Congress strips city-friendly parts out of transportation bill

Columnist argues that new transportation bill is a step backwards for cities.
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Snohomish County's Swift bus.

Columnist argues that new transportation bill is a step backwards for cities.

Last week, just before the expiration of the ninth temporary extension of the Surface Transportation law, which governs federal disbursement of gas tax revenues for transportation investment, Congress finally reached a deal to reauthorize it. The bill, passed by large majorities in both houses, will keep transportation spending at current levels through fiscal year 2014.

At first glance, the congressional compromise to renew the law for two years may sound like progress to urbanists. Infrastructure projects need to know they will be getting funding for a long enough period of time, and after years of short extensions they will get some of that certainty. The American Public Transportation Association, pleased just to get a guaranteed income stream for two years, lauded the bill, saying it “demonstrates that Congress and the Administration understand the important role public transportation plays in getting people to work and putting people to work.” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also praised it, claiming it constitutes some sort of jobs stimulus.

But the bill, which is certain to be signed by President Barack Obama, is a step backward for cities. The bill has many disappointing provisions, taken from the radical wish list of House Republican demands that could not even get passed by their House, but nonetheless took to the Conference Committee.

The resulting compromise disappoints transportation and smart growth advocates. In a statement, Smart Growth America said that the bill “fails to provide the kind of visionary, game-changing transportation reform America deserves.”

“It compromises safety, it is a step backwards in how we take care of and repair our roads and bridges, and it bypasses the kinds of innovative transportation solutions that we should expect out of a new transportation reauthorization,” said Smart Growth America President and CEO Geoffrey Anderson.

Here are some of the problematic rule changes:

  • Dedicated funding for repairing infrastructure, as opposed to building new roads, was eliminated.
  • Currently, there are several programs for improving walking and biking safety, such as the Transportation Enhancements program, the Recreational Trails program and Safe Routes to School. The Senate would have put those under one new program. The final bill will do the same, but will cut total funding for all of them by one-third. And while cities were hoping to receive more money directly — instead of having to beg often retrograde and rurally biased state departments of transportation for the funding — the states will now have even more flexibility on how or whether to use it.
  • At a time when mass transit use is increasing, transit agencies have been cutting services and raising fares because of the fiscal crisis in state and local governments. Larger transit systems are not allowed to use federal dollars for operating costs, but only for capital investments. The Senate bill would have allowed them, on an emergency basis, to use some of the money to keep operations going. The final bill does not include this sensible provision.
  • In a gratuitous snub to people who rely on mass transit, tax deductibility for transit expenses is being set at half the maximum for parking. For a while, both maxed out at $240 per month. Now they will be $125 for transit and still $240 for parking.

The bill makes no space for inter-city rail projects. What it does contain are some of the House GOP’s strategies for streamlining the environmental review of projects.

“House Republicans did everything they could to reduce, strip out or constrain non-highway spending — even the repair of highways [is diminished] — so that the impetus is speeding up construction and spending for highway building,” said David Goldberg, spokesman for Transportation for America. “It’s a short-sighted and backwards-looking policy. A new direction is called for, and this bill just completely ignored that and doubles down on the 1950s model.”


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