Fixing the Senate’s Transportation Bill

Opposition has continued to mount against the House’s anti-transit, anti-safety federal transportation bill, to the point where House leaders admitted this week that the bill needed to be seriously revamped. While the House bill may be headed back to the drawing board, the Senate is likely to keep its MAP-21 transportation bill at the top of the agenda when Congress returns to work next week. However, important reforms to the Senate’s transportation bill are needed to make it as strong as possible.

Local Control of Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Funds

Safe Routes to School and Transportation Enhancements are important safety and economic development programs that are popular among local leaders but would be threatened under MAP-21. (Pictured: "Sidewalk audit" in Wharton, NJ, part of a Safe Routes to School project.)

Among the most important needed reforms to MAP-21 is an amendment offered by Senators Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi). The Cardin-Cochran amendment would restore local control of pedestrian and cycling programs like Safe Routes to School, Transportation Enhancements, and Recreational Trails. These are small programs (about 2% of federal transportation spending), but are popular with local municipalities because they improve safety and help support economic development.

Under MAP-21, these three programs are combined into an “Additional Activities” fund that is part of the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program. But state DOTs could “opt out” of this fund entirely: if states don’t use the funds for 18 months, they would be allowed to divert them to other projects.

The Cardin-Cochran amendment would ensure that local municipalities get first shot at the funds. A portion of the funds would be provided directly (“suballocated”) to the municipal planning organizations that coordinate federal transportation spending for regions with over 1 million people. Localities could apply for the rest of the funds through a competitive grant program. Leftover funds could be used by the state.

Green Freight

It appears that some, but not all, of the freight reforms passed by the Senate’s Commerce Committee last year will make it into the version of MAP-21 that the full Senate will debate.

The Commerce Committee’s language established performance-based criteria to evaluate freight projects, so that federal policy would incentivize projects that reduce shipping delays and improve safety, and reduce air, water, and noise pollution. It also created a competitive grant program for freight projects. This grant program has reportedly been removed from the compromise language to be added to MAP-21 next week, but the performance criteria will remain.

Under MAP-21, up to 10% of the National Freight Program and 5% of the Transportation Mobility Program can be used for freight rail and port projects. Combined with the performance criteria, this is a substantial improvement over the status quo, in which virtually no funding is available for rail or ports, and there is little accountability for how freight dollars are spent. An amendment offered in an earlier committee markup by New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg would further increase the funds which could be used for green freight projects; it was withdrawn during committee, and it’s not clear whether it will be offered on the Senate floor.

Transit-Oriented Development and Bridge Repair

An amendment sponsored by Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Warner would expand on the TOD provisions passed out of the Senate’s Banking Committee earlier this year. MAP-21 includes a small grant program which local municipalities can apply to for assistance in planning around their transit stations. The Bennet-Warner amendment would add a small loan program that would pay for public infrastructure like streets and sidewalks.

MAP-21 also includes strong provisions for repair, requiring that at least 60% of its largest funding program, the National Highway Performance Program, go toward repair and maintenance of the designated National Highway System. An amendment from Senators Al Franken (D-Minnesota) and Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) would allow states to use the other 40% of the program to repair bridges not on the National Highway System. This added flexibility would be especially useful in states with older infrastructure, like New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.

T4America is tracking these and other significant amendments to MAP-21 on its website.

Image: Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

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