Congress Takes Up a Throwback Highway - Not Transportation - Bill
I want to thank and congratulate Congress for discarding the unrelated and harmful provisions that were tacked onto an empty-shell-of-a-bill written by the House GOP. As my colleague Susan Casey-Lefkowitz notes, shedding this ugly ballast was a laudable move. And as friends at Earthjustice note, so was shedding the unrelated provisions gutting coal ash regulation.
And while those destructive hitchers were kicked out of the overall legislative vehicle as it rambled towards the finish line, it’s worth taking a look at the vehicle itself. And it is a mess.
First, the good news: The bill retains the national commitment to investment in the highway system as well as the current ratio of highway-to-transit investment (since 1982 the tacit deal has been that any new revenue gets divided such that 1/5th goes to a mass transit account). It consolidates about 60 programs into a core set of four. It dramatically increases the size of the important TIFIA program (the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) which as our friend Denny Zane of Move LA tells me should be a boon to Los Angeles by delivering an important source of financing for their remarkable public transportation system expansion plan. A rural transportation program in the bill would also deliver more funding to buses and vanpools, which benefits the environment. There are also provisions that would open up more roads to tolling, which can also benefit the environment especially if the revenues are devoted to lower pollution alternatives such as bus rapid transit.
Some of the worst ideas pushed initially by House Republicans went nowhere – funding the highway system with new oil drilling revenues, taking transit out of the highway trust fund, de-federalizing transportation funding – to mention some of the most radical proposals that were seriously being put forward.
But based on my initial reading of the 600 pages and analyses by allies and experts, that pretty much exhausts the good news. The transportation bill not only does little to move us forward; it weakens current law. The bill basically undermines provisions that constrain state highway agencies and contractors by requiring them to invest in environmentally beneficial means of improving transportation and reducing congestion. For the most part, the bill appears to be tailor-written for highway agencies and contractors. Here’s why:
- It reduces the percentage of investment dedicated to repair of the highway system. This is one of the more puzzling moves in the bill, given that as Transportation for America notes we have more structurally deficient bridges than McDonald’s in this country, and as Secretary LaHood memorably said, “America is one big pothole.” Yet it appears that the Congress declined to follow the Senate’s lead of boosting the amount of funding going to reduce the nation’s deferred maintenance problem. Instead, the final package actually undercuts current law by lowering the percentage of funding dedicated to maintenance. Highway agencies and contractors must be ecstatic, since this gives them leeway to build more sprawl-inducing highways and neglect repairs if it strikes their fancy.
- It undermines the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement or CMAQ program. This program helps areas that are not in attainment of health-based air quality standards reduce tailpipe pollution, and reduce congestion by investing in options such as public transportation and ride-sharing programs. Under the final package, up to half the funding can be transferred to other programs by state highway agencies. The Senate bill’s “suballocation” of CMAQ dollars to those places actually facing pollution problems – metropolitan areas – is discarded, leaving this money in the hands of more distant state highway agencies. Score another couple of points for state highway agencies and highway contractors.
- The bill wreaks havoc with the National Environmental Policy Act, which guarantees a degree of public oversight and accountability over highway (and transit) project construction. Project reviews are crucial not just for improving designs but for discarding harmful ones that might destroy treasured open spaces or communities. I’ve written quite a bit about this here and here. The conference report invites harmful unintended consequences such as putting damaging highway projects through our communities, and it could lead to more not fewer lawsuits filed by putting a thumb on the scale for an alternative proposed by a highway agency -- one that may well be controversial -- in several ways. First, it “categorically excludes” a host of projects from reviews, Such loopholes allow projects to be built with minimal or no participation by the affected public. The bill pokes many holes, two of the most egregious being exclusion of projects in an existing right-of-way (what’s to stop a highway agency from building a second interchange next to another one if it’s in the right-of-way, without getting public feedback?) and categorical exclusion of projects that receive less than $5 million of federal funding which means your taxpayer dollars could help build a highway and without you having a say in its design. The report also imposes punitive fines ($10,000-20,000/week) on agencies if they exceed deadlines for reviews, something that is likely to yield hasty reviews and awful decisions. Hacking away at our right to oversight over use of our dollars for construction of potentially destructive projects is offensive and dangerous, and unfortunately it comes on the heels of a new Regional Plan Association report based on actual interviews with practitioners who listed other more effective means of reducing project delays. Keeping the public out of the room so highway agencies and contractors can keep paving ahead is another victory for them.
- The bill also discards commitments to other transportation options for passenger and goods movement. It cuts dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects by hundreds of millions of dollars and allows highway agencies to transfer the remainder under certain conditions. It removes a rail title written into the Senate bill, including planning for rail as a viable alternative to highways. Looking to the cutting room floor, we see that the Senate also conceded flexibility to use transit funding for operating expenses and parity between parking and transit commuter benefits. A focus on rail and transit are priorities of the OneRail coalition (of which I am a member) To add insult to injury, state planning improvements included in the Senate bill that would have improved management of their programs, provisions based on recommendations from the Bipartisan Policy Center, as well as a requirement that road designs accommodate those of us who walk and bike (see here for details), were cut out as well. These last were not as robust as I’d like them to be, but I guess highway agencies and contractors considered it too much of an imposition to show they’re improving performance of the system funded by our federal taxpayer dollars. Another set of wins for highway agencies and contractors less interested in accountability and transportation choices than in paving.
I have not even dealt with the finance title, which takes more steps away from user financing of the program by transferring almost $20 billion from the Treasury for the program. Taxpayers for Common Sense should have a good analysis of that title up soon, and their appraisal will probably be scathing.
The upshot of all this is that the bill needs a new name. “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century” doesn’t fit. It is not MAP-21, it is GAP-21. With it Congress shamefully declines to advance or fill in needed transportation policy for a 21st-century with different energy, demographic and economic realities than the last. It reads like the last gasp of a bygone era, since it turns the clock back on transportation policy to make it more highway-centric. Highway agencies and contractors made out like bandits in this bill, and our communities and environment are likely to suffer as a consequence.
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