
The end game will be the creation of a funding mechanism that will ensure the national transportation system will meet the demands of an expanding population while also accommodating the environmental priorities of those who want to see less road congestion, less accidents and more transit options.
For transportation planning organizations it could mean a modern, sustainable and seamless surface transportation network, that fully integrates and connects the nation’s small urban and rural regions with global, metropolitan and neighboring markets. It could also mean increased federal investments in existing and new rural public transportation system, with an emphasis on establishing stronger incentives and program flexibility across the spectrum.
While we will wait for almost a year before Congress will most likely pass a transportation bill, Congress continues to debate issues of transit and transportation. For example, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “American Clean Energy and Security Act” (H.R. 2454) in June, and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is currently developing their version. Both bill contain provisions affecting transit. Although Congress will not pass a transportation bill until next year, there are still opportunities for transit agencies and organizations to secure resources for a variety of projects through existing bills, and help shape funding for future projects by taking a proactive role in advising Congress on what is important to your agency and community.
Therefore, if you have certain projects that need to be funded or policy related issues that can benefit your program, it is important that you meet with your planning organizations, MDOT, the Governor and your Congressional Delegation to ensure their priorities are your priorities. Then it is important to work with your chambers and other community organizations to build a solid base of support for your projects. Despite a full agenda, Congress needs to hear from you and what you need to provide valuable resources to your community. With limited funds from the state and dwindling budgets all around, it seems that Congress is our only option.
Daniel Cherrin is the former Communications Director/Press Secretary for the City of Detroit and to Detroit Mayor Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr. He is now President of North Coast Strategies, which provides cutting edge practical advice where government action or inaction, litigation vulnerability or complex regulatory requirements will impact your reputation and bottom-line. You can reach Cherrin at dcherrin@NorthCoastStrategies.com or (313) 300-0932.