What the Election Results Mean for Transportation
Now that another long election season is in the books and the votes have been tallied, let's take a look at some key results and what this means for addressing the nation's infrastructure challenges.
One thing is certain - with Democrats winning enough seats to claim the majority in the House of Representatives, we can expect to see transportation and infrastructure issues on the lengthy to-do list in January. Even Vice President Pence stated last week that President Trump is "absolutely committed to working with both parties" on an infrastructure plan. There is a deal to be made - but it will depend on how some key figures play their cards.
First up is the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee where Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is almost certain to wield the gavel. A long-time member of the Committee, DeFazio has extensive knowledge and understanding of policy issues and has put forth several bills in recent years aimed at shoring up the beleaguered Highway Trust Fund. With the FAST Act set to expire on September 30, 2020, the Committee will soon ramp up and begin the hearings process and drafting reauthorization legislation.
At the same time it is anticipated that the Committee will aggressively perform its oversight responsibilities on the Department of Transportation. Expect to see a close inspection of the revised criteria for the discretionary INFRA grant program (replaced FASTLANE) and the BUILD grant program (replaced TIGER) that look more favorably on projects leveraging non-federal funds and require that a minimum of 25% (INFRA) and 30% (BUILD) of its grants be awarded to rural areas. Additionally, the Committee will surely demand further information on how the Federal Transit Administration will no longer consider TIFIA and RRIF loans as part of the non-federal share of projects applying for the Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program.
At the House Ways and Means Committee - responsible for authorizing revenue for transportation programs - the new Chair is expected to be Massachusetts Congressman Ritchie Neal. But a potentially more important development has been under discussion. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has let it be known that he is pushing for the creation of a new Infrastructure Subcommittee. Such a move would need to be considered in a more comprehensive House rules package that would be considered in the opening hours of the new 116th Congress. If this passes muster, infrastructure issues would gain greater prominence at the Committee and could pave the way for new transportation revenue enhancements. A long-time passionate advocate for transportation, Blumenauer has a good shot at becoming its Chair.
No significant policy changes are expected with Republicans maintaining their majority in the Senate. A new chair may take the helm at the Commerce Committee as current Chairman John Thune (R-SD) is expected to run for the number 2 Republican leadership slot. Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker is next in line to assume the Committee's top spot where his policy positions have been similar to Thune's.
It was more of a mixed bag for the four key transportation-related ballot initiatives that I wrote about last month. The only bright spot was in California where voters rejected an effort to repeal $54 billion in new revenue for 6,500 transportation projects made possible by a 12 cent gas tax increase enacted in 2017. In Missouri, Colorado and Utah voters were in no mood to pay more for efforts to relieve congestion and provide for more reliable transportation networks and rejected ballot measures those states.
In conclusion, I expect there will be a revived effort to consider a robust and long-term infrastructure package a la President Trump's $1.5 trillion vision. But is it enough to crack the revenue nut? Will the new majority in the House look to strike a deal with the White House for new transportation revenues? Will the larger Republican majority in the Senate go along with such a deal? The stars may yet align. Stay tuned.