New federal transportation bill released--what's in, what's not

Rep. Jim Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee, has released the first draft of the successor to SAFETEA-LU, which will determine federal transportation policy and spending for the next six years.

Keep in mind that federal transportation spending comes all the way down to the local level--affecting not only state and federal highways but major roads in cities and towns, mass transit, and many other matters.

This is, of course, draft legislation and it may change significantly before it passes. Also at this stage the bill contains no dollar amounts--those will be inserted later as the result of negotiations in Congress.

Reading over the draft, I would say in general it delivers better than I guessed based on the summaries released earlier but still there are significant missing pieces.

What's missing
  • Clear National Transportation Goals--though states and metro areas are required to set their own goals for reducing congestion, emissions, maintaining the system, and so on, there is no overarching national goals set as a framework for state and metro area goals. However, Missouri Rep. Russ Carnahan has introduced a separate bill to do just that--click here to support that effort.

  • Active Transportation Initiative--a plan to extend the very successful non-motorized pilot project to give 40 cities $50 million each to rebuild themselves as much safer and more inviting for bicycling and walking.

  • Maintenance vs new construction?--one of the major reasons U.S. transportation system is in the mess it is in, is because federal transportation policy has always favored new and expanded roads and highways over all other aspects of our transportation system. Overall my impression is there is an effort to address this issue in this bill, with more emphasis on maintenance of the system at acceptable standards. However it is an open question whether the changes made will be enough to create real change or whether the incentives will remain that encourage sprawl, building new system, and expanding the existing system over maintenance and sustainability.

  • Complete Streets compliance--previous proposed Complete Streets bills required states and metro areas to create their own Complete Streets policies. This bill lacks that requirement but requires each project to follow "Comprehensive Street Design Standards" as determined by FHWA. Will this be a better approach?
What's there
  • Transportation Enhancements--the main current source of funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects (as well as a large number of other categories), TE is in the bill with a few notable changes--most notable, that a portion of the funds will go directly areas of the state, apportioned by population, rather than to the state DOTs to distribute as they see fit (states often, but not always, distributed much of the TE money this way already). (p. 52 and following)

  • Complete Streets--known in the bill as "Comprehensive Street Design Standards", the new Office of Livability would be charged to create model standards and each project would have to be consistent with comprehensive street design policies before it can be approved by FHWA. (pp. 210,314,315; see also the existing Title 23 Section 109(a), which will be amended to include the new requirements)

  • A new Office of Livability is created under the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to oversee a number of related programs, including recreational trails, Safe Routes to School, Comprehensive Street Design Standards, that National Bicycle Route System, and other similar programs (p. 199 & following)

  • Creation of the National Bicycle Route System, which is designed to identify and sign a national network of roads and highways suitable for travel between states by bicycle. (p. 213 and following)

  • The successful Safe Routes to School program is continued with some refinement in the rules and procedures. This program helps make it safer and encourages more children to walk or bicycle to school, reducing emissions and congestion while improving student health, fitness, and behavior. (p. 122 and following)

  • Planning processes at state and metro levels must incorporate the ideas of sustainability, livability, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce reliance on foreign oil. (p. 334)

  • Large metro areas must adopt performance standards in a number of areas, including land use, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and increased energy conservation. (p. 343)

  • Transportation planning must include consideration of public health. (p. 334, 335, 346 479, 480, 492, 495, and others)

  • Greenhouse gas reduction targets and strategies required in state and metro transportation plans, which must include strategies to increase transit, walking, and bicycling. (p. 335-336, 496-497).

  • Numerous other small changes in accordance with the stated purpose of the bill, to "provide transportation choices for commuters and travelers, promote environmental sustainability, public health, and the livability of communities" (p. 1)

  • A re-affirmation of the congressional intent: "Cyclists and pedestrians are intended users of the surface transportation system, except where prohibited by law; and it is the policy of the Federal Government to encourage maximum accessibility and safety of the surface transportation system for cyclists and pedestrians as intended users when designing and constructing surface transportation facilities." (p. 200-201)
The above summary is based on a quick initial reading of the bill, and so of course may miss many nuances or even major, important programs!

Please leave a comment to make any corrections or leave your ideas about what should or should not be included in the bill.