Encouraging News on Transit, But Serious Flaws Remain in House Transpo Bill

Hold that victory lap: While it’s true that House Republicans are revamping their transportation bill, it’s time once again to wait and see just how bad the bill still is.

The House's retreat on de-funding transit is good news for projects like Cincinnati's proposed streetcar. Photo: Urban Cincy

Indications out of Speaker John Boehner’s office are that the GOP leadership will no longer try to eliminate dedicated transit funding, but odds are that some serious problems with the bill will persist:

  • It eliminates bike-ped programs.

We’ll have to wait and see exactly what happens to popular programs like Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School, and Recreational Trails once the new bill is released. The previous House bill would have cut the dedicated funding stream for these programs, forcing bike-ped investments to compete for general fund dollars along with transit. To fully restore bike-ped funding, the House will have to ensure that these programs have a dedicated revenue stream and aren’t supported by the same pot that funds transit.

Boehner’s spokesperson said yesterday that the new bill will “retain the speaker’s vision of linking infrastructure to expanded American energy production.” That’s not a surprise, since H.R. 3408, the bill that opens up swaths of the country’s land and sea for drilling and includes the Keystone XL pipeline provision, has already passed the House. Tying infrastructure to drilling means deepening, not reversing, dependence on fossil fuels and environmentally damaging extraction techniques like fracking.

  • It could cut funding below current levels.

This is the new threat lurking in the House: In order to win over more conservative Republicans, the new bill may actually decrease funding below current levels. House Republicans were dealt a setback last week when one of their revenue generators for infrastructure, reforms to federal pension plans, was included in a tax cut extension deal instead. That left them with a huge hole to fill, and put the Tea Party contingent in an awkward position: The bill was no longer paid for by any stretch of the imagination, so could they support it?

Since the House’s energy bill is expected to generate only marginal revenues anyway, their answer may be to avoid raising any new revenue at all and just cut transportation spending across the board, at least in the short term, and leave the revenue question to the next Congress.

  • It weakens environmental protections.

Jesse Prentice-Dunn of the Sierra Club wrote recently on what H.R. 7′s “streamlining” and “expediting” measures would do to environmental protections — namely, provide as many bypasses around them as possible. For example:

In an extreme departure from current law, the bill would require that all environmental reviews be completed within 270 days and automatically approve any project that does not achieve that arbitrary deadline – regardless of the project’s impacts on communities, the environment, or the economy. Instead of trying to find the best project for a community, this provision would rubber stamp any project as long as the sponsors ran out the clock.

This kind of streamlining has even found some support in the Senate, which provides further cause for alarm, since text that is the same in two companion bills cannot be altered by a conference committee.

Still, if the House leadership really does back off of their plans for transit funding, there’s hope for more improvements if advocates keep pushing.