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Senate Passes Two-Year Transportation Bill, 74-22; All Eyes on House

The Senate transportation bill has finally passed by a vote of 74 to 22. In a show of bipartisan support, which this bill has largely enjoyed from start to finish, 22 Republicans voted for its passage.

The bill, which would support $109 billion worth of federal transportation programs over two years if enacted — a much shorter time-frame than the usual five or six years — contains few sweeping changes to existing policy. Measures that initially weakened federal support for bicycle and pedestrian projects were mitigated by the Cardin-Cochran amendment, which was incorporated into the bill without a vote. The bill also gives transit agencies more flexibility to spend federal funding to maintain service during economic downturns, and equalizes the commuter tax benefits for transit riders and drivers. (We’ll have more policy details later today.)

“Some really good reforms have taken place here,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) from the floor immediately following the vote. He expressed his hope that the vote will lay the foundation for a “much longer, better, more robust highway authorization bill, but the first thing is to get into conference with the House and see what we can accomplish.”

“It was a great vote,” added Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). “If Senator Lautenberg were here, it would be 75.” Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey was one of only four Senators, and the only Democrat, not to vote. (Update: Lautenberg was attending the funeral of New Jersey Rep. Donald Payne, who passed away last week.)

Boxer and Inhofe, respectively the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, received a great deal of praise from their colleagues for assembling so much bipartisan support. “That’s hard work, and that’s the way the Senate should work,” Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said of their efforts. “I hope the House will take this bill, and I know they have their own opinions of how things should be, but it’s important to get this $110 billion out to America.”

What happens next is still a mystery.

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Streetsies 2011: Bums and Bummers

On our walk down the memory lane of 2011 so far, we’ve talked about some downers, some inspirations, some triumphs, and some struggles. Check out our first two installments of year-end Streetsie award nostalgia. Here’s some more.

Best Obama Plan That Died a Slow and Horrible Death This Year: How to choose, when there were so many? The president laid out a big, bold, ambitious transportation plan for the next six years but then stayed mum on the all-important question of how to fund it, and so, predictably, it died. His American Jobs Act included $50 billion for infrastructure projects, including at least $13 billion for rail and transit. It, too, went nowhere fast.

Obama's high-speed rail plans took a fast train to nowhere. Photo: America 2050

That wasn’t Obama’s fault, but if you’re looking for a reason to be angry at him, look no further than the ozone pollution rules the EPA was going to strengthen. The president froze at the last minute and decided to hold off another couple years, to give the economy a chance to recover (or business interests a chance to vote for him). The new ozone standard would have saved an estimated 12,000 lives and made transportation reforms essential.

But who could blame the 47 percent of you who awarded the Streetsie for saddest death of an Obama program to high-speed rail? Congress takes every opportunity to yank money away from the program, three Republican governors have very publicly thumbed their noses at federal funds, and the only true high-speed rail line with the potential to be truly transformative is in deep doo-doo in California. So much for 80 percent access in 25 years.

Non-Presidential Vices: Yes, we had our share of letdowns from President Obama this year. But not all our disappointments were related to him. We were also bummed to see plans scrapped for the Woodward Light Rail line in Detroit, and the failure of the Seattle car tab fee, which would have gone to transit, bike/ped and road maintenance. And certainly we were disappointed that the Senate transportation bill, in the end, didn’t keep dedicated funding for bike/ped. But the Streetsie for the biggest letdown has to go to the bait-and-switch the House Republicans pulled about funding their transportation plan.

It was simple enough when they were threatening to cut spending by a third so as not to overspend Highway Trust Fund receipts. Just about everyone hated the idea. But then the GOP said they’d match current levels and it seemed the best of both worlds – reasonable spending levels and a longer-term bill than the Senate was offering.

Hallelujah! So what’s the catch?

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Two-Year Transpo Bill Moves on to Full Senate Without Bike/Ped Protections

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted unanimously this morning to pass a two-year transportation reauthorization bill, moving the bill one step closer to passage by the full Senate.

The Senate EPW bill represents a few steps forward and a few steps back. It won't transform America's car-based, oil-dependent transportation system. Photo: Raise the Hammer

Unlike in the House, where the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has full responsibility for the transportation bill, the Senate splits jurisdiction among several committees, so the saga isn’t over yet by a long shot. The Senate Banking Committee still needs to consider the transit part of the bill, Commerce will get its hands dirty on the rail portion, and Finance is going to figure out how to pay for the whole thing.

Non-Motorized Transportation Takes a Hit

Rarely have bike and pedestrian safety been so squarely at the center of a Congressional boxing match as during the debate over this bill. The fight over dedicated funding for bike/ped projects – much of it focused on the Transportation Enhancements program – threatened the delicate bipartisan consensus for this bill. What emerged was a compromise that placated even the most hardened TE haters like Sens. James Inhofe and Tom Coburn.

This morning, Sen. Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking member on the committee and its chief TE opponent, explained the change.

There’s a difference of opinion and philosophy here as to how much money should be spent on things like bike trails, walking trails, highway beautification, museums and all that stuff. I think the compromise we came up with is a very good one because if a state wants to use that percentage – whether it’s 10 percent as it applies to the surface transportation or two percent of the total funding — they can instead put it in areas of unfunded mandates. And I can assure you there are enough unfunded mandates we have to comply with – I’m talking about endangered species, Americans with Disabilities, Historic Preservation and all that — we can use it. In my state of Oklahoma, that’s where we’re going to use ours. I think that is a great solution.

Sen. James Inhofe's home state of Oklahoma is now free to spend all its transportation money on roads.

What Inhofe is calling an “unfunded mandate,” however, is just part of the cost of building a road with federal funds. By allowing Transportation Enhancement money – previously reserved for non-motorized modes – to be used to offload some of the costs of building a highway, the Senate gives a green light to state DOTs to use every penny of that money for road-building expenses, if they want to. And if they don’t even want to do that, after 18 months, they can just opt out of the TE program altogether.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced (and then withdrew) an amendment to restore dedicated funding for bike and pedestrian programs, with support from several other Democratic senators. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) also wants to introduce amendments making it harder for states to “opt out” of the TE program by ensuring that they solicit localities for TE uses before refusing to use the funds. And Sen. Tom Carper withheld his amendment requiring states and MPOs to draft plans for reducing transportation-related oil consumption.

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Inhofe Supports Clean Extension, Won’t Vote Against Bike/Ped (This Time)

The Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously agreed this morning to send a four-month extension of the transportation bill to the full Senate. Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) emphasized that it wasn’t easy to get consensus on the extension, especially with many members wanting to move forward with the full two-year bill.

Sen. James Inhofe still wants to kill bike/ped funding -- but later. Photo: TPM/wdcpix

And yesterday, as frazzled Senators rushed around the Capitol during their first day of legislative work after the August recess, the reality began to set in that the clock is ticking to pass an extension before the surface transportation programs expire on September 30.

In addition to passing the extension this morning, Boxer’s committee has also been crafting a two-year, $109 billion reauthorization that would keep spending at current levels.

Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, the ranking member on the committee, voted for the clean four-month extension, saying it will buy the time needed to craft the two-year bill. He says he won’t support Sen. Tom Coburn’s push to kill transportation enhancement funding, which includes bicycle and pedestrian projects – for now. But when it comes to the two-year bill, Inhofe would like to say goodbye to all bike/ped projects.

“I’m all for totally cutting the transportation enhancement funding,” he said in an interview with Streetsblog. “I’ve talked to Senator Boxer about it and I think we can come up with something where we do away with those enhancements.”

Boxer has pledged to maintain dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs in the bill.

Inhofe did acknowledge, however, that TE comprises “less than 2 percent [of the transportation program], instead of the 10 percent that some people think it is.” (Coburn is one of those people.)

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Boxer Confirms Bike-Ped Funding, Gang of Six Loves infrastructure Spending

At today’s hearing, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee celebrated the bipartisan consensus it has reached on a new transportation reauthorization – but details of that consensus are still not public. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) did confirm that dedicated federal funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs remains in the bill. Addressing LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa:

A full bike rack outside the Senate building where today's EPW hearing was held. Photo: Tanya Snyder.

You’ve worked with us on Safe Routes to Schools, because that’s so crucial, and we kept it, and bike paths, and we kept it, and recreational trails, and we kept it. Tough debates, giving here, taking there. But that has remained in the bill.

The reauthorization negotiations have been largely overshadowed by the ongoing talks over the debt ceiling. For a long time it appeared that if the debt talks had any impact on the transportation program, it would be to institutionalize the 33 percent cuts mandated by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan’s budget. However, as Boxer mentioned a few times during today’s hearing, the outlook is looking brighter.

The bipartisan Gang of Six has a plan to cut the deficit and raise the debt ceiling. That plan calls for very little spending – but the one area they did see fit to spend on was infrastructure. The Gang of Six plan calls for the following:

Tax reform must be estimated to provide $1 trillion in additional revenue to meet plan targets and generate an additional $133 billion by 2021, without raising the federal gas tax, to ensure improved solvency for the Highway Trust Fund.

According to our sources, that additional revenue would stabilize the trust fund for the next 10 years.

The vote of confidence by the Gang of Six is encouraging and should be a shot in the arm to the Senate. If that debt plan passes, it could even give House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica enough political cover to raise the total price tag of his bill.

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EPW Wraps Up Bipartisan Negotiations

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee just sent out its outline of their transportation reauthorization bill (which many of us found online hours ago.) In the statement, Ranking Republican James Inhofe (R-OK) said:

Today I am pleased join Senator Boxer to announce that we have completed bipartisan negotiations on the highway policies that will be included in the next transportation bill. This is a tremendous step forward. Chairman Boxer has shown her willingness to work with us to produce a bill that should enjoy strong bipartisan support. Our next step is crucial: given the state of our economy, and the debate here in Congress, we must work with Chairman Baucus and Republicans on the Finance Committee to find a way to pay for this bill.

This confirms the rumors we’ve heard: that the Finance Committee has not yet found the $12 billion to cover the gap between the Highway Trust Fund revenues and the bill’s expenditures. The good news, though, is that it means the Senate Republicans have given the OK to the funding levels, which — though a disappointing low point from which to begin negotiations — are higher than in the House bill.

The bill is still highway-heavy because the transit and rail titles are not yet in it. Though the transit title, at least, is reportedly ready to go, we don’t know when we’ll see a full bill with all provisions included.

Sen. Barbara Boxer and the EPW staff met with several environmental groups today to talk about the bill, but according to one person who was there, the staff is still “holding their cards very close.” Very little new information came of the meeting. From what we understand, though, bicycle and pedestrian funding — while a minuscule part of the overall bill — became a very large point of contention the two sides had to overcome. As we said earlier, the details of the bike/ped funding have yet to be announced, but so far it looks grim.

Either way, the months of negotiations are over, according to the EPW statement, and we can look forward to a bill rollout soon. House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica still appears to be holding off on introducing his full bill until House leadership clears space for it on the floor schedule, and that won’t be until after the August recess. But Boxer is still indicating a desire to pass her bill out of committee before the recess. It’s the only way to have a fighting chance of passing a bill, and not just a straight SAFETEA-LU extension, on September 30, when the current extension expires.

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What Bipartisanship Hath Wrought: Zilch for Bike-Ped in Senate Bill Outline

Update 7/20: It has come to our attention that the complete draft of the Senate bill will include a hard commitment to bike-ped programs. Senate staff tells us that Sen. Barbara Boxer worked hard and was able to maintain her priorities in the bill, including dedicated federal support for bike infrastructure. More details will come out at tomorrow’s hearing on transportation in Boxer’s Environment and Public Works Committee, and we look forward to seeing a complete legislative draft soon. The rest of this article was written yesterday, before we received these assurances from staff.

The Senate EPW Committee just posted a transportation bill outline on their website, and despite previous assurances by committee chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA), there appears to be no dedicated funding for bicycling and pedestrian programs in the bill. The outline focuses on the consolidation of programs and streamlining project delivery, much like the House bill. The performance measures mentioned in the outline – while not necessarily a comprehensive list – don’t include emissions reductions, undoubtedly at the insistence of climate-denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), ranking member of the committee.

One of Chicago's celebrated new bicycling facilities, the Kinzie Street protected bike lane. Will any federal support for bike/ped projects remain after the next transpo bill passes? Photo: Josh Koonce/flickr

The outline confirms that the Senate is working on a two-year bill but does not include the dollar amount. “Consolidation” is the name of the game these days and the Senate plays along, making seven core surface transportation programs into five, including a new Transportation Mobility Program, which “sub-allocates” some funds to metropolitan areas, and a National Freight Program, which proponents of multi-modalism have long pushed for.

It preserves the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, which funds some bike and pedestrian programs. Transportation Enhancements, another major way such programs are funded, will probably now be under CMAQ. It’s unclear whether the Recreational Trails Program will move to CMAQ as well. But although bike and pedestrian projects will still be eligible for funding, there appear to be no explicit funding guarantees for bike-ped projects, and how funding levels will shake out in the final analysis is anybody’s guess.

Like the House, the Senate bill offers states “the flexibility to fund these activities as they see fit” – which amounts to a revocation of the federal commitment to funding this work. Many states, absent a federal mandate, will spend virtually nothing on bike/ped infrastructure.

Bicycling advocates had asked for dedicated funding that doesn’t pit them against road projects, the same funding proportion as they had in SAFETEA-LU, and changes to Safe Routes to School. None of those features appear to be in this bill.

“It’s hard to know without seeing the details, but at first blush it doesn’t look good for bike and pedestrian issues,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. “Perhaps it’s to be expected that there’s nothing upfront in the language about protecting dedicated funding, given that it was a topic of some contention among the protagonists. But it’s pretty troubling to see no reference to any of the issues that affect cyclists and pedestrians – nothing about complete streets, nothing about dedicated funding.”

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Highwayman Inhofe Still Wants to Rob Bike/Ped Funding From Transpo Bill

Last week, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) briefed reporters on the points of consensus reached by the four leaders of the Environment and Public Works Committee with regard to the transportation bill. In answer to a question by Streetsblog, she said that guaranteed federal funding for bike and pedestrian programs would be in the bill. She made it clear that bicycling and walking were important modes of transportation that deserve “good attention” in the bill.

The Oklahoma River trails: 13 miles of uninterrupted multi-use paths in Sen. James Inhofe's home state. Photo: flickr/tomfs

Some advocates doubted she was speaking for all members of the committee, especially ranking Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has repeatedly attacked bicycle funding and other transportation enhancement projects as wasteful and inappropriate recipients of federal money.

Those skeptics appear to be right. A Tulsa newspaper reported earlier this week:

Differences also cropped up between [Boxer and Inhofe] on projects such as bike paths and walkways.

Boxer said all modes of transportation should be covered, while Inhofe made it clear the committee should keep its focus on projects such as bridges and highways.

“She was not speaking for me,” he said.

Committee staff had followed up Boxer’s comments with a disclaimer that the bike/ped section was still being written, though they didn’t overtly dispute her assertion that active transportation funding would be preserved in the bill. They won’t give any further comment since the issues are still under negotiation.

“We hope the federal government will continue strongly investing in safer and more livable streets,” said Michael Murphy of Transportation Alternatives. “We don’t think that street safety is a partisan issue and we hope it won’t become one.”

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