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Deron Lovaas’s Blog

Hundreds of Leaders Agree: Kill the House Transportation Bill

Deron Lovaas

Posted February 3, 2012 in Moving Beyond Oil

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What a week it's been! Three Congressional committees marked up and passed five historic bills. Historically awful, that is. Now House Leaders -- who clearly have hijacked the transportation bill to play D.C. partisan politics as usual -- will pile them together and bring the whole stinky, steamy mess to the floor this month.

Let's start with the latest: This morning's Ways and Means action. This committee passed a bill earlier today which shatters a thirty-year-old bipartisan deal to guarantee funding for public transportation -- rail, bus, you name it, it's all in trouble now. And on top of that the bill throws one of the biggest clean air programs in the transportation bill overboard too. Public transportation and other environmentally beneficial projects will now have to compete with scores of other programs in budget fights, or to maintain our commitment to it Congress will have to add $40 billion more to the nation's huge budget deficit. 

I saw that Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp of Michigan said vaguely that he's sure the spending can be offset when the bill goes to the floor in a couple of weeks. So that committee managed to vote against transportation options for commuters nationwide, against environmental protection (cleaner transit means less pollution from traffic), and against fiscal responsibility in one fell swoop.

In fact, this part of the bill is so radical that more than 600 groups including NRDC oppose it, and our many leaders signed a letter saying so:

For the first time in thirty years, the pending legislation H.R. 3864, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Financing Act, removes the certainty of a continued revenue source for our transit systems as well as the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program.

To no avail.

And yesterday the Transportation and Infrastructure committee set "a record," as Chairman John Mica of Florida said, by spending about 18 hours marking up their bill that would spend the funding based on the extreme financing schemes of two other committees. This bill is loaded with giveaways to roadbuilders, shortchanging transit, anyone who walks or bikes, as well as public health and the environment. I've written about this before and it's worth recapping a little of what's in there:

  • Extreme (and probably ineffective, given how much hot air and how little intelligence envelops the issue of project delay) slashing of environmental reviews that provide you and I and other citizens with oversight over how state government bureaucrats are spending our tax dollars, including arbitrary deadlines for reviews, a new and imperious "deemed approved" stamp if deadlines are missed, limiting alternatives analysis during reviews, and assorted loopholes to allow projects to skip the review process entirely
  • Undercutting one of the biggest funds for clean air projects -- including public transportation -- in the transportation program, the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, by ramming a loophole through it that allows spending on traffic- and pollution-generating roads
  • Eliminating dedicated bicycle and pedestrian project funding
  • Slashing funding for Amtrak, America's intercity rail

Ah, and now we're at the bottom of this pile which is composed of three bills passed by the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday. These bills open up new areas for drilling offshore, onshore and in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. One supports development of oil shale, which is not yet commercially viable. They actually mandate a lot of new drilling. And for the first time ever they supposedly fund transportation. Yet this funding is speculative, it's a fraction of what's needed, and it wouldn't trickle in until well after it's needed for transportation. 

It's also a blatant violation of the "user fee" principle that President Reagan championed thirty years ago and that has been part of the backbone of this program. From an environmental perspective, these user fees, for example gas taxes or tolls, help to align travel demand with pavement supply and send signals to consumers that reduce pollution.

So these other components of this bill would wreak a lot of damage to coastlines and the environment while being fiscally reckless to boot.

The simple truth is that this is the worst transportation bill ever. It's time to kill it, and move on to credible, debateworthy proposals such as the bipartisan Senate bill.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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