Federal Transportation Bill a Disappointment, Leaving States to Take Up Mantle of Reform

Transportation advocates expressed disappointment at last week’s announcement of a new two-year federal transportation program that lacks long sought-after reforms (see Tri-State’s statements for New YorkNew Jersey, and Connecticut). While the bill maintains transit funding and avoids the worst cuts, it would make it harder for communities to provide input on major projects and improve street safety.

“While the bill allows the country to avoid a shutdown of transportation funding, it shuts down progress in many areas,” Tri-State executive director Veronica Vanterpool said in a statement. This disappointment was echoed by the Transportation For America reform coalition, with Director James Corless saying that the final deal “doesn’t begin to address the needs of a changing America in the 21st century.”

The bill does avoid the most extreme cuts supported by many in the House, thanks in large part to members of Congress from our region. Congressmembers from both sides of the aisle successfully defeated proposals to cut all dedicated funding for public transportation, walking, and cycling projects. But while the new legislation takes the name of the Senate’s bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), many of the Senate’s reforms were dropped during House-Senate negotiations.

MAP-21 would provide transportation funding through September 2014 at roughly current levels. Below is a preliminary overview of some of MAP-21′s provisions and how they compare with current law and the Senate bill:

Highway Programs Resist Reform

Superficially, the legislation reorganizes the transportation system under a similar structure to the Senate’s bill, consolidating the large number of federal programs which exist today into a smaller number of broad programs. But many of the Senate’s accountability and multimodal reforms have been stripped from the bill. Unlike the Senate’s bill, which had strong incentives for states to focus highway dollars on repair and maintenance, the conference legislation goes backwards from current law by dedicating virtually no funds to repair.

The bill’s treatment of freight is also disappointing. The Senate’s bill would have established a National Freight Program, a first-ever formula program providing funds for freight projects (including rail freight), but that was dropped from the bill. The bill does include some provisions establishing a national freight policy and designating a national freight network.

Transit Advances
The bill avoids cuts to transit and appears to significantly increase funding in New York (from $1.23 billion/year in FY12 to $1.43 billion in FY13 and $1.45 billion in FY14) and New Jersey (from $436M in FY12 to $507M in FY13 and $514M in FY14). In Connecticut, funding would go from $131M in FY12 to $144M in FY13 and $146M in FY14).

In addition, important transit reforms from the Senate’s bill survived the negotations, including:

  • Streamlining the New Starts program, which funds major expansion projects like the Second Avenue Subway and CTfastrak, by eliminating duplicative review steps and further streamlining projects under $100 million.
  • A new “core capacity” category for New Starts projects that allows grants for projects that improve existing corridors and increase capacity by at least 10%. New Starts had been restricted to new service in new corridors; this change recognizes that in regions with large existing systems, the most worthy improvements may be on the existing network.
  • A transit-oriented development planning program (at $10 million/year, down from $20 million/year in the Senate’s bill). This program would provide planning grants for municipalities that are benefiting from New Starts projects.

However, other transit reforms fell out of the bill. The Senate’s bill would have provided parity between the transit and parking commuter tax benefits. While the parking benefit is now $240/month, the transit benefit fell to $125/month at the beginning of the year, and this inequity will not be addressed in the final legislation. Also falling out of the bill were Senate measures to give transit agencies “targeted and temporary” flexibility to use some federal funds for operations during times of economic crisis.

Rollback of Pedestrian/Bicycle Funds, Environmental Review

Among the most disappointing aspects of the bill is its treatment of the small federal programs that fund pedestrian and bicycle projects. The Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School, and Recreational Trails programs are combined into a new “Transportation Alternatives” program that cuts funding by about a third ($1.1 billion went to these three programs last year; under MAP-21 $750 million will go to these projects in the new program).

The bill sends half of the funding from this program directly to metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), an improvement over current law because MPOs are generally more responsive to local needs. However, the bill makes the other half of this funding optional, allowing states to “opt out” of the program. Currently, less than 3% of federal transportation funding is dedicated for pedestrian and bicycle projects, and local communities rely on these small programs to improve safety and promote economic development.

While the bill avoids the wholesale gutting of environmental review proposed by the House, it does make several changes to the process that could make it harder for local communities to provide input on projects. For example, projects receiving less than $5 million in federal funds would be exempted from federal review (which might lead to states breaking larger projects into small pieces to avoid scrutiny). It also levies financial penalties on agencies if they do not meet certain milestones under arbitrary deadlines — which could lead to hasty, error-prone reviews, opening projects to lawsuits and additional delays or burdening communities with additional environmental costs.

TIFIA

The federal TIFIA loan program was greatly expanded, from $122 million to $750 million in fiscal year 2013 and $1 billion in fiscal year 2014. However, at the same time, legislators removed most of the criteria for judging applications to the program (these criteria had included environmental sustainability, project significance, use of public-private partnerships, and more), turning it into a rolling application program instead. Though changes to the program’s loan requirements make it easier for transit agencies to take advantage of the TIFIA program, the loss of criteria means that any project meeting the financial criteria would be accepted. For example, the first applications in line could be straightforward toll road projects from states in the South and Midwest.

Up to Municipalities and States to Lead

With a federal bill that provides stable funding but doesn’t include major reforms, advocates responded by calling on local and state leaders to take up the mantle of reform.

“While New York does avoid cuts, funding isn’t keeping pace with ridership increases,” NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign senior attorney Gene Russianoff said. Similarly, Bike Walk Connecticut Executive Director Kelly Kennedy said that, “With less help coming from Washington, ConnDOT must step up its commitment to safety.”

One of the most obvious ways for states to step up would be for them to promise they will not opt out of their federal pedestrian/bicycle funding, as the law allows.

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