What the Senate Transportation Bill Would Mean for Policy

The Senate's transportation reauthorization bill would greatly consolidate programs. (Click to view larger version of this graphic on T4America's website).

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate marked a major milestone, passing MAP-21 (S. 1813), its bill to reauthorize federal surface transportation programs. MAP-21 maintains road, transit, and Amtrak funds at roughly current levels, but includes several policy reforms that, on balance, would make transportation policy more accountable, environmentally sustainable, and efficient. In a statement, Transportation for America Director James Corless said that the Senate had “done the nation a great service in overcoming partisan gridlock to help Americans avoid literal gridlock.”

Here’s how MAP-21 would change federal transportation policy if it becomes law.

Fewer Programs, More Accountability, Freight

As MTR has previously explained, MAP-21 consolidates many of the existing road, bridge, and bike/pedestrian programs into five core programs:

  • The National Highway Performance Program, the largest of these, is focused on the National Highway System (the Interstates and other major roads). It includes incentives to hold states accountable for performing needed road and bridge repair and maintenance.
  • The Transportation Mobility Program, the second-largest, is a highly flexible program similar to the existing Surface Transportation Program (which is rolled into TMP as part of the bill’s program consolidation).
  • The National Freight Program, a new core program, would go to projects that improve the movement of goods. Up to 10% of this program’s funds could be spent on freight rail, as could 5% of the Transportation Mobility Program. In other words, hundreds of millions of dollars would now be available for freight rail improvements. MAP-21 includes national criteria that encourage freight projects that reduce bottlenecks, environmental problems, and local impacts.
  • The Highway Safety Improvement Program and Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ) are kept largely as is (except that the CMAQ program becomes the new home for pedestrian and bicycle projects; see below).

The Senate bill also, for the first time, includes national goals which commit the United States Department of Transportation to improve access to multiple travel options, reduce environmental and local impacts, and address congestion.

A Boost For Transit

MAP-21 includes several provisions that would boost public transportation.

It makes several changes to the New Starts program, the main federal program that pays for transit expansion projects, such as the Hartford-New Britain Busway in Connecticut and New York City’s Second Avenue Subway. It makes several administrative changes to reduce the time that New Starts projects take to make it through the pipeline. It also creates a new category for “core capacity” projects — major overhauls of existing transit infrastructure. This could be a significant boon for established systems such as those in our region. (See the Senate Banking Committee’s summary here).

The Senate bill also allows transit agencies to use some federal funds to pay for daily operations when unemployment is high. This flexibility will help agencies avoid fare hikes and service cuts during economic downturns when such measures would cause riders the most pain.

MAP-21 also creates a new $20 million/year program that would provide planning grants to municipalities that want to build around their transit stations.

MAP-21 would also permanently restore the transit commuter tax benefit, which fell from $230/month to $125/month in January. It would retroactively restore the benefit to $240/month, the same level that commuters can now receive for parking.

Bicycle/Pedestrian, Environmental Streamlining

As part of the program consolidation mentioned above, three pedestrian/bicycle programs — Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School, and Recreational Trails — are combined into one fund, the CMAQ “Additional Activities” fund, which is smaller than existing pedestrian/bicycle programs. However, MAP-21 also includes a complete streets provision that directs USDOT to create federal standards for the safe accommodation of all road users; this is waived in states with their own complete streets laws and policies, such as New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

The Senate’s bill includes several provisions to “streamline” the environmental review process that major projects receiving federal funds must go through. These should speed up projects, but as NRDC’s Deron Lovaas has said, there is some danger that they could lead to “hurried, mistake-prone reviews.” MAP-21 does not go nearly as far as the House’s proposed transportation bill, which would eviscerate needed environmental and citizen protections.

What’s Next?

MAP-21 is some way from becoming law, since the House must pass a companion bill and any differences between the two must be reconciled through conference committee. With the passage of MAP-21, a diverse group has called on House leadership to abandon their deeply flawed and controversial bill and pass something bipartisan, as the Senate has done. T4America has posted a comparison between the Senate and House bills on its website.

In an action alert to its e-subscribers, T4America said that “it’s time for the House to either work together to make bipartisan improvements to their bill, or take up the strong Senate bill, with key reforms, that was forged and approved with bipartisan support.” Tell your member of Congress to support a bill that will take federal policy forward by clicking here.

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