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The good, the bad, and the ugly in the Senate’s long-term transportation bill

19 Aug 2019 | Posted by | 8 Comments | ,

Last month, the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works passed a long-term transportation policy bill. Unfortunately, billions of new dollars for the existing system overshadow its notable new programs, like a climate title and Complete Streets requirements. 

Vehicles moving slowly on a congested highway in Seattle. The highway crosses a narrow river.

Highway traffic in Seattle. Photo by Oran Viriyincy on Flickr.

The transportation authorization bill, known as America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA), includes a few new, notable, programs related to Transportation for America (T4America) initiatives. But overall, it fails to meaningfully address the maintenance backlog, ensure safety, or create a system built around providing access to jobs and services. 

The new climate and safety programs, while welcome additions, will be undercut by substantial funding increases for high-speed roadways in the base formulas without any additional constraints to improve safety, measure or reduce vehicle miles traveled, and prioritize access to jobs and opportunities. 

The good: A pilot program for transportation accessibility data and Complete Streets requirements

We’ve long advocated for measuring the success of our transportation system based on whether it, and any new investment, improves connections to jobs and important destination by all modes of travel. After all, this should be the goal of transportation. 

That’s why we’re happy that the ATIA includes a provision based on the bipartisan COMMUTE Act. The “Accessibility Data Pilot Program” would establish a pilot program to provide states, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and rural MPOs with the data and training to improve transportation planning by measuring the level of access by multiple transportation modes to important destinations (such as  jobs, health and child care, education, affordable housing, food sources, and connections to transit, bicycling, and ADA compliant sidewalks). This is a small but necessary first step toward reorienting the federal transportation program toward connecting people to jobs and services.

The bill also includes significant new formula and discretionary safety programs and language encouraging states and planning organizations to adopt Complete Streets designs and plans, tactics that are proven to improve safety for all road users. Specifically, the ATIA requires that 2.5 percent of state and MPO planning funds must be used for adopting Complete Streets standards or policies or developing Complete Streets prioritization plans, active transportation plans, transit access plans, transit-oriented development plans, or regional intercity rail plans.

However, historically programs like these are funded at low levels while 10-20 times as much is made available for status quo transportation, and this makes it impossible for these programs to make a mark on the system.  We see the same thing happening here. 

The bad: No requirement to maintain roads 

“We must fix our crumbling infrastructure” is a Washington, DC cliche. But it wouldn’t be a cliche if we actually did it. The ATIA will not be the bill that requires state DOTs to take repair seriously. 

The bill does not include any requirements that the core formulas or new programs must be spent on maintenance instead of expansion. Its only maintenance program—the Competitive Bridge Investment Program—represents a small amount of the overall funding and does nothing to change the way the rest of the formula funds are used. In fact, one of the eligible uses of this maintenance program is to address increasing traffic; this means expanding and widening roads. Further, there is nothing in this program that rewards states for putting more of their other formula funds to maintenance. DOTs get the same amount of money even if they use the rest of their funds for expansion.

Granted, the bill makes funding from some of the new programs eligible for maintenance and limits funding to projects that do not create new single occupancy vehicle capacity. But the maintenance impact of these funds will be limited as they are also available for a variety of other investments. 

The only way to actually reduce our backlog of maintenance needs is to require that funds are spent on maintenance, not anything else, until DOTs make real progress in reducing their backlog. Maintenance is too important to let states and MPOs opt-out.  

T4A expects Congress to design the national transportation program to reduce the maintenance backlog by half in the next six years. We are tired of hearing the same calls for fixing our crumbling roads and bridges as justification for ever more funding before every reauthorization and not seeing substantial progress.

The ugly: Congress has—once again—stuck to the status quo

Redesigning our national transportation policy is a powerful opportunity that comes only once every five years. By choosing what grant programs to invest in, Congress can massively influence what transportation projects states, MPOs, and cities build for decades. 

And once again, Congress missed its window. Despite including a climate title for the first time ever—a huge feat for a Republican-led Senate—and a new safety incentive program, the ATIA puts the bulk of its funding into programs that incentivize the building of high-speed roads. This negates the funding for the climate and safety programs  because high-speed roads are dangerous by design and increase transportation emissions. Here’s how. 

Vehicles need a lot of space to reach high speeds. Building communities where vehicles can go fast means building destinations spread far apart from each other—the suburban sprawl that many Americans are intimately familiar with. In these sprawling built environments, using any transportation mode besides a personal car becomes incredibly inconvenient and deadly (our report Dangerous by Design found that almost 50,000 people were killed while walking and biking between 2008 and 2017, and that number is rising). Hence, high-speed roads are both dangerous for pedestrians and encourage driving and increase vehicle miles traveled—which increases greenhouse gas emissions. 

Governments at all levels use vehicle speeds as a poor proxy for measuring how connected people are to destinations, like jobs, schools, and grocery stores. But high vehicle speed doesn’t mean that people actually reached their destination in a reasonable time. Our current federal transportation program prioritizes funding a 90 mile commute at 60 mph rather than a five mile commute in stop-and-go traffic. But which commute would you rather have? 

By continuing to prioritize new high-speed roads, the ATIA doesn’t focus on the outcomes of its investments. It doesn’t prioritize connecting people to jobs and services. 

Finally, the bill perpetuates the false notion that highways are the most important transportation mode. In keeping with recent  history, Congress has advanced a major highway bill before either of the Congressional committees dealing with rail and transit have even begun to act. At $287 billion over five years, this bill assumes more than the lion’s share of available funding for highways.

8 Comments

  1. j m bush

    1 year ago

    For those of us who do not drive or have access to a private vehicle, this bill is a step in the WRONG DIRECTION. As the photo of Seattle traffic shows, we have serious problems with traffic congestion–and it’s not getting any better (I should know–I LIVE in Seattle and that photo’s at least two or three years old!). If we are going to spend more money on transportation, that money needs to be spent on the following before it is spent on new or expanded roadways:

    1. Fixing the roads we already have, many of which are full of potholes or broken pavement.

    2. Construct more ADA-compliant sidewalks (with adequate curb ramps and pedestrian crossings–with signals where needed!). We also need to FIX some of the sidewalks that currently exist, since many of them have problems associated with tree roots or settling pavement under them, making them dangerous for people using wheelchairs, walkers and powered scooters..

    3. Invest more money in public transit. Right now, public transit is underfunded, meaning there is less money to “grow” good transit services that meet the demand. This results in overcrowded vehicles and frustrated passengers–something NOBODY likes to see. We also need to take steps to ensure public-transit vehicles, especially buses, can travel through areas experiencing severe congestion more quickly–dedicated “bus only” streets (like Third Avenue in Downtown Seattle) or “bus only” traffic lanes would go a long way toward helping with this issue.

  2. Barbara A Coe

    1 year ago

    It’s a shame we cannot keep up with other developed countries, even the one just North of us, in providing alternatives to driving, but continue to depend more and more on autos, creating more and more clogged streets and pollution.

  3. Ken Kershner

    1 year ago

    Our scalable opportunity is to invest in quick-build of the *protected* bike lane network. Research shows that 50% of all trips are less than 5 miles and 25% of all employees live within 5 miles of their workplace. Building AAA (Appropriate for All Ages) bike lanes means that commutes and errands can be safely done by bike and scooter. Mode shift to relieve car congestion will happen when the safe routes to work, transit and school are built.

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  5. Schurkey

    1 year ago

    Do not spend ONE THIN DIME of motor vehicle fuel taxes to destroy the utility of the American paved-road system.

    Until bike riders pay user fees in the same fashion as motor vehicle users pay extra fuel taxes to build and maintain the roadways, they shouldn’t even get a seat at the table. Bike riders are becoming parasites, looking for ever-increasing “handouts” in the form of dedicated-to-bicycles lanes, while motor-vehicle users–the only folks that pay extra to supply their own roads–get hit with “Share The Road” propaganda.

    High-speed roadways are the backbone of the country’s transportation budget because they’re the undisputed champion of the country’s transportation needs. Bleeding-off funding for stupid crap that very few people need is a waste of time, money, effort, and enthusiasm.

    I don’t know about there, but around here public transit means 40-passenger buses that drive around town with advertising wrap over the windows, to hide from the public the fact that the bus is empty. The bus management’s report shows average bus ridership is fewer than four people–and ONE OF THEM IS THE DRIVER. The best thing my town could do is to end bus service, sell the buses, and sell the maintenance facility for the buses. Anything less than that is another waste of tax money.

    “Complete Streets” and “Zero Vision” are both harmful. Both are part of the “War On Cars”, seeking to remove freedom of travel, bleed-off funding for better roads in favor of minority useage, and will eventually be used against the population in general–they’re fundamentally-flawed programs based on a desire to kill the utility of motor vehicles, and they will require ever-increasing budget to achieve their unstated goals. Especially true of “Zero Vision” since the stated goal is IMPOSSIBLE.

    • Ralph Panhuyzen

      1 year ago

      Do you happen to know the source for your statement that “around here public transit means 40-passenger buses that drive around town with advertising wrap over the windows, to hide from the public the fact that the bus is empty. The bus management’s report shows average bus ridership is fewer than four people–and ONE OF THEM IS THE DRIVER”?

  6. Ralph Panhuyzen

    1 year ago

    During the commute the average car consists of 1.1 passenger (mostly the commuting driver of course). That car weighs 20-30 times as much as the driver, and is typically wider than the driver is tall, which comes down to the single occupant lying sideways across a freeway lane, expecting to make progress. Ain’t that a complete waste of valuable resources!

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