Friday, March 19, 2004

Bush throws support to tolling interstates and "environmental streamlining."

ISSUES IN-DEPTH: Texas lawmakers pay attention to federal transportation debate

March 19, 2004

by James A. Cooley

The Lone Star Report
Volume 8, Issue 28
Copyright 2004

Chairman Steve Ogden’s (R-College Station) Senate Finance Committee got an inside peek March 15 at congressional negotiations over the federal transportation bill.

Both U.S. Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-TX) and Federal Highway Administrator Mary E. Peters came by to testify.

Burgess, sole Texas Republican member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is deeply involved in discussions to reconcile the differences between House and Senate versions of the bill. Time is of the essence, as the existing Transportation Equity Act for the 21 st Century (TEA-21) expired last Sept. 30.

The single biggest problem, Burgess said, is the billions of dollars in differences between the various versions of the bills. The Senate called for $318 billion in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003 (SAFETEA), which passed 76-21. Texas senators split, John Cornyn voted for the bill and Kay Bailey Hutchison opposing it due to concerns over whether Texas was receiving an equitable return of federal transportation funds.

Meanwhile, the latest House version still in committee calls for $279.5 billion (the introduced version was $375 billion).

The biggest barrier to both bills is a veto threat from President George W. Bush for any transportation spending package that exceeds $259 billion.

Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Lewisville) raised the funding equity issue that prompted Hutchison’s opposition. Texas pays more in federal motor fuel taxes than it receives in highway funds.

Burgess said he strongly supported legislation (H.R. 2208) introduced by Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) that would raise to 95 percent the minimum amount of money each state gets back out of the taxes paid in. Current law sets a floor of 90.5 percent.

Smaller-state senators beat back efforts to include the 95 percent requirement in the bill that left their chamber. Burgess said he is going to fight for the higher rate-of-return in the final version.

Another policy initiative Burgess says he and Hutchison want to push is returning the $400 million in annual federal “Border and Corridors” funding back to its original intent, which was to help states that actually have border with other countries. He noted that states without international borders were getting large sums of funding.

Burgess’ coauthor on this bill (H.R. 2220) is Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson , (D-TX), a fellow member of the Transportation and Infrastructure committee.

Another Burgess initiative (HR 2864) is the Reforming, Accelerating, and Protecting Interstate Design Act of 2003 (RAPID), which would make several changes to streamline the transportation planning and environmental review process. One major change is that it would allow states to have the environmental reviews on projects occur concurrently, instead of sequentially.

The measure drew praise from Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands), who told of a bridge widening project in his district that had already been delayed for almost three years. Though approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, the project was later halted by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Burgess stated the bill also allows for a “rolling environmental process” under which needed reviews may be done for smaller increments of larger projects, as opposed to the current requirement that everything be done up front. This could shave years off of the amount of time needed to build projects by allowing a project’s design to move forward while the environmental reviews were underway.

The RAPID Act also incorporated more flexibility for states to use the same “design-build” approach that Texas was employing on the SH-130 project and more freedom for states to use tolling as a way to pay for added capacity. Burgess said the expedited methods being used to build SH-130 were cutting 13 years off the standard time line.

Burgess also favors streamlining the process for fixing roads identified as dangerous to have the environmental reviews take place after the ongoing safety problems have been addressed. He said he views such an approach as common sense approach, inasmuch as safety improvements now deal with rehabilitating roads already built. Reviews would still take place, said Burgess, but “let’s save lives first.”

Burgess sees a “reasonable chance” that the streamlining sought in the RAPID Act would end up in the final version of the transportation bill.

Noting federal fondness for calling the state-federal relationship a “partnership” on funding, Ogden said a better phrase was “cram-down.”

“You will do it our way or literally the highway is not coming,” Ogden said. “Texas deserves better treatment than that. If we are going to be a partner, there ought to be a presumption that we are going to comply with the rules and regulations, instead of a presumption that we are always guilty until the last federal agency says it’s OK.”

Ogden said he appreciated Burgess’ efforts to change this working relationship.

Peters said the Bush administration supports the policy initiatives that Burgess had already discussed and had some other ideas as well. Peters’ testimony and written submission detailed several of the Bush Administration’s priorities for the new transportation bill.

First, Peters offered a wholehearted endorsement of the Trans-Texas Corridors initiative as a “bold concept for surface transportation that can provide a model for other states to follow.”

Central to the Bush administration’s transportation planning, Peters said, is recognition that the traditional funding model based on motor fuels taxes will never keep pace with growing demands as greater fuel efficiency and alternative-fueled vehicles entered the picture. She said it was time to move to a “utility model” in transportation planning that created market incentives for private-sector involvement in creating new capacity and a pricing structure that encouraged more efficient use of that capacity.

One Bush proposal grants states broad authority to establish variable toll pricing programs that allow, for instance, the addition of toll lanes to existing freeways. The Katy Freeway expansion in Houston is the naton’s first such project.

“The federal government should not be an obstacle to innovation in the area of toll road pricing,” Peters said.

The administration also favors expanding state authority over High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes so as to allow single-occupant vehicles to pay to access the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on a highway.

States would also be given more flexibility regarding the use of tolls to finance the reconstruction and rehabilitation of existing freeways.

Peters said one way of achieving this end is to make it easier for projects to qualify for funding under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program. She cited the use of $917 million in TIFIA loans for the SH-130 project as one example of how this new funding can expand capacity.

The idea of streamlining the current set of sequential “mouse in a maze” environmental reviews also found favor with Peters, as did tightening the use of Borders and Corridors funding.

However, one proposal in the environmental streamlining package might draw environmentalists’ ire. The administration proposes to change from six years to six months the current statute of limitations for filing lawsuits seeking to overturn the federal environmental approval of a project. The rationale is that projects under construction have been shut down because of litigation over issues that could have been resolved far earlier.

However, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) questioned the proposed change. O

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