Senate Transportation Bill Moves Forward With a Few Key Changes

The Senate’s proposal for the next transportation reauthorization took another step forward today with the unanimous approval of the Environment and Public Works Committee. The bill the members sent to the full Senate was slightly different from the one that was unveiled Monday night.

EPW Committee Chair Barbara Boxer said she's proud of the bipartisan bill the committee passed unanimously this morning.

EPW Committee Chair Barbara Boxer said she’s proud of the bipartisan bill the committee passed unanimously this morning.

The changes include [PDF]:

  • An amendment introduced by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) increasing the proportion of National Highway Performance Program funds that can be used for non-National Highway System bridges from 10 percent to 15 percent. That helps correct an error of MAP-21, in which all bridge funding went into NHPP but less than half the nation’s bridges went into that program, leaving the rest unfunded.
  • An amendment introduced by James Inhofe (R-OK) reducing the TIFIA loan program from $1 billion to $750 million a year and using the savings to fund research and development out of the Highway Trust Fund. Originally, the bill kicked research out of the HTF and left it to discretionary general funds, which left many worrying that it wouldn’t get funded at all. Inhofe’s amendment restores some certainty but also cuts funding levels for research almost in half.
  • An amendment agreed to by the top four members of the committee — Barbara Boxer, David Vitter, Tom Carper, and John Barrasso – weakened safety performance measures and reduced the consequences for worsening conditions.
  • An amendment introduced by Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that essentially classifies Vermont (and a handful of other states) as rural for the purposes of making it eligible for rural funds under the discretionary PNRS grant program.

All the senators present at the markup agreed with Boxer’s assertion that “this is truly a great day for our committee.” Many members specifically expressed their enthusiasm for the six-year duration of the bill after the disappointingly short two-year MAP-21.

“I’m proud we’ve stepped up in a bipartisan manner to develop and pass the legislation,” she said. “I hope it sends a powerful signal to our colleagues and to the public that we will address the looming funding crisis in the Highway Trust Fund.”

But as Vitter said next, the EPW Committee isn’t the one charged with solving that crisis — that’s the job of the Finance Committee. All EPW did was decide how to spend the money, not how to raise it. But several EPW members — including two of the most progressive, Tom Carper of Delaware and Ben Cardin of Maryland — also serve on Finance, along with powerhouses like Jay Rockefeller, chair of the Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the rail and safety portions of the transportation bill.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) acknowledged one place where the EPW bill shines: implementing a separate safety performance measure for non-motorized transportation. “Bicycle and pedestrian fatalities continue to increase,” Merkley said, “and it’s important to understand in a transportation system how other modes of transportation than simply highways are affecting success and fatalities. Fatalities increased year over year quite a bit from 2011 to 2012.”

Merkley’s focus on vulnerable road users was seconded by Sen. Gillibrand, who put a human face on the issue:

I met a mom who lost her daughter right before high school graduation because she had to cross a highway on Long Island that had no lights for someone to cross but it was on her way to school. I’ve met other families who have struggled because in rural areas there are no lights that can be pressed and there’s [not] enough time for a child or senior to get across the road. So these are life-saving measures you included in this bill. And I’m incredibly grateful, on behalf of all those families.

“I look forward to fighting for additional additions on the floor,” Gillibrand said in closing.

“And fight you will,” added Boxer.

Boxer also alluded to Carper’s fight to expand tolling, which ended in defeat, and probably spoke to many other members’ disappointments when she said:

I know how passionate you were on a few issues. It was tough for you to walk away and close down the negotiations. I get it. Believe me. And I know how hard it was for you.

You did it, I think, for the good of the country, because we all know that you’ve got to reach bipartisan agreement and we’re not going to get everything we want. It’s very tough. It’s a tough atmosphere for both sides.

But we knew enough that we went as far as we could go, the Republicans went as far as they can go, and here today we had a unanimous vote.

Meanwhile, Barrasso (R-WY) touted one of his own pet issues that did make it into the bill: the continuation of formula-based funding methods that are based on politics more than merit.

“We have ensured that the vast majority of program dollars are distributed to states by formula,” Barrasso said. “The bill continues the current highway program formula for distribution of funds among states — formulas long respected [for] the important contribution to the nation of roads in rural states, like Wyoming, and not just in heavily populated states.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) previewed some of the positive “additional additions,” as Gillibrand said, that might still be coming. He and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) are about to introduce an amendment to the bill that would allow more state funding to be distributed to local agencies for innovative surface transportation projects. It’s the Senate companion to a bill introduced yesterday by Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL) and Dina Titus (D-NV).

“Currently just 8 percent are controlled by regional and local interests,” Booker said. “This is where the wisdom is. This is where the knowledge is. This is where decisions are made best.”

Local empowerment is the principal focus of the remade Transportation for America coalition, which sees greater local control over transportation funding and decision-making as the key to reform.