fundingthefuture tall

august 2012

Funding the Future

Just a few months ago, when Congress was considering surface transportation reauthorization measures, the rhetoric unabashedly focused on moving a bipartisan measure before the current resolution that expires in March. For those watching this unorthodox gesture of collegiality, it seemed likely that the two sides would come together as a signal to the general population that Congress, when pressed, could get the job done in an election year. Then the bills came out—what began as policy for the general good had devolved to the lesser of two evils.

While it is easy to remark in retrospect that House bill HR 7 was doomed from the beginning, a brief look at each proposal shows why the two measures were destined to clash and rile their sponsors in the opposing chamber. While ambitious, the House measure seemed to ignore many of the safety aspects considered essential in the Senate. The majority of safety funding in the bill would be directly apportioned to the states for inclusion in the accompanying state safety plans submitted to the federal Department of Transportation. While this flexibility in providing for state assistance is a welcome change to having the states apply directly for dedicated project funds, the scope of availability needs to be considered as well. The House was pushing for a five- to six-year measure that would essentially require the states to identify the problems, determine applicable outcomes and delineate a plan to accomplish these outcomes with proven data systems in place to back them up.

With all of these details in a bill that dropped the same week as it narrowly passed out of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, it was conceivable that this new direction could cause states to define these goals a year after enactment. This could severely limit a state’s ability to begin serious implementation of the plans and provide the appropriate supporting data until 2014 or beyond.

But it was not the wholesale changes to the state grant programs that ultimately defeated the measure; funding mechanisms for providing solvency to the Highway Trust Fund fell through. The Congressional Budget Office released a report indicating that the House proposal fell far short of its funding requirements. The House scrambled to include expanded drilling resource taxes as revenue offsets to the Highway Trust Fund. This divisive policy measure met with serious opposition—even from within the House’s own leadership. And while House Democrats were up in arms about having such limited time to digest the entire House proposal prior to a Committee vote the next morning, House Speaker John Boehner found himself under fire to procure the necessary votes among his own party to move the measure to the House floor. After a series of delays intended to get Republicans to toe the partisan line, Speaker Boehner finally admitted defeat for the long-term proposal and indicated that their chamber would tailor a new measure along the lines of the Senate’s in terms of scope and range. What exactly that will entail remains to be seen, but for all its ambition the proposal was shaped too drastically as a jobs bill and left too much to be desired from a safety policy standpoint.

Some Good in the Senate

The two-year Senate version (S 1813) of the surface transportation measure shows promise along a more traditional path. Consistency in dedicated funding for worthy programs remains intact without the requirement for a new approach to grant applications. The bill provides for a modified definition of an “odometer” and further directs the DOT to initiate rulemaking towards the allowance of electronic disclosures for odometer information. For those jurisdictions that have been grappling with the ability to move toward electronic titling procedures but were not sure how to satisfy the requirements of the Truth in Mileage Act, this will be welcome news. Once completed, the new regulations should preclude the need to petition the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for approval in electronic disclosures.

The bill also touches on the theme of this issue of MOVE—graduated driver licensing systems. In its initial draft, the legislation details the requirements for a qualifying state graduated driver licensing law (under Section 31112) and provides incentive grants to states with qualifying programs. Among the hundreds of amendments filed in accompaniment to the bill, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) filed SA 1649, which would sanction states if they do not enact a graduated driver licensing law that complies with requirements set forth in S 1813.

Next Steps Unclear

The next steps toward conference of the measures remain unclear. The House has indicated that they would like to approach a proposal more aligned with the Senate in terms of duration, but have not indicated how they could rewrite something so drastically different to be palatable to their colleagues in the other chamber. AAMVA will continue to keep a sharp eye on both proposals and notify its membership of the opportunities and obstacles that await our collective interests.

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