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January 25, 2012

Surface Transportation: On the Bubble?

TrafficWith college basketball season heating up, and teams trying to pad their resumes in the hope of securing an NCAA tournament bid, Congress has some upcoming March Madness of its own.  The current surface transportation law, which covers highways, transit, freight rail, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, expires on March 31.

The last time Congress succeeded in passing a long-term surface transportation bill was back in 2005, with the passage of SAFETEA-LU (“Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act - A Legacy for Users”).  That law expired in 2009, but has seen multiple short-term extensions meant to continue the funding and policy in the old law while legislators hash out a new bill.  This time, however, Congress seems seriousabout a negotiating a new, long-term deal.

It won’t be easy, however, as the House and Senate have dueling proposals, and differ on serious issues like funding sources and length of authorization.  Though still incomplete, the Senate bill would be a two-year provision that would greatly consolidate the federal transportation program.  This would include strong safety and performance provisions, and would help improve the condition of our roads and bridges.  Unfortunately, this might also mean less funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. 

To reach the finish line, the Senate must still pass a transit section, as well as funding for the proposal, as revenues from the gas tax are no longer sufficient to cover the need for our massive transportation system.

The House is set to release a transportation bill that is expected to roll back environmental safeguards and squeeze funding for cleaner transportation choices, such as biking and walking. Worse yet, the House bill aims to plug that funding gap with revenues from oil drilling, even in some of our wildest places, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (funny, we seem to remember one oil gusher that couldn’t seem to be plugged…).

Ultimately, these bills fail to strike at the root of America’s transportation troubles: crumbling infrastructure and crippling dependence on oil.  The current state of disrepair of our transportation infrastructure is well documented. The Senate proposal admirably seeks to repair and maintain our existing infrastructure; hopefully the House will follow suit. Unfortunately, the proposals being floated by each chamber will need to be strengthened significantly to adequately address our dependence on oil, which is driven by transportation.

What we need is legislation focused on creating a new transportation system for the 21st century, one that addresses our crumbling infrastructure and helps decouple transportation from oil.  What might that bill look like?  Here’s a start:

  • A provision to repair and maintain our infrastructure.  For the sake of both our health and our wallets, we desperately need to repair our ageing infrastructure, as poorly maintained roads cost the average driver thousands of dollars a year.  The Senate bill does include a provision that requires states to set targets for the condition of their infrastructure and focus road spending on repair and maintenance. It is important that the House include one as well.  Before we start building new roads and bridges, we need to pay the upkeep on the ones we already have.
  • A focus on building a transportation network that maximizes travel options and accessibility, not one that encourages driving as the default.  Alternatives to automobile travel have always been forced to take a backseat, thanks to the help of disproportionate highway funding and commuter subsidies for driving.  Instead of cutting funding to programs ranging from pedestrian to rail infrastructure, we need to prioritize these alternatives while building and retrofitting communities so people have the option to walk, bike or take transit.
  • No transportation funding from expanded drilling.  Opening public lands to oil drilling would destroy fragile ecosystems from the Gulf of Mexico to the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge and endanger public health.  And funding our transportation system with oil revenues is a surefire way to guarantee an oil-dependent future, complete with the smog and carbon pollution that come with it.  We need to tell Congress to say “NO!” to funding transportation through expanded oil drilling.

This March is an opportunity to overhaul our nation’s transportation policy and set a new course for the future — a future where Americans have safe, convenient options to get around and we don’t need oil to fuel our economy.  It’s a chance to set a new course that can cure our addiction oil.  Sticking to the old one would be madness.

-- Jesse Prentice-Dunn and David Loss, Sierra Club Green Transportation Campaign


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