The more they see, the less they like: 10 reasons why opposition to the House transportation bill is growingFebruary 21, 2012
By Stephen Lee Davis
As the House prepares to take up its transportation bill next week, criticism is pouring in from a diverse range of transportation stakeholders, elected officials, health professionals, business and labor groups and public interest organizations. The bill also has drawn a rare veto threat from the Obama administration. As an editorial in New York’s Newsday last week summed it up: “Bad on transit, bad on safety, bad on the environment.”
As we’ve said on these pages many times, the country desperately needs a new transportation bill that provides robust funding and updates national priorities and policy for the needs of this century. But HR7 falls short in a number of key areas according to this growing chorus of groups, because the bill:
1. Ends three decades of dedicated federal funding for public transportation.
Despite significant stakeholder opposition (including a letter signed by over 600 organizations), House leaders propose to end a bipartisan agreement dating back to the Reagan administration and eliminate all dedicated federal funding for public transportation.
H.R. 7 would take from transit the small share of the federal gas it now receives, and replace that revenue with a one-time, lump sum transfer from the general fund — even though no one knows where all of that money will come from.
Critiques of this provision have been sharp and relentless. The Sacramento Bee called it “a radical change to U.S. transportation policy.” The Illinois Chamber of Commerce said it will “put hundreds of millions of dollars for transit in peril,” a warning that has reverberated among dozens of suburban Republican legislators in transit-rich regions across the country, including a number from the Chicago area who have started in the last week to speak out against the bill. And perhaps former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said it best of all: “A transportation bill without transit is no transportation bill at all. The nation’s millions of transit riders deserve better than this.”
(Image is the American Public Transportation Association’s ad in last week’s Beltway media outlets.)
2. Cuts overall transportation funding for nearly every state and relies on risky and speculative funding sources.
As anyone who has followed the surface transportation bill in Congress knows, the legislation is first and foremost about money. H.R. 7 threatens cuts to overall funding in just about every state and relies on drilling royalties, federal pension cuts and other undefined sources to make up the difference between gas tax revenues and the spending.
That’s drawn the ire of a growing chorus of interest groups, including some powerful state departments of transportation.
“H.R. 7 relies heavily on unproven funding sources,” wrote North Carolina DOT Secretary Gene Conti (pdf) in a letter to T&I Committee Chairman John Mica earlier this month. “According to the Congressional Budget Office, the combined shortfall of the Highway Trust Fund reaches approximately $50 billion in FY2016,” Conti said in the letter. “The energy portions designed to raise revenue…remain unpredictable.” And an unusual cross section of groups including NRDC, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Taxpayers Union wrote to every member of Congress last week with a simple message: “we urge you to reject the unprecedented linkage of drilling bills with the transportation law.”
3. Takes away local control, planning authority and resources.
While H.R. 7 is wrapped in the rhetoric of devolution and shifting power away from Washington, the bill is increasingly being criticized for concentrating power in the hands of the states rather than further empowering local governments and regional agencies.
In a strongly worded alert (pdf), the National Association of City Transportation Officials warned: “If enacted this terrible bill would give authority back to states from cities; provide maximum flexibility to state transportation departments to choose what transportation projects to fund without regard to the need of cities,” and flatline funding to metropolitan areas. Many local officials have expressed alarm over a provision allowing states to force major Interstate highway projects upon local communities, overruling local elected officials and citizens who have developed their own vision and comprehensive transportation plans.
4. Ends the “Safe Routes to School” program and other dedicated funding to make streets safer for walking and bicycling.
The House bill eliminates two small but overwhelmingly popular programs — Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School — that have helped communities do everything from revitalize their Main Streets to make it safer for kids from to walk and bicycle to school.
Effective and popular as they are, these two programs represent less than 2 percent of overall funding, even as they help to reduce the thousands of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths each year.
A growing coalition of public health organizations has also begun to seriously engage on the issue. The American Heart Association last week ran full-page ads in Beltway media (see right) defending the Safe Routes to School program, and joined a broad range of health groups including the American Public Health Association, Trust for America’s Health and the National Association of City and County Health Officials in pressing their case against HR7 through members alerts and letters to the Hill (pdf).
State DOTs have also started to weigh in with a strong defense of both programs. “Transportation Enhancements are an important component of our state transportation program,” wrote one DOT Secretary earlier this month to the state’s congressional delegation, “and should be preserved as a guaranteed program at the federal level.”
5. Eliminates the bridge repair program and offloads responsibility for thousands of deficient bridges to local governments.
Though we have more than 69,000 deficient bridges in our country — almost five times as many McDonald’s restaurants — the House bill eliminates the bridge repair program.
Unlike the counterpart bill in the Senate, it fails to require states to ensure their bridges meet an overall standard for state of good repair.
The House proposal leaves many bridges — federal-aid bridges not on the National Highway System — in a tenuous position. Previously these bridges were fixed with funding from the National Bridge Program but these funds have been put into the National Highway System program — a program where funds can only be used on a very limited subset of roadways, about 160,000 miles nationally out of 1 million miles of federal-aid highways.
6. Allows transportation money in a pollution-control fund to be used on new roadways for solo drivers.
The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program today is dedicated to help communities deal with two of the biggest outcomes of an excess of people driving alone at rush hour: air pollution and congestion. Congress declared clean air a national priority in the 1970s, and in 1991, lawmakers recognized that the way we use our roads contributes to air pollution and congestion problems in metro areas. So they created this small program giving states this funding to help provide other options, promote carpooling, or address other impacts of too many people driving alone at peak hour. A provision in H.R. 7’s section 1108 upends that intention by opening the fund to construction of regular highway lanes.
7. Requires more bureaucracy at transit agencies.
In addition to ending dedicated transit funding, H.R. 7 goes even farther to pull some funds from larger transit systems immediately. Transit providers that operate both bus and rail services would be barred from a program used to buy buses or build bus facilities.
As an ironic consequence, this could actually spur creation of new bureaucracies as agencies split themselves into separate bus and rail providers in order to qualify for this critical source of funds — approximately $900 million total. This needlessly diverts tax dollars to bureaucratic overhead that should be used to provide much-needed transit services to local communities.
8. Bets big on little-known “State Infrastructure Banks.”
Despite heaping criticism against the creation of a national infrastructure bank (an idea that just over a year ago drew broad bipartisan support), House leadership has crafted H.R. 7 to provide $750 million each year for the capitalization of state-level infrastructure banks.
If states fail to capitalize the banks (more than a dozen states currently don’t have banks), federal transportation funds would be automatically redistributed to other states.
This provision has only recently started to get any attention but questions are mounting. “Rather than bringing a tough, merit-based approach to funding, many State Infrastructure Banks are simply used to pay for the projects selected from the state’s wish list of transportation improvements, without filtering projects through a competitive application process,” explained Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Robert Puentes in a recent brief on state transportation policy. Michael Likosky, Director of NYU’s Center on Law & Public Finance, goes even further: “Unfortunately, the House Transportation bill chooses to increase spending on a State Infrastructure Bank program that benefits only a handful of states, reinforces siloed-off solutions, and would drive pension funds to nation-build overseas rather in America.”
9. Undermines basic safeguards to protect human health and the environment, and to give citizens a voice in the project review process.
Transportation for America, like many others who are promoting responsible reform, have put forward a number of ideas for improving and accelerating the project selection process so that moving them to construction can happen faster and more smoothly. But H.R. 7 has been sharply criticized for taking dramatic steps that would severely undermine the most basic environmental and citizen transparency safeguards.
As the New York Times editorialized: “(HR7) would demolish significant environmental protections by imposing arbitrary deadlines on legally mandated environmental reviews of proposed road and highway projects, and by ceding to state highway agencies the authority to decide whether such reviews should occur.” That criticism was echoed by Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber (pdf), who condemned the same provisions, warning in a letter to Oregon’s congressional delegation that “H.R. 7 goes about regulatory streamlining the wrong way, exempting most projects from NEPA review and classifying all projects within the right-of-way as categorically excluded from NEPA regardless of their impacts.”
10. Abandons any true “national” interest in transportation.
For anyone who believes that infrastructure investment is a national priority, and that America must be bigger than the sum of its 50 parts to compete in the global economy, H.R. 7 should be cause for alarm.
Gone are any and all national discretionary programs — no Projects of National and Regional Significance, no competitive TIGER program, no freight program. The Interstate highway program itself could never have been built if everyone in Montana was asked to pay for their own stretches of I-90 and I-15. It worked because it was and is a national system.
Just as the Port of LA/Long Beach moves goods through to the rest of the US, and the CREATE project in Chicago is alleviating freight rail bottlenecks so products can make it from coast to coast, there is an unmistakable need for a national strategy with national investments. Yet H.R. 7 abandons that concept, and with it may well be setting the stage for the federal government to back into a block-grant approach to transportation investments. That could put the nation on a perilous course towards abandoning any and all future federal investments in transportation.
Make no mistake, America desperately needs a new transportation bill – now more than ever.
But more and more stakeholders are quickly realizing that H.R. 7 isn’t it. Many organizations that — like T4America — have campaigned for several years for passage of a new transportation bill with robust funding are drawing the line at passing a bill like this for the sake of passing a bill. Labor organizations like the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), whose members need the jobs an updated program will create, have concluded that the House bill is a non-starter. “While LiUNA appreciates the effort of Chairman Mica to move a multi-year authorization with a higher funding level than was originally proposed,” wrote LiUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan in a letter to Speaker Boehner, “the product that has emerged is not one that we can support.”