Everything in Transportation Bills Is Bad Except for the Energy Parts, Which Are Great [updated: I Was Wrong, There’s also an Excellent Environmental Provision in the House Bill**]

by William Yeatman on April 19, 2012

in Blog

By a 293-127 vote, the House of Representatives yesterday adopted a short-term extension of the federal highway bill. Fourteen Republicans voted against it, while sixty-nine Democrats voted for passage. The original highway bill, known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, was enacted in 2005. Yesterday’s action was the 10th extension passed by the House since the original SAFETEA-LU surface transportation law expired in 2009.

The House’s bill would extend highway funding for 90 days. In March, the Senate passed a bill that would extend it for 2 years. Next, House and Senate leaders from both parties will convene a conference committee, through which they’ll try to hammer out compromise language acceptable to both Congressional chambers.

Alas, it is extremely likely that little good will come of the Conference, at least with regards to transportation policy. The House bill only perpetuates a broken system. For more on the ills of the status quo, read these articles by my colleague Marcus Scribner. To be fair to the House, the Senate bill is much more terrible. It includes all sorts of special favors and gives-aways to special interests. Thus, the negotiating positions in the Congressional Conference are bad and worse!

The only language in either chamber’s bill that warrants ultimate passage is that pertaining to energy policy, and it comes exclusively from the version approved yesterday by the House. Indeed, these energy policy provisions are excellent.

For starters, the legislation included language that would fast-track the Keystone XL Pipeline, the $7 billion, shovel-ready project to deliver up to 830,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil from Canada to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. Specifically, the legislation would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission thirty days to approve the project. This provision, if enacted, would effectively override the President’s self-serving decision* to veto the project.

The House’s bill also included an amendment that would block EPA from subjecting coal combustion byproducts, known as coal ash, to ultra-stringent regulations meant for hazardous wastes. Such a designation flies in the face of reason, given that almost 50 percent of coal ash is used to supplement cement in the production of concrete. The amendment would protect the coal ash recycling industry from becoming collateral damage in EPA’s war on coal.

Unfortunately, the Keystone language is widely understood to be a non-starter in the Senate. I’d imagine the coal ash language stands a better chance. In the past, a number of Democratic Senators have asked the Obama administration to leave coal ash regulation to the States.

*After three years of extensive environmental review, the State Department in late October, 2011, determined that Keystone XL would have “no significant impact” on the environment. This finding was the final procedural step in the permitting process. All that remained was the President’s decision, which had to be based on whether the project was in the national interest.

It should have been a no-brainer. For starters, it’s a top diplomatic priority of our closest ally, Canada. More to the point, the project would contribute more than $20 billion in new spending for the U.S. economy. This spending, in turn, would generate $585 million in state and local taxes to states along the route. Most importantly, it would create 2,000 shovel-ready jobs. In a depressed economy, Keystone XL would provide a huge stimulus, one that cost taxpayers nothing.

Unfortunately, politics complicated the matter. On the one hand, environmentalists opposed the project; on the other, unions supported it. Rather than choose between these two constituencies of his political party, the President punted. In November, 2011, he announced that he would delay a decision on Keystone until after the 2012 election. As my colleague Marlo Lewis explained, this was political expediency of the worst sort.

To its credit, House leadership has not let the issue die. Nor should they—Keystone XL is a giant political loser for the President. Poll after poll (after poll) indicates that the American public supports construction of the pipeline, because they recognize the profound economic benefits I list above. In December, House leaders negotiated hard to include language a legislative priority of the President’s—the payroll tax cut—that gave the President 60 days to make a decision on Keystone. The following month, President Obama formally denied a Presidential Permit for the pipeline. The inclusion of Keystone language in yesterday’s transportation bill indicates that House leadership intends to keep hammering away at this issue. The more the merrier, as I see it.

**Updated: 7:24 PM
Commenter Greg Cohen makes an excellent correction to my post. Amended to the House bill is language that would streamline National Environmental Protection Act permitting for federally-funded highway projects. NEPA, in a nutshell, requires varying degrees of environmental analysis for any federal action, usually permitting. It is a procedural mandate–i.e., it requires an accounting of the environmental impact, not mitigation. In practice, it’s used to tie up economic activity in the courts. By my unofficial count, NEPA the most oft-used arrow in the environmentalist/NIMBY nexus’s quiver. The House amendment, offered by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI), is seriously good. Most importantly, it would put a hard deadline on the NEPA process.

To recap my post, in light of this correction: All the transportation policy in the transportation bills is terrible, but the energy and environmental provisions are great.


Greg Cohen April 20, 2012 at 7:24 am

William — the streamlining amendment in the House extension is actually really good. Have you read it?

Keith April 20, 2012 at 4:14 pm

The system is not broken it is working fine. It is the policies and the policy makers that are the problem. They do not understand that they are there to represent the American people’s best interest.

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