Federal Transportation Policy in 2012: Looking Back on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

At the beginning of the year, Congressional watchers were giving long odds against the possibility of a comprehensive transportation bill. The previous transportation law, SAFETEA-LU, had expired in 2009 and had been extended multiple times since then. But during the first half of 2012, Congress passed a new bill (MAP-21) — albeit one which funds the transportation system only through 2014, avoids the question of how to fund transportation, and goes backwards in key areas. Along the way, advocates worked with engaged local officials and champions in Washington to stave off the worst cuts and improve the federal bill.

The Good

Equal Tax Treatment for Transit Riders – At the beginning of the year, public transit commuters found themselves with the short end of the stick. The amount of pre-tax income that commuters could use for transit fell to $125/month from $230, while the amount that could be used for parking rose to $240. This was a de facto tax hike on transit riders in the region. Despite strong effort from advocates, a permanent fix didn’t make it into MAP-21. But the transit benefit was extended as part of the fiscal cliff deal passed at the beginning of 2013. The provision offers economic relief for transit riders and should lower the cost of doing business in transit-rich areas. When employees use the benefit, their employer saves on federal payroll taxes.

Transit funding and TIGER – MAP-21, despite its flaws, avoids cuts to transit and actually increases federal transit funding in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The tri-state area also benefited from TIGER grants that will fund projects in Rochester, the Bronx, northern New Jersey and Hartford.

The Bad

Federal Inaction When the Region Needs it Most – After Hurricane Sandy devastated the tri-state region, the Senate took action on a recovery package, passing a bill in December with $12 billion in transportation funds (including $10.8 billion for public transit) to repair damage and help the region prepare for future storms. But House Speaker Boehner cancelled a vote on the House’s version of the package before the end of the session, infuriating elected officials from New York and New Jersey. The House has scheduled a January 15 vote on a bill including transportation aid, but the new session means that the Senate must vote again on a recovery package.

The Ugly

The Long Road to a Short Transportation Bill – In February, House leadership unveiled HR7, a backwards vision for the country that would have cut total transportation funding by a third, completely eliminated pedestrian and bicycle safety programs, and ended dedicated funding for public transportation. Advocates across the country and in our region pulled out the stops, and mayors and business leaders weighed in, leading to a bipartisan outcry. House leaders, unable to muster the votes to pass the bill, eventually pulled it from the floor.

Meanwhile, concerted work helped lead to a substantially better bill in the Senate. In March, advocates celebrated passage of a bill that would have created a new freight program that could be used for rail, boosted local control of pedestrian and bicycle safety funding, and sped up the review process for new transit projects.

Unfortunately, large parts of the Senate bill were undone (the freight program) or watered down (local control of pedestrian and bike funds) as the House and Senate negotiated in a conference committee. The result was MAP-21, which avoided the worst cuts and included transit reforms, while cutting pedestrian and bicycle funding by roughly 30 percent and making it harder for communities to provide input on major projects. President Obama signed the legislation into law in June.

As advocates explained at an October conference in New Jersey, MAP-21 begins to lay the groundwork for a performance-based transportation system. But if the federal government defines performance measures in the wrong way, federal policy could end up incentivizing counterproductive road widenings. States, too, have important decisions to make, because they retain broad flexibility over how to spend federal dollars. States and metropolitan planning organizations also need to maintain pedestrian and bicycle funding in the face of MAP-21’s cuts.

What to expect in 2013

The 2012 elections returned President Obama to office, increased the Democratic majority in the Senate, and reduced the Republican majority in the House. This could mean continued gridlock in Congress, but it also means sustainable transportation should remain a priority for the US Department of Transportation under Secretary Ray LaHood.

Two freshmen lawmakers from our region–Reps. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY)–were named to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The committee also will have new leadership, with Rep. John Mica (R-FL) stepping down and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) taking the gavel. Shuster immediately signaled a willingness to explore new sources of transportation revenue, but advocates have worried about his support for privatization of Amtrak and hostility towards pedestrian and bicycle programs.

Other major transportation issues that will come before Congress in 2013 include:

Sequestration. The fiscal cliff deal reached at the start of the year settled tax rates, but it pushed off sequestration until March. If Congress does not take action before then, sequestration cuts would impact Amtrak, the New Starts transit program, and other sustainable transportation programs.

Passenger rail. One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts has been major investment in high-speed rail, but the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), which has set rail policy since 2008, expires in October. Congress needs to act to extend funding for rail, so projects like the Gateway Tunnel between New York and New Jersey and the second phase of the New Haven-Springfield Rail Line between Connecticut and Massachusetts can move forward.

A new transportation bill. MAP-21 funds federal transportation programs through September 30, 2014, so Congressmembers will have to begin work on a successor bill soon. Finding ways to fund the bill will drive the debate. One existing source, the federal gas tax, has not been raised since 1993 and no longer brings in enough revenue.

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