What’s in Rep. Mica’s outline of the House transportation bill?July 8, 2011
By Stephen Lee Davis
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leadership released a 22-page outline of their upcoming transportation reauthorization proposal yesterday. (Read our statement here.)
The outline indicates that the full bill cuts overall transportation funding by 35 percent and removes the requirement to spend a small fraction on bike and pedestrian facilities. The current balance between highway and transit funding will be maintained (according to comments at yesterday’s briefing) and the outline proposes several key reforms and includes performance measures and accountability.
Here is our short analysis of the 22-page outline released yesterday — though details such as funding levels for programs or specific performance measures were not included in the outline, limiting the analysis.
While it’s more critical than ever to very clear about the goals of a bill of this size, the outline says little about what the federal transportation program should accomplish. In our view, a bill this small would need to be constrained to three key goals:
- Maintaining our system of existing highways and bridges, which is quickly approaching its mid-life crisis;
- Providing more options such as public transportation, van pools and safer streets for bicyclists and pedestrians; and
- Promoting accountability through meaningful performance measures and a more strategic approach to transportation planning.
Hit the jump to read the full analysis
The outline indicates that spending will be limited only to the revenues deposited into the highway trust fund. Assuming this level is in line with Rep. Ryan’s budget figures this would mean a 35% cut in FY2012 from FY09 highway funding levels. This would result in the loss of approximately 630,000 jobs in FY12 according to the FHWA. Over 6 years, a $230 billion bill represents a 19.5% cut from the $286 billion in the last transportation bill (SAFETEA-LU), not accounting for the impact of inflation.
Mica’s outline proposes to eliminate the small percentage of funds that is dedicated to providing safer ways to walk and bicycle, though Mica has said states would not be prohibited from investing federal funds on bicycle and pedestrian projects. The outline also says that, “States will be provided flexibility to spend funding on projects they choose.” However, states typically have not been able to invest most federal transportation funds on freight or passenger rail. Will the flexibility provided in the proposal extend to both transit and rail?
Chairman Mica and committee staff verbally indicated that transit will maintain its historic 20/80 percent share of the transportation program – though with less money overall in this smaller bill. The outline says that the proposal will increase funds for rural and suburban transit but is does not say where these funds will come from or, said differently, who will lose funds. It also notes that the New Starts process will be streamlined to cut project development in half but does not describe how this will be accomplished. In addition, Committee staff indicated that the proposal will modify the New Starts evaluation criteria to reward projects with private-sector partners.
House committee staff confirmed that states will be held accountable for decisions through performance measures, which could be a significant step forward – depending on how the measures work. If these measures only consider congestion and mobility, for example, will states be required to build larger highways without consideration of equity and environmental impacts? It is important that these performance measures are connected to improved system performance. If they are not, these measures simply become a tool to highlight the impact of past decisions, both good and bad.
State of Good Repair
It is unclear how the House proposal will address our nation’s growing highway and bridge repair needs to help save taxpayers dollars. With less money to spend, it is especially important that we prioritize repair and rehabilitation of the existing transportation network. Currently almost 12% of our bridges are in need of repair and close to 50% of our major highways are rated below “good” condition.
Focus on Limited Number of Highways
The outline says that the highway program will focus on “Interstate Highways and the National Highway System.” While it is unclear exactly what this provision means, it could result in a significant reduction in flexibility for states and regions. Today, states and regions can invest federal funds in a number of major highways. If funds were restricted to routes on the National Highway System it would reduce the number of highways states can invest in by 83.5%. A restriction of this nature would result in Washington pre-determining the best solution for local communities across the country.
The outline indicates that the proposal will consolidate and eliminate nearly 70 of the existing 100 transportation programs. Consolidation of the transportation programs can help improve performance if it is done right. With increased flexibility states and regions should be given increased responsibility to demonstrate that they are using taxpayers’ funds in a wise manner that reduces congestion and pollution while improving economic development and quality of life
Leveraging Federal Resources
The outline says the proposal will expand the TIFIA federal loan program, a program that provides credit assistance for infrastructure projects by providing loan security to encourage private investment. This expansion should ensure that transit can meaningfully participate in any new financing options, include a regional program focus, and include incentives for regions to help themselves (such as in the enhanced TIFIA program outlined in Los Angeles’ 30-10 Initiative). In addition, it will be key to find ways to encourage private sector participation in transportation projects, including partnering with developers to help advance transportation projects.
The outline contains several provisions related to accelerating project delivery, focusing on reducing the environmental review process. While the environmental review process can be improved, it is imperative that the integrity of environmental protection and public input is maintained. Only 7% of projects go through a true environmental review process (environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement). If the intent is to speed up the completion of transportation projects, other processes outside NEPA should be targeted for improving project delivery, like design-build or delegation of design exceptions to state engineers.
Rail and Amtrak
The proposal does not provide any specific funding for high-speed rail. It will make high-speed rail an eligible project under the existing Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program that provides loans for rail projects. However it is not clear what revenue sources can be used to repay these loans. The proposal says that Amtrak’s operating funds will be cut by 25 percent in the first two years. In addition, the proposal puts limits on Amtrak’s use of federal funds. It is unclear what these limits are and what activities would not be allowed.