Oberstar’s Transportation Bill: The Early Word

Policy wonks across the capital are still poring over the 775-page bill released earlier today by Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House transportation committee. But searching the legislation for the key topics being debated by transportation reformers reveals new details and raises new questions.

subway.jpgThe new House transportation bill brings good news for local transit agencies. (Photo: Wired)

The most common phrase in the bill may well be three innocuous words: "to be supplied." This is in no small part thanks to the uncertain future of funding for Oberstar's $450 billion plan, a problem compounded by a White House preoccupied with health care and in no mood to raise the gas tax.

Still, the sheer number of sections left "to be supplied" in the legislation makes it difficult to consider individual portions of the bill in the context of the nation's overall transportation investment.

For example, the section on performance targets for states receiving federal money to keep roads and bridges in good repair -- as opposed to building new projects -- leaves its minimum standards for structural adequacy blank.

The section that creates a program for the unique transportation needs of metropolitan areas has no blank areas, but it leaves major decisions in the hands of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and state DOTs.

The secretary is asked to look at certain performance areas when deciding on new projects, including traffic reduction, road safety, less dependence on single-vehicle trips, and access to public transit. But the task of setting actual goals in those areas, such as percentage-based reduction in local per-capita VMT, is left up to the state DOTs and local metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to decide alongside the federal government.

The tangible targets proposed by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO), which include accountability measures that cannot be tweaked by individual states and localities, are nowhere to be found.

Colin Peppard, climate and infrastructure policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund, hailed the bill today for tying transportation decision-making to carbon emissions reductions. Yet Peppard closed on a caveat that is related to the bill's open-ended approach to transportation performance:

However, more work needs to be done to ensure that these forward-thinking goals are fully supported by the policies, programs, and funding laid out in this critical piece of legislation.  Questions remain as to whether state and local governments will truly be held accountable for delivering better transportation, economic, and environmental performance. 

David Goldberg, spokesman for the Transportation for America coalition, also praised Oberstar's outline of the bill for making a significant break from the status quo. He noted its dedication of funds to metropolitan areas, provisions aimed at combating climate change and its proposal for proportional voting at MPOs.

Goldberg added, however, that "there are too many places in the bill where localities and states are allowed to set their own performance measures and there is no overarching set of performance targets that would let you know the overall transportation program is making progress on issues of national priority."

The bill does take action on an issue of importance to many city governments: allowing local transit agencies to spend federal money on operating costs. Urban areas with populations between 200,000 and 500,000 would be cleared to spend 20 percent of their federal formula grants on transit operating, with the number shrinking to 10 percent for larger cities and 5 percent for cities with populations greater than 1 million.