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March 30, 2012

March Madness: House Republicans miss game winning shot on transportation

Traffic2With time expiring this Saturday on the current transportation bill, the House of Representatives was poised to hit a shot at the buzzer by passing a broadly supported two-year transportation bill already passed United States Senate (winning the support of half of Senate Republicans).

Instead of hitting the game winner, though, Speaker Boehner and House leaders simply added three more months to the shot clock.

Two weeks ago the Senate passed a two-year transportation bill, called MAP-21, with an overwhelmingly bipartisan majority of 74-22. This bill, while not perfect, takes critical steps to reduce our dependence on oil, repair our infrastructure and move our transportation system into th 21st century. Importantly, as we enter the construction season, it would provide a shred of certainty to states and towns that are trying to plan and build their transportation systems.

Fearing that the House might actually pass the bipartisan Senate transportation bill if it was brought to a vote, Speaker Boehner only allowed the House to vote on extensions of the current law. Even that proved difficult, as three times in three days the Speaker was forced to cancel a vote on an extension because he lacked the necessary votes to pass them.

On Thursday, the fourth time was the charm, and the House passed its three month extension. Rather than see 1.8 million Americans left unemployed due to the House’s inability to pass a long-term transportation bill, the Senate acquiesced and agreed to that extension. They simply had no other option.

So again, why did House Republican leaders not want to pass the Senate transportation bill agreed to by half of their Senate Republican colleagues?  

They want to pass something similar to a 5-year transportation bill they proposed a few months ago, HR 7. As a quick reminder, that’s the bill that would pay for new highways in part by drilling off every inch of our coasts, opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ravaging our public lands in the West for oil shale development, and permitting the dirty and dangerous Keystone XL pipeline. All of that would provide less than 2% of the funding needed for their 5-year bill.

Fortunately, moderate Republicans opposed HR 7’s elimination of dedicated funding for public transit, which received much press, and conservative Republicans opposed the bill because they thought it spent too much money. Lacking the votes to pass HR 7, House leadership declined to bring it up for a vote.

Now, House leaders said that they will create a new bill that similarly ties transportation to increased oil drilling, but because they have realized that Americans in cities across the country care deeply about it, a new bill would not eliminate dedicated funding for public transit.  Before you think “whew, glad they backed off the bad parts of the bill,” let’s take a look a few of the other provisions that made many call HR 7 the “worst transportation bill ever.” Among other things, the House Republican transportation bill would:

Absolutely eviscerate our bedrock environmental review laws and stiff arm public participation:

As I blogged earlier, Republicans have long wanted to roll back environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, but in this bill emboldened leaders have clearcut the entire review process – endangering our environment and shutting out public participation. HR 7 would exempt a wide range of projects from any kind of review, including any project with an arbitrary price tag of less than $10 million. Further, the bill would stifle public input by limiting who can participate in the judicial review process.

Most egregious among the provisions is a “rubber stamp provision” that would automatically approve any project whose review is not completed in 270 days - regardless of the project’s impacts on communities, the environment.

Eliminate funding for safe biking and walking

Biking and walking are on the rise in America, in part due to an increase of safe biking and walking infrastructure. As we recently noted in one example, Minneapolis increased their bike traffic 47% from 2007-2011, and 25% in the last year alone.

However, at a time of high gas prices when more Americans want to bike and walk, HR 7 would eliminate all dedicated funding for safe biking and walking infrastructure, what had previously been less than 2% of all federal transportation funding. To add insult to injury, the bill would end the Safe Routes to School program, which helps kids walk to school safely. One journalist noted this provision with the headline “Republicans Want to Throw Kids Under the Bus. Literally.

Allow funds intended for air quality improvement to pay for traditional highway expansion

Under previous transportation bills, the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (known as CMAQ) has provided significant funding for projects that will do just that, reduce congestion and improve air quality. However, slipped into one paragraph of HR 7’s 1500 pages is a provision that would allow these funds to be spent on highway expansion for single occupancy vehicles. With roads, we’ve all seen that if you build it, drivers will come. This loophole would siphon off funds meant to improve our public health and put them towards more pollution-causing sprawl.

So now House leaders have 90 days to pass some form of transportation bill. Rather than running down the shot clock again trying to convince Representatives to drill everywhere in order to take our transportation system backwards, the House should quickly pass the Senate transportation bill. Doing so would give states and cities certainty to plan and pay for transportation projects, keeping people on the job and moving our transportation system forwards.

It is critical that you call your Representative and tell them to pass HR 14, the Senate transportation bill. This week the House missed their game winning shot. Our economy and our environment can’t afford for that to happen again.

-- Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Washington Representative for the Sierra Club Green Transportation Campaign

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