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July 03, 2012

Congress Misses Opportunity to Move Our Transportation System Into the 21st Century

TransitLast week, before heading out for their July 4 break, Congress passed a two-year transportation bill that was the product of months of negotiations between the Senate and House or Representatives.  While the Senate was thankfully able to keep unrelated, anti-environmental riders out of the final bill (namely permitting the Keystone XL pipeline, and pre-empting EPA safeguards on toxic coal ash), the transportation bill that was passed was a step backwards from the Senate version that held so much promise. This was a missed opportunity  to move our transportation policy into the 21st century.

Going into the conference committee, the Senate brought a two-year bill that would take steps to reduce our dependence on oil by making biking and walking safer, giving local officials more control over transportation funding, extending transit commuter benefits, and revamping our planning process to be more performance-based.

The House, unable to pass their disastrous transportation proposal, instead came to conference with a 30-day extension of current transportation law and three anti-environmental riders – gutting our nation's environmental review process, pre-empting EPA safeguards on coal ash, and permitting the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline.

To give credit where credit is due, the final bill does provide guaranteed funding for our transportation system over the next 27 months, preserving and creating nearly three million jobs, and it will consolidate the sprawling network of transportation programs. Further, the bill will dramatically expand the TIFIA loan program, which will hopefully allow environmentally beneficial projects, such as Los Angeles’ 30/10 initiative, to leverage funds and get off the ground.

However, in negotiating the final bill, House Republican negotiators extracted significant concessions by threatening to walk away from negotiations and the millions of jobs that would be saved or created. Below are just a few of the backwards steps made in conference:

  • Complete streets eliminated – House negotiators successfully removed a provision that would have made streets safer for everyone, including cyclists and pedestrians, not just drivers.
  • Transit commuter tax benefit parity eliminated – The final bill does not include the extension of the transit commuter tax benefit at the same level of parking benefits. This means that commuters now get nearly twice the tax break for driving to work instead of taking transit.
  • Public input in environmental reviews reduced – Perhaps the most egregious changes came as rollbacks of the environmental review process. Republicans have long wanted to eviscerate the 40-year old National Environmental Policy Act, which ensures the public has a say in highway and transit projects that will significantly impact local communities. Although the Senate was able to fight off the most egregious demands, the House still won significant concessions.  Cash strapped state agencies will now face financial penalties if they don’t make decisions on time, leading to rushed approvals (or rejections) of projects instead of well thought out decisions. Further, the bill now eliminates public comment on a whole raft of projects, including projects under an arbitrary threshold of $5 million. Projects built in the existing right of way are also exempt from environmental reviews, allowing the significant widening of existing roads without public input.
  • National goals watered down – The Senate bill included a set of national goals for our transportation system, which the US DOT would then report progress on meeting every two years. While the final bill includes a set of goals, Republican negotiators successfully removed the goal of “energy conservation and security.” Our transportation system uses two-thirds of the nation’s oil, and eliminating a goal of conserving energy in transportation just leaves progress on reducing oil use for another day.
  • States allowed to waive investments in safe biking and walking infrastructure – The Senate bill already reduced the total amount of funding available for safe biking and walking infrastructure, but it did require half of the remaining funding to be sent to cities and towns and the other half competitively awarded by states. The House successfully won the rights for states to opt out of using their half of the funding on safe biking and walking infrastructure all together. As state DOTs are squeezed for cash, many will likely choose not to fund biking and walking infrastructure, even though trends suggest more people than ever want this transportation option.
  • Grand Canyon overflights process derailed – To add insult to injury, the final bill would even derail a two-decade long process to reduce noise from airplanes flying over the Grand Canyon. Never mind that this flight-related provision was snuck into the surface transportation bill, it meddles in a stakeholder process conducted by the National Park Service that is nearing its completion.  

The transportation bill that was passed harkens back to highway, not transportation, bills passed decades ago and proves that Congress is still behind current trends. It is increasingly clear that people want clean transportation choices, like public transit and safe biking and walking, not expanded highways and more sprawl.

The bill that was passed will be in place for the next 27 months. Over that time, I have no doubt that cities and towns will continue to show leadership in building innovative transportation projects that make communities more livable and sustainable.  It will be even more critical, though, for all of us to spend the next 27 months educating our Representatives and Senators about the kind of transportation system that we want to see in the future.

If you want to help ensure the next transportation bill moves our transportation system into the 21st century, I would urge you to join Sierra Club's transportation campaign, which is working to improve transportation systems in cities and states nationwide and to make sure Congress knows that we must invest in a transportation system that uses less oil.

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

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