Vol. 15, No. 6; Sept/Oct 2004
The current short-term extension will expire on September 24 for the federal highway programs and on September 30 for the transit, safety and motor carrier programs. While the Senate negotiators said they are prepared to give the latest House offer their full consideration, the ultimate outcome of the conference is by no means clear. The White House, having already made a significant concession, will be in no mood to compromise any further. It will also continue to insist that the bill must not contain a "re-opener" clause and must not add to the deficit or take money from outside the trust fund. With the
House Republican leaders determined not to send the President a bill that he would feel obliged to veto, the outcome of the conference is in the hands of the Senate conferees, and particularly its Democrat members whose backing is necessary to gain approval for a negotiated compromise. However, the Senate Democrats might see it to their advantage to continue the stalemate rather than give the President a legislative victory so close to the elections. In addition, some senators of both parties entertain the hope that a new administration, whether Republican or Democrat, will be more sympathetic to higher spending levels, come next year. Hence, Senate conferees' eventual acceptance of the House proposal to cap spending at $284 billion remains very much in doubt.
Even if conferees do reach agreement on the overall spending level, a host of thorny issues will remain outstanding. Foremost among them is the question of how would the funds be distributed. Would the House figure allow the minimum guarantee to increase from its present 90.5 percent, and if so by how much? What percentage of funds in the bill would be allocated to core programs?
When Congress returns to work in the first week of September, it will face a crowded agenda that includes passage of most of the FY 2005 appropriations bills. Will the lawmakers find the time and the inclination to resolve the many differences separating the House and Senate versions of the reauthorization bill, and complete floor action before the rush to adjourn for the elections? The odds are against.
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In their report, Chairman Istook (R-OK) and members of the House Appropriations Committee could not conceal their intense displeasure with the manner in which the New Starts program is currently managed. "Many cities have built or are building systems that are overpriced or underutilized" the Committee stated. "A better process... for the New Starts program and a more aggressive management of the existing process by FTA may prevent wasteful spending.... FTA needs to be more adept at weeding out projects that do not relieve the most congestion, move the most people and have the greatest cost-benefit ratio... The Committee continues to direct FTA to develop a New Starts process that better emphasizes cost-effectiveness and congestion relief."
The agency should take the Committee's strictures to heart. Only a more conservative and rigorous rating and evaluation process will restore the program's credibility in the eyes of its congressional overseers and engender congressional support for higher levels of funding.
"The federal highway program has been transformed from a once-purposeful institution into an aimless program guided by increasingly absurd earmarks that serve special interests at the expense of taxpaying motorists." So writes Alison Fraser, Director of the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation in a carefully documented analysis of the pending transportation authorization bill.
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It has been more than ten years since we first took notice of the then emergent technology of Intelligent Transportation Systems. In an Innovation Brief of December 1992 we wrote: "A group of technologies known as Intelligent Vehicle-Highway Systems (IVHS) has captured the attention and imagination of a growing segment of the transportation community...IVHS is not a distant vision. More than a dozen real-world operational tests of IVHS systems and services are currently underway and many more are on the drawing board..." How well has ITS fulfilled its vision so far? In a presentation at the Annual Meeting of ITS America and in a recent journal article, Philip J. Tarnoff, a respected figure in the ITS community and an astute observer of the ITS scene, cast a dispassionate eye on the progress to date. His conclusion: "We could be doing much better."
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