House Transportation Bill a Status Quo Disappointment

Image: house.transportation.gov

With all the chaos in Washington these days, many had given up hope that lawmakers would be able to pull together a long-term transportation authorization. On Thursday, prospects seemed to grow brighter: with a 363-to-64 vote, the House passed a six-year, $325 billion federal highway bill, which they’re calling the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act (STRR) Act. If enacted, this would be the first long-term transportation law in a decade, finally giving states and cities the breathing room they need to plan their transportation futures.

But unfortunately, as the dust settles, the final product seems to be nothing more than a “status quo” disappointment that locks in bad policy for the next six years and fails to address the need for new, sustainable revenue sources.

There were a few small bright spots, but they were outweighed by a myriad of missed opportunities:

  • Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA): While the TIFIA financing program was one of the best features of MAP-21, its funding was cut by 80 percent in STRR, from $1 billion to $200 million. On the bright side, the house bill does lower the minimum cost of projects from $25 million to $10 million, enabling more communities to access this smaller pot of low-cost loans.
  • Freight: TIFIA’s loss was freight’s gain. A new, $725 million-per-year discretionary “multi-modal” freight grant program was included in the bill, but it comes with one big caveat: it’s not really multi-modal. Only 10 percent of the funds can be spent on non-highway projects, hamstringing the ability of states to find the best solution for their freight issues. There is some good news though: an amendment which would have increased the weight limit of commercial trucks from 80,000 pounds to 91,000 pounds—compromising safety on our roads while causing more wear and tear—was successfully defeated.
  • Local Control: The Davis-Titus amendment, which would have given communities of all sizes more control and better access to federal dollars, and which had the most bi-partisan support of any amendment, was not even allowed to come up for a vote in rules committee.
  • Transit-Oriented Development (TOD): An amendment that would have enabled TOD projects to be eligible under the Railroad Rehabilitation Improvement Financing program (RRIF) failed. The smaller TOD planning grants—$10 million per year—which help communities build smart development projects survived the knife.
  • Other Transit Funding: While the traditional 80-20 formula split between highways and transit was retained, transit funding got dinged in a couple of important ways:
    • New Starts/Small Starts Programs: Highway projects will still have 20 percent local-dollar match, but new transit capital projects will face a steeper, 50 percent local match. This move disproportionately impacts smaller and poorer communities, given that larger communities are already kicking in close to 50 percent in local dollars. On top of that, once-flexible Surface Transportation Program funds also won’t be eligible for transit projects. On the upside, a successful amendment, put forward by Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York and others, partially fixes the problem by enabling CMAQ funds to be used as part of the local match, effectively increasing the federal portion above 50 percent.
    • High Density Program: This program, which provides transit aid to the seven states that collectively account for 50 percent of the nation’s public transit riders (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia), will be slashed by $1.6 billion over six years.
  • Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP): This program, which provides the most significant source of funds for walking and biking projects, was not significantly changed from a policy perspective—despite threatening amendments—but funding was capped at $819 million per year, while all other programs will increase with inflation.
  • Complete Streets: A complete streets provision, which enjoyed strong support from AARP, was adopted, and will ensure that more of our transportation projects are considering all users of the road.
  • Gas Tax: Despite House Speaker Paul Ryan’s promise to have a more open legislative process, discussion on sustainable revenue sources were squashed: a vote was allowed to cut the gas tax by 15 cents (defeated 118-310), but the vote to raise the tax was blocked.
  • Extra $40 Billion?: In a surprise move late Wednesday night, an amendment was passed that adds an additional $40 billion, from a Federal Reserve capital account, and provides the potential for the full six years of the transportation bill to be funded.

There is still the opportunity for improvements as the House and Senate reconcile the differences in their bills through conference. The House conference committee was chosen Thursday, and there are three representatives on that committee from the tri-state area: Albio Sires of New Jersey and John Katko and Jerrold Nadler from New York.

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