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Senate Committee rolls forward with speedy markup of six-year transportation bill

In a committee markup where the phrase “doing the Lord’s work” was invoked by numerous members on both sides of the aisle, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee sped through a markup of their draft six-year transportation bill in less than an hour this morning, approving it by a unanimous vote with no amendments, save for a manager’s package of amendments agreed to in advance.

One thing was abundantly clear from the beginning of this morning’s committee markup of the DRIVE Act: the EPW Committee members are eager to get their portion of the bill completed and moved forward as soon as possible.

Led by Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the committee opened with remarks of praise from Senators. From our vantage point most committee members sounded delighted to support the six-year bill with slightly increased funding levels over MAP-21.

“There’s no reason we can’t do this now if it’s a priority. We need to prove it’s a priority by passing this full six-year bill,” said Senator David Vitter (R-LA).

Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) was one of the first to bring up the elephant in the room. “The next challenge is to figure out how to pay for it,” he said. While that issue is out of EPW’s hands (Senate Finance and House Ways and Means will address the funding question), they did briefly discuss some possibilities. “One of the ideas I’ve heard consistently is to find a way to fix our roads and bridges and transit systems in a more cost-effective way,” Sen. Carper added.

The head of the Senate Finance Committee is Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). During his remarks in the markup, EPW Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said, “I saw Senator Hatch in the hallway on the way over, and I said, you gonna find our money? And he said ‘yes.'”

It was certainly encouraging that there was no vocal opposition to any of the positive improvements this bill makes over its predecessor: providing all Transportation Alternatives program (TAP) funding to local governments, considering the needs of all users when designing and constructing road projects, changing the cost thresholds to enable more local governments have access to low-cost federal loans, providing support to smart transit-oriented development, or allowing cities to use the innovative NACTO street design manual even if their state does not allow it, along with a few others.

Though some members, just like us at T4America, are still hoping to improve the bill further, especially in providing better access and a greater share of funds for local governments of all size.

A handful of members referenced amendments or provisions they hoped to incorporate into the bill, but none were formally offered or voted on. Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) spoke briefly about the Innovation in Surface Transportation Act, sponsored by himself and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), which would create a small grant program in each state to give local communities of all size greater access to federal transportation funds to complete merit-based projects.

“It’s been something that local officials have been very excited about, very hopeful about, and I’m sure there will be some disappointment that it’s not in the manager’s mark,” Wicker said. “It’s a worthy suggestion and a worthy project not to increase one penny of the spending in this bill, but to set aside a small portion of this bill” for this program to award dollars to local communities based on a competitive process to judge them on the merits.

That manager’s mark (a single group of amendments) makes a few small improvements. A small program of demonstration grants to “accelerate the deployment and adoption of transportation research” was amended to ensure local communities and metropolitan planning organizations were eligible for them — not just states.

Another change in the manager’s amendment will ensure that 100 percent of the $850 million TAP funding that helps make walking and biking safer will be be distributed to and spent in local communities. A provision in the draft bill allowing states to “flex” 50 percent of that funding to other needs was struck — guaranteeing that all $850 million will be spent on local priority projects to improve biking and walking. And a small change was made to take safety into account when designing any projects on the National Highway System.

Senator Boxer was delighted at the unanimity from the Committee.

“I’m just so happy after hearing comments from everyone. Yes there will be struggles about how to pay, but Eisenhower said it well: we can’t be a secure nation unless we have an infrastructure that works.”

The Committee approved the bill by a unanimous vote, but the Senate Banking, Commerce and Finance Committees still have to draft and vote on their portions of the bill. With the July 31 expiration of MAP-21 (and the insolvency of the transportation trust fund) looming, it’ll be an uphill battle to get a full bill passed by the Senate before the deadline, but we will be watching closely.

Members can read our full summary of the EPW bill below.

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4 Comments

  1. Jenise Fryatt

    2 years ago

    Great post on a welcome development in transportation funding. The International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association (for which I act as social media manager) has issued a letter applauding the Senate ETW committee for their work on the six-year DRIVE bill. http://buff.ly/1Lo9Vb4

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