Case Overview, SMART Growth and the Transportation Bill Reauthorization

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over SMART Growth in the Transportion Bill Reauthorization. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.

           In this modern world of technological marvels, it's easy to forget that one of the great accomplishments of the government during the mid-twentieth century was the creation of the interstate highway system. Today continued funding of the highway system is necessitated by the congestion that creates pressure for expansion and by the maintenance needs of existing roadways. Money for such work comes from a trust fund supported the federal gas tax. Periodically the Congress must reauthorize the program, continuing its commitment to the interstate highway system but making changes in the program as it sees fit.
           When this reauthorization bill periodically comes before the Congress, there is no debate over whether the nation needs to continue the program nor any question as to whether the bill is going to pass. Appropriations for highway projects bring funds and jobs into each congressional district. With a touch of sarcasm, one legislative aide in the House noted "I don't think there's a member of Congress [who] does not like roads." Yet the reauthorizations are not without their share of controversy. A basic issue is appropriations for mass transit as the reauthorization also provides money for bus, subway, and train lines. Beyond support for mass transit, the reauthorizations may be embedded with provisions instituting environmental protection to limit damage to areas abutting highway projects.
           Early work on the highway reauthorization began in the 107th Congress. The existing authorization would not run out until 2003 and there was no expectation that a bill would actually be voted on until after the 108th convened. An issue that quickly surfaced was the tight revenue situation created by 9/11 security concerns and the decline in the nation's economy. The gas tax trust fund provided a stable source of funding but other money is required to support the variety of policies encompassed in these areas. The interest groups began working with legislative aides and members of Congress who they count on as allies. They also began bringing studies they commissioned to their friends on Capitol Hill.
           A basic split among the interest groups is between those organizations representing highway builders, suppliers, and state highway officials on the one hand and environmental lobbies on the other. They have contradictory interests and fight vigorously for their respective policies. A Washington lobbyist for highway interests complained, "people in the extreme environmental community. . . would suggest that there's no such thing as a good highway project." An environmental lobbyist saw things differently: "The road gang believes that the answer to all of America's needs is more roads."
           A compromise will be forthcoming in the 108th Congress when a reauthorization is necessary, lest the program expire. But these competing points of view were not blended into a new law as legislators in the 107th decided to carry over the bill and not complete work on it in 2002.