EPW Big Four Announce Plan to Maintain Status Quo for the Next Transpo Bill

Sen. Barbara Boxer, together with Sens. Carper, Vitter and Barrasso, announced their agreement to maintain the status quo with the next bill. Screenshot from press conference.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, together with Sens. Carper, Vitter and Barrasso, announced their agreement to maintain the status quo with the next bill. Screenshot from press conference.

Last year, while the House flailed in partisan misery, the Senate passed a transportation bill 74 to 22. When the bill was signed into law, it was considered one of the few real achievements of a deeply divided Congress. Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer got tremendous credit for enacting legislation three years in the making. And yet, it left a lot of good provisions on the cutting-room floor. While MAP-21 included some modest reforms, lawmakers missed an opportunity to prioritize transit, biking, and walking — modes that are gaining popularity and help achieve national goals like congestion mitigation and air quality improvement.

History appears to be repeating itself. This morning, Sen. Boxer (D-CA) joined with the rest of the “Big Four” of the EPW Committee — Ranking Republican David Vitter (R-LA), Transportation Subcommittee Chair Tom Carper (D-DE) and Subcommittee Ranking Republican John Barrasso (R-WY) — to announce that they had reached agreement on a set of principles to guide the next bill.

While it’s good news to hear the senators are working together and making progress, they’re not proposing any solutions to the nation’s dysfunctional transportation policy, which funnels billions of dollars to wasteful road expansions ever year. Below is a look at the guiding principles (verbatim, in bold) and what they mean:

  • Passing a long-term bill, as opposed to a short-term patch. You won’t find anyone who says they want a short-term bill. There is unanimous agreement that a two-year bill was inadequate and that the next bill must last five or six or even 10 years. The challenge has always been to find enough funding to pay for such a long bill. MAP-21 pulled coins out of the proverbial cushions to piece together a somewhat illusory pay-for to get MAP-21 passed. Even President Obama’s proposal for the next bill is just four years.
  • Maintaining the formulas for existing core programs. Ouch. A primary goal of transportation reformers is to tie more money to performance and merit instead of giving states no-strings-attached funding that tends to get wasted on highway expansion. Reforming the existing formulas could force states to prove that they’re spending money well, using a benefit-cost analysis in their decision making, and thinking smart about the future.

  • Promoting fiscal responsibility by keeping current levels of funding, plus inflation. This will disappoint the many people looking for an increase in spending levels, who believe that MAP-21’s $109 billion over two years wasn’t enough to really address the country’s needs. While far too big a percentage of federal funding goes toward highway expansion, the failure to grow the pie will ensure that transit and rail — especially high-speed rail — can’t grow. The Chamber of Commerce, the unions, and most of the transportation and construction sectors want to see a gas tax increase. President Obama and Republican House Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp both want to increase infrastructure spending via corporate tax reform. Meanwhile, Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to maintain fiscal discipline by eviscerating core programs is destined for the dustbin. No one wants to go back to that tired conversation.
  • Focusing on policies that expand opportunities for rural areas. Many federal spending programs, from TIGER to New Starts, maintain a set-aside for rural areas. And while no one says rural areas don’t deserve good transportation infrastructure, their special treatment has a lot to do with the way the Senate is set up to over-represent rural constituencies. Where’s the minimum for metro areas, which are responsible for almost all the country’s new jobs, economic growth, and population gain?
  • Continuing our efforts to leverage local resources to accelerate the construction of transportation projects, create jobs, and spur economic growth. This is probably a reference to the TIFIA program, which provides long-term, low-interest loans but relies in the end on local money to pay them back.
  • Requiring better information sharing regarding federal grants. Perhaps they could start by requiring far clearer reporting on State Transportation Improvement Program plans.

What’s missing? Any commitment to organizing the federal transportation program more deliberately around national goals like emissions reduction and safety. Any agreement to strengthen performance measures, which had a baby-step debut with MAP-21.  And while we wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear it in a statement of principles like this, reformers would always be keen to hear some reassurance that transit, biking and walking will get a fair shake and that road maintenance will be prioritized over expansion.

If this is what the Democrat-controlled Senate has come up with, what will the House say?

Meanwhile, as Sen. Vitter acknowledged, “Compared to the Finance Committee, which has to lead all of us in figuring out how to pay for this, hopefully, six-year bill, we have the easier role.” Without the political will to do the hard work of raising revenues, even maintaining current levels will be a stretch.

  • LAifer

    The dysfunction in DC is such a shame. Good people like Senator Boxer end up selling the farm to try and get something rather than just let the whole thing fall apart. I appreciate her well-intentioned effort, but, when all the evidence is pointing to Americans wanting more bike lanes, more walkable communities, and more transit, this proposal is a crying shame and years behind its time.

  • Jack Jackson

    if Americans want more bike lanes and walkable communities, they are free to raise property and sales taxes to pay for them

  • Draisine

    Jack: Americans pay a disproportionate amount for freeways, highways, and large arterials surface streets. Walkable/Bikeable communities create more jobs per dollar invested and save more money with less frequent and expensive maintenance. Livable places are a win-win.

  • Jack Jackson

    don’t disagree with the merits, just with the financing. why should Americans 10 states away pay for a sidewalk they’ll never use?

    national highways and interstates are far more likely to benefit national commerce on a larger scale. besides, walkable communities will need that freight from other places to appeal to their residents

  • This is pretty sad. Shall we start a petition in addition to calling and face booking their offices?

  • poopoooface

    Why should anyone pay for anything they will never use?! Why should I pay for bombs to kill people? Why should I have to pay for anything I don’t want to?! Why should I have to pay for anything?!?!? Why should I have to pay for a freeway I will never use? Why should I have to pay for anything WHY WHY WHY WHY?

  • cstaron

    In the absence of a real national vision for transportation, I think Jack makes a fair point. Bike/ped and transit investments do have a national value (dependence on fossil fuels, economic growth, environmental sustainability); however, without a clear focus in the national surface transportation programs, it makes it easier to argue for devolution and local funding.

  • Daniel

    I didn’t really expect anything else from Congress in an election year. But I wonder if trying to redirect the spending to more Livable Streets is really the answer. Our infrastructure is falling apart but we spend a huge part of the dollars available on road construction instead of maintenance. The gas tax also forces all car owners to subsidize highways even if they only use local roads funded locally. Why not allow local municipalities to toll their roads and bridges without restriction and use of federal transportation money on transportation projects on federally owned land and on inspectors that can close down any road or bridge that doesn’t meet safety standards? That would remove much of the incentive to build white elephant projects and would do a better job insuring that bridges don’t fall down while still in use.

  • Jack Jackson

    the Constitution is pretty clear on what the Federal. government does and does not do.

    It authorize s Congress to provide for national defense, and it enables congress to regulate interstate commerce

    until bikes and sidewalks can move 80k lbs of goods across state lines, it is not interstate commerce… thus the power is reserved. top. the states or the people, respectively.

  • marcotico

    I’ve read this comment many times, and although it wouldn’t be easy, i wonder if there would be a way to define a national freight network, and let all other highways be funded by the states. I don’t think jack jackson is doing this, but others use this reasoning as a back door way of argueing that ALL highways are of national importance but all transit and bikeways are local only.

  • Nathanael

    If the federal government will stop wasting my federal taxes on rural interstates, which are useless bullshit with no value to national commerce — since long-distance freight goes by rail or air….

    And as soon as the federal government stops wasting my federal taxes invading foreign countries (even more useless)….

    Then I’ll be happy to pay locally for the ACTUALLY USEFUL stuff of NATIONAL IMPORTANCE, such as sidewalks in NYC and LA.

    You don’t get to have it both ways. As long as the federal government is sucking up tax dollars, they should to be spent on useful stuff, not on pork-barrel worthless crap. If you want us to fund all the useful stuff locally, you’ve got to stop sucking tax dollars out for the federal government to set fire to.

  • Nathanael

    (1) Invading foreign countries isn’t national defense. Neither is spying on all Americans, such as the NSA does.

    (2) Interstate trucking has zero value. All real interstate commerce happens by rail, or by air if it’s time-sensitive.

  • Jack Jackson

    65% of all goods… import, export, domestic move by truck… the other modes combined aren’t even a majority.

    you should probably come back when you have a clue

  • valar84

    It depends on how you measure things. In terms of ton-miles, rail was actually ahead of roads by 20% in 2009 (though it was ahead by more than 40% before the economic crisis).

    http://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_01_50.html

    But that’s because rail is used mostly for heavy goods transported over long distances, especially raw materials. If you only look at the value of the goods transported, then trucks probably carry more.

    That being said, if the interstates were only about freight trucks, there would never be any need of any freeway with more than 2 lanes, and 90+% of urban freeways would never have been built. Trucks are just a small portion of vehicles on freeways. Germany is an industrial powerhouse and it does fine without urban highways in most of its cities.

    The reality is that cars are the main obstacle to freight trucks. They congest highways and create the “need” to build more and larger freeways. Basically taking freight trucks hostage and suffocating industrial areas located nearer to city centers, forcing the relocation of industry ever more in the suburbs to avoid the congestion resulting from suburban residents commuting to the city.

    Instead of widening freeways all the time (supply management), it would be a more efficient solution to implement demand management by tolling them. Trucks would pay without much trouble because their transport produces revenue, but commuting car drivers would be much less willing to do so, because they’re paid when they are at their job working, not when they are commuting to and from their jobs.

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