Just How Bad Is the Final House Transportation Bill?

Nobody was expecting the GOP-controlled House of Representatives to put together a transportation bill that did much for streets and transit in American cities.

Congress passed a 6-year transportation bill this morning. Yay? Image: Transportation Dems
The House passed a six-year transportation bill this morning. Yay? Image: Transportation Dems

And they were right — there’s nothing to get excited about in the bill. But neither is it the total disaster for walking, biking, and transit it could have been. So how does the House bill stack up against the current law? It’s looking a little worse.

Amendments to the bill were heard earlier this week, and the final bill was passed just hours ago. Some last-minute changes made it in, but in general not the ones that would help modernize the nation’s transportation policy and reduce our dependence on driving.

The final House bill includes a $40 billion funding patch to cover the gas tax shortfall, which means it now has funding for six years instead of three. But the new money is very gimmicky. At the last minute, Texas Re­pub­lic­an Randy Neuge­bauer introduced an amendment to raid the Federal Reserve’s Capital Surplus Account, and it was approved overwhelmingly.

Prior to that, House leaders had not indicated (or figured out) how they intended to pay for the bill. Yesterday, they refused to even hear an amendment from Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer to raise the gas tax.

Neugebauer’s amendment allowed lawmakers to pass the long-term bill industry and government agencies have been begging for without doing the responsible (and politically courageous) thing and finding a revenue source that doesn’t amount to a desperate one-shot.

Meanwhile, funding for walking, biking, and transit didn’t gain ground — and in fact may lose some — but also avoided catastrophic cuts. Three of the most watched amendments — the Carter and Yoho Amendments, which took aim at the tiny pot of money directed to biking and walking — didn’t make it past the Rules Committee to a floor vote. Representatives were listening to the national advocates fighting against those measures (or inclined to oppose them anyway). The Bike League called it a victory, saying “sometimes the hardest work results in nothing happening.”

Stephen Lee Davis from Transportation for America, however, noted that there were some backdoor cuts to active transportation funding. The “Transportation Alternatives program,” the only pot of money dedicated to walking and biking, will be locked in at $819 million per year — it will not grow to keep pace with inflation, like other programs.

“Simply not getting axed doesn’t meet our threshold for success,” Davis said.

Other measures advocates were watching — smart reforms like expanding eligibility for federal loans to transit-oriented development projects, or allowing regions to use “congestion mitigation and air quality” funds to expand bike-share systems — were squelched in the Rules Committee or by the full House.

There is one good “fix” in the final bill, and it’s significant: restoring the flexibility to fund transit projects with multiple federal sources. The original version of the House bill would have blocked transit agencies from supplementing funds from the New Starts and Small Starts programs with other federal sources, like the TIFIA loan program, if the total federal share exceeded 50 percent of the project cost. Revoking that flexibility would have threatened projects all over the country, including Chicago’s Red and Purple Line modernization projects, according to Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Chicago).

Lipinski and Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) partially prevailed in an effort to reverse that provision. Their amendment to restore funding flexibility for transit projects survived mainly intact. However, agencies would still not be able to tap the $10 billion Surface Transportation Program (STP) to supplement funding from the federal transit grant programs beyond 50 percent of the project cost.

The passage of the House bill means House and Senate representatives will hash out a unified six-year agreement in conference committee. The Senate’s transportation bill, charmingly known as the DRIVE Act, is also, by and large, a continuation of the status quo funded by gimmicks. It does lack some of the flaws in the House bill, which may get ironed out in committee.

A spokesperson for Lipinski, who is a conferee, said that the limitations on STP funding for transit projects “will be worked on in conference committee.”

Senate transportation leaders Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) promised in a press release today to have a six-year bill in front of President Obama for signing before Thanksgiving.

  • “The “Transportation Alternatives program,” the only pot of money dedicated to walking and biking, will be locked in at $819 million per year — it will not grow to keep pace with inflation, like other programs.”

    Screw inflation. It isn’t keeping up with the massive increases in biking, walking, and transit in most cities. Indy has doubled bike commuting over the past few years (which is still tiny) but won’t get any more money to continue the trend. This is crazy talk.

  • AlexWithAK

    I often find myself split on the whole federal transportation issue. On the one hand, big transit projects require big funding sources, and that often means the federal government given the current system. On the other hand, that same system means the federal government has heavy involvement in transportation funding which is a big reason why highway and road projects get such priority. That’s especially true with the GOP in charge of both houses but wasn’t a whole lot different when Democrats controlled them.

    The notion that the federal government should only have its hand in transportation projects that constitute a “federal interest” isn’t a bad one. But of course many conservatives use this argument against funding walking and biking and even sometimes transit while being perfectly happy to send big piles of cash to road projects whose “federal interest” is questionable to say the least. So as long as that’s true, I do think it’s important to maintain walking and biking funding at the federal level. But overall, reducing the federal government’s involvement in transportation could be a good thing for non-auto transportation, at least in more urban states.

  • theqin

    If the money is coming from the gas tax, then I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a large share of those funds going to highway and road projects. If the money is coming by raiding other funds paid for by income tax then I think we have a bigger fundamental problem.

  • And yet, they’re still growing, which only speaks to how incredibly inexpensive those modes are.

  • Kevin Love

    Put me down on the side of those against the federal government funding roads. It only encourages state DOTs to engage in irresponsible highway building because Uncle Sugar is picking up most of the tab.

    To see what it would look like if the federal government were not funding roads, we only have to look as far as Canada. The Canadian constitution sets roads as an exclusive provincial jurisdiction. So there are very few urban expressways and a lot more urban public transit. Because the people making the decisions are the people paying the tab, there is a lot more responsible decision making.

  • Kevin Love

    That’s like saying money from the alcohol tax should be used to fund partying.

  • Did you read the story? It’s not coming from the gas tax.

  • Lora Tenenbaum

    I’m curious: did Jerry Nadler even TRY to undo the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge One-Way Toll in this legislation? You know, the federally-mandated toll he’s been promising to undo for decades? The toll that has cost the City and State almost half a billion dollars in lost revenues that could have been spent on public transportation? The toll that encourages cars and trucks to travel through the central core of Manhattan rather than out through Staten Island? The toll he said in 2012 would be eliminated by 2015? Did he try?

  • Can’t answer that question, Lora, but for those who are curious about what you ask, here’s the background on it from the

    Cobble Hill Association

    The Verrazano Bridge opened in 1964 as an engineering marvel, holding the record of world’s longest suspension bridge for nearly two decades. However, in 1986 concerns about pollution from idling vehicles at Staten Island tollbooths brought bridge controversy to the congressional level and resulted in a one-way, west-bound-only toll. The Cobble Hill Association strongly believes the single direction toll negatively impacts NYC both in lost toll revenues and increased congestion on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, and actively supports any plans to re-instate two-way toll collection on the Verrazano Bridge.

    President Obama has called for a re-authorization of the year-overdue Federal Transportation Bill, and NY congressman Jerold Nadler is taking the opportunity to address the Verrazano issue. As the one-way toll had been enacted from language worked into the bill two decades ago, Nadler is now working with the Transportation Committee to find solutions.

    http://cobblehillassociation.blogspot.com/p/verrazano-bride-two-way-toll.html

  • Actually, it’s just the opposite. Funds collected in Calif. go the Board of Equalization – and although I’m not sure what the current funds pay for now, or if they are just deposited into the general fund, there have been attempts to raise them to “provide substantial resources for alcohol treatment and prevention services and community education services about addiction.”
    https://cspinet.org/booze/taxguide/TaxCAPrint.htm

    In fact, the analogy is spot on – Sen. Jim Beall (D-S.J.), who has a gas tax increase in the legislature (http://www.planetizen.com/node/77487) has also tried to increase the alcohol tax. Well-financed opponents, the alcohol industry, have claimed the tax is “regressive”. Sound familiar? Sadly, Beall is 0 for 2.

  • theqin

    I did read the article, and I do think we have a problem when other accounts are raided to fix a hole in the gas tax shortfall. But the majority of the funding for the highway trust fund is still from the gas tax, despite the continued failure of the legislature to pass gas tax increases.

  • Lora, you piqued my curiosity, I admit. Here’s one amendment he ‘tried’ but didn’t succeed with. Whether he tried to undo the one-way toll restriction, it might be worth a call to his office.

    From the the gas station owners industry, NACS:

    “Additionally, during the course of the markup, Representatives Grace Napolitano (D-CA) and Jerry Nadler (D-NY) introduced an amendment that would allow state governments to permit electric vehicle charging stations and natural gas refueling infrastructure in rest areas along the interstate, believing that such a measure would improve air quality standards. Though the amendment was ultimately withdrawn, it was done under the assumption that the two representatives would have the opportunity to continue to discuss such a provision with Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) and ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-OR).”

    http://www.nacsonline.com/News/Daily/Pages/ND1026151.aspx#.Vj5lRmSrTx4

  • Dick

    Personally, I just wish the feds would raise Amtrak funding and toll the Interstate roads. With the necessary capital investments, either in new RR track or toll booths, both can be profitable and self-sustaining.

  • The slim majority and declining every year and we obviously have no intention of raising it. The “majority” of the money goes to highways anyway.

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