House Transportation Bill “a March of Horribles”

Highways 'n' pipelines: The cover page to the House transportation bill brochure. Image: ##

There was no grand unveiling of the House’s five-year transportation bill today, but a summary of the bill has been kicking around for a few days. While there aren’t any hard numbers available yet, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act looks like a return to 1950s-style transportation policy. It is particularly unkind to transit and bike/ped programs, and to cities in general.

The bill’s overarching themes, again in the absence of official language, seem to be:

  • Funneling as much money as possible to highways
  • Giving even more power to spend that money to state DOTs, not cities and metro regions
  • Shortening the environmental review process
  • Eliminating programs “that do not have a federal interest,” which apparently includes all dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs
  • Doing away with discretionary transit programs, which would spell the end for the very successful TIGER
  • Augmenting gas tax revenue with a yet-unspecified revenue stream from oil and gas drilling

One example the summary gives of a project not in the federal interest is the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, which distributed four $25 million grants “to demonstrate how improved walking and bicycling networks can increase rates of walking and bicycling.” One of those grants went to Minneapolis, which is making great strides in promoting biking and walking. If reauthorized at current levels, NTPP would account for 0.04 percent of the bill’s total appropriations.

The “flexibility” afforded states to minimize spending on bike/ped and transit, as well as the bill’s reliance on oil drilling, have advocates outraged. The Sierra Club’s Jesse Prentice-Dunn told Streetsblog that the bill represents “a significant step backwards for safe biking and walking.”

“Americans are looking for transportation choices that can conveniently get them where they need to go without polluting the planet,” Prentice-Dunn said. “Today more than 12 percent of trips are made by foot or bike, yet less than 2 percent of our nation’s transportation funding goes towards biking and pedestrian infrastructure. According to the Alliance for Biking and Walking, bike commuting increased 57 percent between 2000 and 2009. Instead of increasing investment in transportation options that Americans want, the House bill appears to funnel more dollars towards roads, further deepening our addiction to oil.”

The bill would also cut Amtrak’s operating subsidy by 25 percent in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, would keep existing lanes on the interstate highway system toll-free, and would allow states to use up to 15 percent of their total highway funds to capitalize state infrastructure banks (currently the maximum is 10 percent).

Deron Lovaas, Federal Transportation Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Streetsblog that the bill “looks uninspiring at best, giving states a lot of authority without a lot of accountability.”

“The language about curtailing environmental reviews is alarming, but it’s probably the tip of the iceberg compared to what we’d see in the bill itself. It’s a march of horribles… and they’ll go much further than the Senate in eliminating environmentally beneficial programs,” Lovaas said. “I can’t help but conclude that the house Republican leadership has hijacked the transportation bill and shattered the idea of bipartisanship in transportation policy making.”

The new date for the full bill’s unveiling is next Tuesday, January 31.

18 thoughts on House Transportation Bill “a March of Horribles”

  1. Seeing as how the federal government is currently responsible for a significant portion of healthcare spending, and will only be taking on greater health liabilities in the future, I would say it is incontrovertible that encouragement of healthy transportation modes is “in the federal interest.”

  2. Someone really ought to call the Republican Party on the “biking” aspect.  It is one of many cases, in both political parties, where they serve their special interests and not their ideologies.

    So they claim to be about self reliance and limited government.  Bicycle infrastructure costs almost nothing, and unlike transit does not involve unionized public employees.  Biking is done by individuals.  It also does not require a whole government-related apparatus to protect the international fuel chain.  It is the very essence of self reliance.

    Someone should get Ron Paul on the case.

  3. Apparently Ray La Hood was “surprisingly” pessimistic about a transportation bill making it through congress this year, while others saw a lot of progress last year, with lots of committee hearings scheduled for the next two months.  Now we see why.  The house bill won’t pass the senate and the senate bill won’t pass the house. 

  4. Or taken to logical Constitutionalist extreme, the federal government should pay for no more than the 10 feet of rail, trail, road, highway, & bridge at and between state lines. The rest is up to the state.

  5. There really ought to be a rule preventing the use of titles on bills—just call it “House Bill #98734” or whatever.

    Titles like “Defense of American Patriots and Puppies Act” (e.g. for a bill that funds a golf course built on top of a wild-life preserve) are not only cringe-inducing, they’re often actively harmful, providing a bright candy-coating for something vile.  [People might object “it’s just a thin shell!” but in the fluffy world of politics, thin shells go a longgggg way… “My opponent voted in opposition to the Defense of American Patriots and Puppies Act!  Do you really want to support somebody that hates patriotism and puppies?!”]

  6. Wow. Talk about a “Red House”! This proposal is horrible. We keep subsidizing highways but people whine like crazy when someone breathes the idea of rail subsidies. They’re too many cars on the roads anyways.

  7. This is the House bill, of course, so the Democratic Senate will still have a chance to modify the bill to clean up some of the damage done to alternative transportation.

    On the other hand, I fully support a greater reliance on state DOTs.  We should just block-grant the Highway Trust Fund back to the states.  The only Federal role would be making sure each state gets its fair share, as defined by their contributions INTO the fund.

    If transit/bike/ped advocates want funding, it should come from the state house, not from the Feds.  It’s easier to do that anyway – you can appear in person instead of hiring a lobbyist.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with “50 different policies” for transportation, so long as there’s a basic standard of maintenance on the Interstates.

  8. ardecila, as a practical matter, the state DOTs follow the guidance of the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) in order to avoid liability. Changing the rules at the federal level is necessary, even though in theory donor states like CA, IL, NY could just reallocate their own money better.

  9. How about calling the House bill what it really is: the “Exxon Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act,” since (a) the oil industry owns the Republican Party and (b) the bill ensures dependence on oil companies for the foreseeable future.

  10. @5b59af4c26eb545a1c87035e2e0d5d31:disqus ? You must live in a state where the DOT is somewhat enlightened. In most states, handing the DOT a blank check and looking the other way, is the worst outcome possible. Without performance measures, state DOTs have *zero* accountability. 

  11. “making sure each state gets its fair share, as defined by their contributions INTO the fund”–ALL 50 STATES get more Federal highway money than they contribute in terms of motor fuels taxes. How is this possible? Massive subsidization from the General Fund. Since Uncle Sam is already in the business of spending tens of billions of everyone’s income tax dollars a year to benefit the roughly 50% of the entire population with valid driver’s licenses (yes, that stat is correct, check it out), the Federal government absolutely has a legitimate interest in how those dollars are spent.

  12. The article author and many of the people who commented are not themselves enlightened. How do you think all of your favorite goods get delivered to your friendly neighborhood stores? It’s mainly via trucks on the highways and roads! Wake up!
    Secondly, the people talking about the lack of walking and bike funding are ridiculous – this is an infrastructure bill that will help to drive our economy. Do you really think bikes and walking will in any significant way add to our GDP? Again, wake up!
    Lastly, to put in perspective the magnitude of the effect of investing in infrastructure, just look at how much funding China has spent on its infrastructure. They seem to realize that this matters big time to be a major economic power.

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