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California to benefit from transportation bill

by Bob Morris, published

President Obama has put forward an ambitious, wide-ranging $476 billion program to fund transportation for six years. He says it can be paid for with the “peace dividend” from ramping down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Senate and House are currently debating their own much smaller transportation bills and are currently ignoring the president’s plan.  But, all of this can and will probably change.

The Senate is debating a five-year $260 billion highway and infrastructure bill, while the House proposes a two-year, $109 billion bill.  The House bill, which is opposed by some Republicans because of cost, currently has more pork than a hog farm with over 300 amendments. There’s no word yet on the bacon poundage in the Senate bill, but no doubt it is portly too.  House leaders have split the bill into three parts hoping things will magically coalesce around voting time so they can ship the bill off to the Senate. Speaker Boehner has postponed action on the bill until after next week’s recess, a sure sign the bill is in trouble. Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood, a former Republican lawmaker himself, says the House plan is “the worst bill in decades.”

The Senate bill could be derailed by amendments on contraceptive insurance as well as attempts to revive plans for the Keystone XL pipeline. Obama has threatened a veto of any transportation bill containing approval of the pipeline.

The president’s transportation plan seeks to modernize the nation’s transportation infrastructure. This includes an immediate $50 billion in 2012 for the repair for roads, bridges, airports, railways, and more.  The air traffic control system would be modernized. Pipeline safety would be enhanced, as would roadway safety research. Highway and transit repairs would be done on a “Fix it first” basis. Communities would be encouraged to create multi-modal transportation solutions with permanent authorization of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER).

Transportation Nation is a bit skeptical of all of this, saying the budget is also a political ploy to convince the populace that Obama sides with the 99% not the 1%. Further, they say, the transportation part of the budget is remarkably similar to the plan from last year that got drubbed, most especially the part about $50 billion for high speed rail.

Obama’s new high speed rail plan earmarks $2.7 billion for high speed rail in 2013 and $47 billion over six years.  This is of prime interest to Californians, especially for those supporting HSR. Unfortunately for them, that’s not nearly enough money. Even if all of the money went to California, it wouldn’t be enough. The price for California HSR is now at $100 billion and only $9.9 billion has been funded. The big hope for HSR in California was that the federal government would put up tens of billions, but that’s not going to happen.

However, regardless of which bill finally passes, California will receive billions in aid for badly needed infrastructure repairs. After all, the state does have 12% of the national population.

But maybe big spending isn’t the only answer. A thoughtful opinion piece in Bloomberg says we need to think smart too. It recommends congestion pricing to drop traffic during peak hours, coordinated nationwide networks rather than piecemeal state projects and their inevitable pork ,building maintenance funding into the project, public-private projects and perhaps most controversially “cherish the bus” and forget the train.

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