Senate committee takes positive steps for freight, multimodalism, performance and safer streetsDecember 14, 2011
By Stephen Lee Davis
|Sen. Rockefeller, Senate Commerce Committee Chair (USA Today photo)|
The Senate Commerce Committee this morning passed a bill to create and implement goals and objectives for the overall transportation bill, update our federal freight transportation policy, and an amendment to help ensure that federal dollars help build streets that are safe for all users.
As a refresher, there are four committees that share most of the responsibility for the bill in the Senate, with the Commerce Committee covering safety and freight, as well as a few other components. Today’s bills (including others not mentioned) represent the majority of this committee’s contribution to the overall Senate transportation bill.
Many components of Senator Lautenberg’s FREIGHT Act, which we’ve been supporting since its introduction in 2010, were passed out of committee as a part of S. 1950 today. It would create a coordinated national policy for freight and ports across the country.
The FREIGHT Act was combined with a separate bill about performance goals and objectives to become the Surface Transportation and Freight Policy Act. These two proposals both had language on measuring performance – one focused on the freight system and the other on the entire surface transportation network.. The combined bill melds performance goals and objectives from both bills to see if we’re really spending money wisely across our whole system, not just freight.
This bill will establish national policy objectives and goals for the transportation system. It explicitly covers key indicators such as congestion, road condition, reducing environmental impacts, improving the reliability of freight movement, increasing access to transit, and reducing traffic fatalities across all modes. It directs the Secretary to create a national strategic plan for surface transportation and freight and examine all transportation programs for their consistency with these goals and objectives, evaluating and reporting on that every two years.
There’s also a multimodal grant program for freight infrastructure projects focused on bottlenecks, areas of congestion and other key freight needs. The projects are selected by criteria that support many of the same goals and objectives listed above.
The FREIGHT Act was passed out of committee on a party line vote. Republican Senators had asked for more time to review the legislation and raised concerns about the potential impact on the Highway Trust Fund. However, EPW Chairman Barbara Boxer, a member of the Commerce Committee, spoke up in support of Senator Lautenberg’s amendment and assured the Committee that the program wouldn’t impact the trust fund. “I support what Senator Lautenberg is doing with this,” she told her fellow Committee members.
Senator Begich introduced an amendment to “ensure that the design of Federal surface transportation projects provides for the safe and adequate accommodation…of all users of the transportation network,” which passed on a unanimous voice vote after it was amended.
Under this bill, USDOT will work with states to develop standards to ensure that any surface transportation project built with federal funds provides safe and adequate accommodation for all users. Senator Thune offered an amendment to this that would give states discretion as to what is safe and adequate. States have the option of developing their own standards which would then apply instead of the federal standards. This will help states have been leading the way on policies to improve street design.
The Commerce Committee could take up other key provisions in 2012 related to intercity passenger rail, the TIGER program and an Infrastructure Bank, but this morning’s provisions are now done and will join MAP-21 and the pending Banking Committee markup in awaiting floor action in the Senate.