U . S. Sen. Marco Rubio was right about one thing: The transportation bill that Congress approved last week is far from ideal. It provides only a two-year window for highway spending, suspends or fast-tracks some environmental reviews, and shifts money away from bike paths, pedestrian trails and other alternative transit projects. But it was the best the public could expect given the partisanship in Washington this election year. And it includes the potential for Florida and other gulf states to reap billions in spill-related fines from the BP drilling disaster. Rubio, just two years into office, apparently has not yet learned that in governing, something is better than nothing.
The legislation extends federal highway and transit programs for two years, providing $105 billion and a much-needed jolt to the nation's construction industry. Legislative leaders say the package will save or create millions of jobs. It provides some degree of certainty to states and communities that have hobbled along for years with short-term transportation funding. The bill won wide, bipartisan support, passing 373-52 in the House and 74-19 in the Senate. It could easily be the final major piece of legislation that Congress passes before the elections.
The compromises both sides made showed how far partisan warfare has come to influence a domestic spending package that members have long rallied around. Republicans dropped a provision that would have cleared the way for the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada, which the Obama administration has blocked. Democrats agreed to streamline the environmental review process on smaller-scale transportation projects, and to curtail spending on trails, land and water conservation, and highway beautification projects.
The measure does nothing to address the nation's long-term transportation needs, especially in mass transit. And it puts off (again) any serious attempt to fix the highway funding gap caused by the reliance on federal gas taxes. Still, the legislation will keep the revenue flowing, at least for a time, which will keep these road projects from drying up entirely. And the bill includes a provision that directs 80 percent of any fines related to the 2010 BP oil spill toward restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. With civil penalties under the Clean Water Act reaching up to $21 billion, this measure could be a big boost to science, the environment and small businesses in the gulf states.
Rubio did his state a disservice by being one of only two gulf-state senators to vote against the bill. Rubio complained that the bill had too many tradeoffs and was too costly. This sounds more like an excuse to have it both ways on a bill that had overwhelming support than a principled stand against the usual lawmaking process. At least the bill gets the nation through the election with the least damage to its highway system as possible while setting the stage for states like Florida to further rebound from the spill.