Congress passes new transportation act

Posted on June 30, 2012 by aweinfeld

Nearly three years since the last transportation act actually expired and some 10 extensions later, Congress has overwhelmingly passed legislation, H.R. 4348, putting in place a two year authorization through September 2014 at current spending levels.

That is not to say that the bill doesn’t have its detractors. The more conservative members of Congress would have liked to seen reductions to better meet deficit goals, and various transportation advocates feel too much was given away in order to keep issues such as the Keystone Pipeline out of the bill entirely.  So what’s in the bill….

Off-system bridge set aside: The off-system bridge set-aside for local bridges not on federal-aid system was preserved, which the MML supported.

MPO Population threshold:  maintained at the current level of 50,000 in population. MML supported this as well. 

Transit Programs: Funded at $10.584 billion in FY 13 and $10.701 in FY 14. Urban areas over 200,000 in population will not be able to use funds for operating expenses and a provision that would have allowed greater flexibility in times of high unemployment was not included. Areas under 200,000 can continue to use formula funds for operating assistance. A separate bus program was maintained and transit programs also would have a streamlined approval process to accelerate project delivery. The New Starts program for transit was maintained.

TIFIA Loan Program: TIFIA leverages private investment and local dollars, historically making $1 billion in loans with its $122 million annual budget. Both the House and the Senate, expanded TIFIA’s budget from $122 million to $1 billion.

Transportation Enhancment program: Changes were made to the program. Recall that the House wanted to eliminate this provision with Speaker Boehner claiming it was time to stop using highway money to plant flowers. That said, the bill keeps the current 10% set aside, but only directs 50% of it to local governments, with state DOT’s being allowed to spend the other 50% on whatever programs they wish. This means the League, our members and other transportation advocates who believe in continued investment in multi-modal transportation efforts will have to work that much harder with MDOT to ensure the other 50% is spent well.

And it is the provisions regarding “Transportation Enhancements” that has many advocates upset. State DOT’s have indeed been given the flexibility to shift funds around, and bike/ped projects will have to compete with road projects and much more. Now called “Transportation Alternatives” the program will also absorb the Safe Routes to School and Recreational Trails programs, which used to have their own dedicated funding. Funding is reduced from $1.2 billion in FY 2011 to around $700-750 million. And to top it off, “Complete Streets” language that created a federal requirement for accommodation of non-motorized road users was stripped as was the popular TIGER initiative that provided direct funding to communities.

Several groups have indeed taken issue with the bill. This is a bill that’s been called “a death blow to mass transit” by the Amalgamated Transit Union, “a step backwards for America’s transportation system” by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, “a retreat from the goals of sustainability and economic resiliency” by Reconnecting America, “a substantial capitulation” by Transportation for America, and “bad news for biking and walking” by America Bikes.

Criticism aside, the bill does maintain current funding levels at around $54 billion a year and the CBO reports it will reduce the deficit by $16.3 billion. It does not contain some of the more controversial provisions as passed or proposed by the House such as the Keystone Pipeline and funding the system with oil drilling revenues. However, the gas tax was not raised, language prohibiting a move to a VMT fee is contained in another House bill and the long-term viability of the Highway Trust Fund must still be determined.

The bottom line to this analyst is that Congress has done what it could to get a bill passed at the 11th hour. Kudos to Senator Boxer and Congressman Mica for exerting their influence and sheer will to get it done. That said, perhaps the best headline I saw from Streetsblog was “A new bill passes but America’s transpo policy stays stuck in the 20th century”.

When all is said and done, the shorter length of this bill than previous acts (2 years as compared to 4 or 5) means that those of us who are looking for more than just a highway-centric policy from federal legislators will have to take what was given and live to fight another day.  We at the League believe that investmment in a multi-modal transportation system that better serves all users will lead to economic growth in our communities and our state. Rest assured we’ll continue our efforts.

For additional details check out these summaries from Transportation Issues Daily… one and two.  Or, the more detailed conference committee summary is also available.

Arnold Weinfeld is Director of Strategic Initiatives and Federal Affairs for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at 517-908-0304 or by e-mail.

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