President Obama’s Transportation Bill Prioritizes Livability, High-Speed Rail

A draft of the president’s full transportation bill [PDF], obtained by the semi-underground Transportation Weekly, has started floating around Beltway policy circles. This draft is more informative than the partial bill that started making the rounds last week, but it’s still undated and it’s not necessarily the final proposal.

Downtown Denver's Cherry Creek Trail was funded with four different Transportation Enhancements grants. Photo: ## Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse##

The draft bill closely follows the outline presented by the White House in February, apparently unaffected by the raging budget battles that have consumed Congress since then. Although high-speed rail was completely de-funded in the last budget battle, the president’s bill still provides $53 billion over six years to the program, with $37.6 billion of it for network development and the rest for system preservation and renewal. The proposal also sticks to the language of a “transportation trust fund” rather than a “highway trust fund.”

An accompanying section-by-section analysis [PDF] explains the new Livability Program (one of the five areas the entire transportation program would be folded into). It would consist of three program components, according to the analysis:

  • The formula-based Livable Communities Program, which would absorb popular livability programs including Transportation Enhancements, Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement Program, National Scenic Byways Program, Recreational Trails Program, Bicycle Transportation and Pedestrian Walkways, and Safe Routes to School. Some transit projects proven to improve air quality would be allowed. States would be required to use some of the money to employ a full-time Safe Routes to School coordinator and at least one bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. States would also be required to develop a livable communities strategy in support of national performance goals for livability, to be reported on annually. The budget allocates $23 billion over six years to this program.
  • The discretionary Bicycling and Walking Transportation Grant Program has a big “[NEED TO MODIFY]” in front of it in boldface type, so let’s take all this with a grain of salt. The analysis says the program would fund “sidewalks, bikeways, and shared use paths” and other facilities, including bike-share stations, and bike education and encouragement programs. Grants could be as high as $20 million, out of an annual program budget of a half-billion dollars.
  • The discretionary Livability Capacity Building Grant Program would give grants for data collection, training, technical upgrades, and the development of transportation modeling. Grants would be awarded to projects that further the goals of the HUD-EPA-DOT interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities. This programs gets $200 million a year.

The president’s bill, as we’ve mentioned, is useful as a standard to hold Congressional transportation legislation up against. It contains policies that would transform the highway-centric status quo, and reformers appreciate the administration’s decision to present an agenda that is such a quantum leap over previous funding levels, performance metrics, organizational structures, and priorities. However, don’t expect it to be central to the debate in Congress. By refusing to adjust to a still-struggling economy, high gas prices, and a deficit-obsessed Congress, the president has rendered his own plan moot.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee started writing its transportation reauthorization bill a few weeks ago. That committee, as well as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is moving away from talk of a Memorial Day deadline and are now shooting for “sometime in June” with the president’s signature before the end of the fiscal year.

We’ve had plenty of warning at this point that the House bill will likely include funding levels lower than SAFETEA-LU. The Senate’s plans are less clear, though insiders are forecasting a bill with more robust investments than the House version, but nowhere close to the president’s agenda.

“I don’t’ see how you get a bill passed without some deficit spending,” NRDC federal transportation analyst Deron Lovaas told Streetsblog, “and I don’t see how you deficit-spend in the current climate.” Certainly, he said, a gas tax falls further and further out of the realm of possibility as gas prices remain high, and that fact is tying this debate up in knots.

Reconciling the House and Senate transportation bills could be nearly as contentious as the battles over the federal budget, so if all goes well, the two houses will leave ample time for knock-down, drag-out fights over funding levels before the current extension of SAFETEA-LU runs out September 30. Experts say if they can’t agree to at least some deficit spending, the bill will be too small to garner much support for passage, and that could leave a two-year bill as the only viable option. Some wonder if Sen. Max Baucus’ recent comment in favor of a short bill might have been a powerful dose of foreshadowing.

Whether the committees have anything to show for themselves by Memorial Day or not, experts say the real deadline is the August recess. If a bill hasn’t been passed by then, some say, it’s hard to see how anything would be passed before 2013.

15 thoughts on President Obama’s Transportation Bill Prioritizes Livability, High-Speed Rail

  1. No way anything is getting done about transportation within the next two years. It is too expensive in a time there is more worrying about the national debt. Also Ray Lahood has been pushing the money from the stimulus for transportation progress but states and localities are making it difficult because of politics (claiming they weren’t given enough to implement) or they don’t have any plans to request the funds.

  2. Does anyone know why the gas tax was implemented as a flat fee rather than as a percentage? Was it the result of some dark compromise back in the 1950s?

  3. Does anyone know why the gas tax was implemented as a flat fee rather than as a percentage? Was it the result of some dark compromise back in the 1950s?

  4. It depends on what message the White House wants to go in. If they wanted to take a page from the Speaker’s handbook, they’d just say it’s a jobs bill in every other sentence about it. Perhaps a better term would be “pro-growth”. “This pro-growth transportation bill will grease the wheels of commerce and free businesses from gridlock caused by government medling and dithering.” (It doesn’t matter if that last bit makes sense; it sounds good!)

  5. I don’t know, but I suspect it was because gasoline prices tend to be very volatile, while the number of miles driven and gallons of gasoline consumed varies much less. Thus, a flat fee is a more steady source of income.

    Needless to say, they should have remembered to index it to inflation.

  6. I have no idea, but it does make sense. The price of gas shouldn’t really relate to how much it costs to operate a highway system, and it’s not like people can stop using it if the price goes up.

    If the price were to drop suddenly, you wouldn’t want to collect less, would you?

  7. i feel i need to remind ppl why increasing any gas tax is bad news when we are still recovering.

    “Prior to the turmoil in the Middle East, economists were forecasting 3.5% growth for 2011, but the surge in oil prices and gasoline to $4 per gallon will shave up to one percentage point from that outlook. For the entire year, growth in the range of 2.5% would be right on the razor’s edge of what is sustainable without the economy tumbling into recession from additional layoffs.”

    Its not just higher prices that would result of a gas tax. But a push of a recovering economy to fall back into recession. I mean, seriously, does anyboy want another recession, especially a double dip one? Do you folks remember the 70’s?

    I mean, seriously, why all the fascination of taxing everything? Yes, we do need to wean off oil, and drive less, but taxing it is not the solution. The free market is already pushing the high gas prices. The last thing you need is gov’t intervention to do its dirty work.

  8. carma – I don’t know how you can conclude that the free market is in play with gas prices. Auto transportation has been massively subsidized and hardly resembles a free market. Adjusting the gas tax to be more in line with the costs of auto transport will bring the situation a lot closer to the free market than the current system that is propped up with subsidies.

  9. Simple. The wear and tear you impose on the roads lines up pretty neatly with how many gallons you go through, regardless of how much you paid for those gallons. So a fixed cost per gallon reflects that nicely. What it doesn’t reflect is the increasing cost of road maintenance over the years, due to plain old inflation.

  10. folks, im clearly stating that an additional gas tax at this time of economic recovery is NOT a wise choice. do you folks seriously believe that any additional taxes recovered from a gas tax will really go to infrastructure and not other programs? last time i checked most states and the entire nation has some sort of deficit. gas tax that is Exclusively for building better infrastructure may be digestible but NOTHING, i repeat NOTHING the govt has done in terms of collecting revenue goes to that specific purpose.

    especially in terms of an unstable economy. it makes NO SENSE in raising any kind of tax. definitley if that tax breaks the economy into another recession.

    look, im not proposing we lower any gas tax, but tax and spend doesnt work. especially, if there is NO guarantee that any additional tax is used for infrastructuure

  11. I agree that an increase to the gas tax is not desirable and that there’s no way we can insist that it be targeted for transportation purposes. However, IF the congress insists that the new transportation bill “needs to pay for itself”, EITHER a gas tax increase is needed OR the transportation bill will need to be cut by one-third or more. IF the gas tax was index-linked to inflation OR if it was a percentage amount, there really would not be an issue.

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