Saturday, September 3, 2011

More about what to expect from Washington funding HSR

As you can quickly surmise, the Antiplanner and it's transportation budget article, below, take the Republican side of the argument, and this is an anti-government blog.  There is a reason I point that out.

Here are their most recent comments on the Transportation Budget extension intentions when Congress reconvenes September 15th.  We've discussed this before, but it's a very critical issue.  

When Obama asks for a "clean extension" he means that nothing should be changed, no new modifications introduced, over the current transportation budget.  That current FY2010-2011 budget, as you will recall, was modified previously by the House Republicans by, among other things, removing all funding for HSR.  That should mean that there will be no HSR funding in the new extension.  

These extensions are a form of procrastination, since both Houses (the Republican House and the Democratic Senate) are miles apart about what the brand new re-authorization of the transportation budget should contain.

They don't have forever to resolve this re-authorization; the new fiscal year begins October first. Nonetheless, they have been living on lots of extensions so far, and may even keep doing that going into next year's elections.

All of which means, in the short run, no HSR funding from the DOT.  But, what happens after 2012 is open season. Well, that's not entirely correct.  We pointed out yesterday that there are other funding options open to the DOT and FRA that are not categorized directly as high-speed rail, such as RRIF "loans".  See a recent prior blog entry about that by scrolling back. Those need to be watched carefully by the Republicans to prevent end-runs.

Confession of a politics watcher: Today I listened to a Sarah Palin speech.  I will not comment on it except to say that she made brief mention of high-speed rail and uses it as another verbal club with which to beat up on Obama. While I was totally consistent in rejecting or not understanding anything she said, that one, single, point was crystal clear and I totally agree with it.

When you get to be my age, you will discover that life is full of such paradoxes, ambiguities and ambivalences.

What’s the Opposite of a “Clean Extension”?
Sep 2
While the Antiplanner was in Montana, President Obama asked Congress to pass a “clean extension” of the surface transportation laws. By this, he meant that Congress should continue spending money like a drunken sailor the way it has been spending it for the past several years (more specifically, spending it faster than it has been coming in).

But what he meant is not what he said. Instead–apparently aiming at the actual reauthorization–he argued that, “We need to stop funding projects based on whose districts they’re in and start funding them based on how much good they’re going to be doing for the American people.” There are a couple of problems with this. First, it wouldn’t happen with a “clean extension” of the transportation bill, which doesn’t do this.

Second, Obama’s remedy–to put most transportation dollars in “performance-driven” funds–would only mean that, instead of spending money on pork-barrel projects selected by Congress, the federal government would spend money on pork-barrel projects selected by the Department of Immobility Transportation. Obama’s abuse of high-speed rail funds (not to mention energy funds) has persuaded many people who were once enamored of performance budgeting that formula funds–which are used for most highway funds–are still the way to go.

The big debate at the moment is between the House bill, which would spend no more money than is collected (mostly from gas taxes) in the Highway Trust Fund, and the Senate bill, which would continue to overspend for two more years. Some alarmist reports make it appear that the nation will fall apart if the transportation bill is not extended. That’s hardly true. If a real showdown comes to pass, state highway and transit agency capital spending will be curtailed for a time, but this won’t cause any bridges to fall or trains to crash.

Here is a compromise: pass a two-year extension but spend no more than is coming in and eliminate all earmarks (including unspent earmarks from the 2005 reauthorization law). For the moment keep the highway-transit ratio the same (transit gets 15.5 percent, highways get 70 percent, and the rest is “flexible”), but zero out all spending on non-transportation programs and don’t add any new programs. That is as “clean” an extension as I can imagine.

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