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GOP Will Control the Senate in 2015 — What Does It Mean for Transportation?

3:43 PM CST on November 5, 2014

The forecasting models were right: As the polls closed last night it quickly became apparent that Republicans will gain control of the Senate, with at least 52 seats now held by the GOP. The implications for transportation are immense. To understand what they are, first let's look at what last night means for the prospects for a new transportation bill next year. Then we'll get inside the committees for a nitty-gritty look at the leadership shakeup.

The Bill

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) will take the reins of the powerful EPW committee -- and he just can't wait to eliminate all federal bike/ped funding. Photo: ##http://www.inhofe.senate.gov/newsroom/photo-gallery/greater-oklahoma-city-chamber-of-commerce-fly-in##Office Sen. Inhofe##
Climate denying Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) will take the reins of the powerful EPW committee -- and he just can't wait to eliminate all federal bike/ped funding. Photo: Office of Sen. Inhofe

First and foremost, both chambers of Congress will be in GOP hands when the current transportation bill, MAP-21, comes due for renegotiation next spring.

Bicameral Republican control strongly suggests that the door to increased revenues is closed. (It was hardly open under a Democratic Senate, either.)

GOP control could make it challenging to extend the current law as well. Senators had to scrounge for ways to pay for MAP-21, settling for a grab-bag of gimmicks. There isn't more loose change to be found under the cushions. And no one in Congress, on either side of the aisle, has the appetite for deficit spending.

Other scenarios don't look much better. Republicans and Democrats could use the lame duck period between now and January to hammer out a revenue deal, for instance. That would benefit the Republicans by raising taxes on the Democrats’ watch (but after the elections, when they don't have to worry about the Republican base slamming them for not fighting hard enough). With the funds in hand for a multi-year bill, the details of how to spend it would then get hammered out after the GOP takes control of the Senate.

This is unlikely, however. There’s enough that already has to be done during the lame duck, first of all. Second, the reluctance on both sides to raise revenues isn’t all show: Most members of Congress are truly unwilling to increase what they see as a middle-class burden, no matter who’s watching. Besides, House Speaker John Boehner doesn’t have the cohesion within his party to do something so strategic, and the Democrats might not even go along with it.

The other possibility, of course, is that instead of raising revenues to match desired expenditure levels, Congress can limit spending to match gas tax receipts. Former House Transportation Chair John Mica tried that a few years ago and it didn’t go anywhere. Many people think that idea has been tried and discarded, but others think it could easily return, given how few options remain.

If that happens, one advocate says, the battle will be over what gets cut. House Republicans will advocate for limiting gas tax revenues to highways only, leaving transit and bike/ped out in the cold. But even some Senate Republicans like Mark Kirk of Illinois and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who have a significant share of transit-riding constituents, will fight a change like that. And Democrats would revolt.

Remember, Republicans don't have a 60-vote majority, so they'll need to cross party lines at least a little bit to bring along a few Democratic votes if they want to get anything passed.

The change in party power also signals a massive turnover in committee leadership. Republican ranking members will become committee chairs and Democrats will get a corresponding demotion. Here are some key changes.

Environment and Public Works

Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida will likely take over as Ranking Member of the Commerce Committee, with jurisdiction over rail and safety -- two passions of his. Photo: ##http://www.billnelson.senate.gov/photo-slider?page=1##Office of Sen. Nelson##
Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida will likely take over as Ranking Member of the Commerce Committee, with jurisdiction over rail and safety -- two passions of his. Photo: Office of Sen. Nelson

Barbara Boxer will become the ranking Democrat on the committee. David Vitter has been the top Republican, but the peculiarities of term limit rules mean that instead of elevating Vitter to chair, James Inhofe of Oklahoma will likely come back to take the gavel -- and likely bring with him staffers who are shrewd negotiators, sharp as tacks and with a solid understanding of the law. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with.

Inhofe, a climate denier and hater of environmental regulations with a soft spot for highway spending, has for years longed to get rid of all federal funding for bike and pedestrian programs -- something he wasn’t able to do with Boxer as the chair. He may now have his chance.

As chair, Boxer made myriad compromises with Republicans in the interest of passing a bipartisan bill. She and Inhofe worked well together, despite their many differences. Will Inhofe work as hard to please Boxer as she did to please him? And, in the minority position, will Boxer fight harder to preserve sustainable transportation funding and policies, now that it’s not her job to get a bill passed?

Meanwhile, Vitter is running for Louisiana governor next year and will likely fade into the shadows on the Hill.

To match the proportions of the parties in power, Democrats will also lose some EPW members and Republicans will gain some.

Banking Committee

The current ranking Republican is Michael Crapo of Idaho, a relative moderate with some appreciation for transit -- but it’s likely Richard Shelby will come back to take over the chairmanship (those funny term limits tricks, again). Being from Alabama, Shelby has little interest in transit.

The current chair, Democrat Tim Johnson, is retiring -- which is a rare shred of good news for transportation advocates. Not that Johnson was bad, but having a South Dakotan lead a committee with jurisdiction over transit issues wasn’t the most natural fit. Likely replacements are Chuck Schumer of New York, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, or Sherrod Brown of Ohio -- all transit supporters from heavily urban states. Though Johnson had nice things to say about the importance of public transportation, his replacement may be more likely to fight for it. Given the battles we can expect over the next two years, having a combative city Democrat in the leadership of Banking will be key.

Commerce Committee

We already knew Commerce Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller was retiring -- and that was a blow, given his track record as an ardent and eloquent champion of rail and transportation investment. It’s likely Florida’s Bill Nelson will step into the top Democratic slot, while South Dakota Republican John Thune will take over the chairmanship.

Thune won over some safe streets advocates when he helped negotiate a complete streets provision for inclusion in the committee’s portion of MAP-21 (only to be stripped out in conference). According to insiders, Thune wasn’t acting out of any great love for biking and walking -- more likely he was hoping the compromise would kill the amendment -- but he did later take credit for it in the bike/ped community and has since become more of a supporter.

Thune also has American Indian reservations in his state, meaning he has a large constituency of rural people without access to cars who depend heavily on transit. (Not surprisingly, transit on reservations was also Tim Johnson’s main connection with the issue.) Representing South Dakota, Thune has a big stake in freight rail but not much incentive to support passenger rail.

Democrat Bill Nelson, on the other hand, is passionate about passenger and freight rail issues -- key to the Commerce Committee’s focus -- and is also well aware of Florida's terrible street safety record, which the state is finally trying to overcome. While Nelson hasn’t taken a strong leadership role on these issues, he's a big supporter of complete streets and the ranking membership could propel him to greater action.

Finance Committee

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who has long made clear his desire to stop federal funding for bike/ped programs, rises to the chairmanship of the Finance Committee, and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon will likely become ranking member.

Hatch’s distaste for sustainable transportation, however, doesn’t extend to transit, or at least not with such force, since transit investment is growing in Salt Lake City.

We’ll follow up soon with an update on the House. Though the balance of power stays with the Republicans, big changes are afoot.

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