Federal transportation bill: What is the situation, what are the problems with this "terrible" House transportation bill?

Congress is working this week to pass a bill that will set federal transportation policy and funding for the next six years.  Different versions of the bill are making headway in both houses of Congress. Both versions are likely to come to a final vote next week.

In this article, we'll tackle the House bill, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012 (H.R. 7), and in a separate article, the Senate bill, known as MAP-21.

Missouri delegation at the National Bike  summit
Missouri delegation at the National Bike summit

House version "uniquely terrible"

The House is set to pass transportation bill, H.R. 7 (full text), perhaps early next week, that has been described as "uniquely terrible" and so bad it "defies belief" by the New York Times and as "the march of the horribles" by StreetsBlog.

The bill is so terrible that a coalition of over 600 groups from all sides of the issue--from industry to special interest advocates--have come together to "kill the bill." There is real doubt whether House leadership will be able to find the votes even to pass the bill out of the House.

General problems

What is so horrible about this bill? The New York Times outlines general problems with the bill:

  • It would make financing for mass transit much less certain, and more vulnerable, by ending a 30-year agreement that guaranteed mass transit a one-fifth share of the fuel taxes and other user fees in the highway trust fund. Instead it would compete annually with other programs.
  • It would open nearly all of America’s coastal waters to oil and gas drilling, including environmentally fragile areas that have long been off limits. The ostensible purpose is to raise revenue to help make up what has become an annual shortfall for transportation financing. But it is really just one more attempt to promote the Republicans’ drill-now-drill-everywhere agenda and the interests of their industry patrons.
  • It 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.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood (R-IL) adds:

And it . . . is the most anti-safety bill I have ever seen. It hollows out our No. 1 priority, which is safety, and frankly, it hollows out the guts of the transportation efforts that we’ve been about for the last three years. . . . It’s the worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service.

The bill eliminates essentially all bicycle and pedestrian programs, funding, and policy

From our perspective, the biggest problem with the bill is in its elimination of programs and funding that have helped turn around access to bicycling and walking in America over the past twenty years.  The United States has made some real strides in making our country bikeable and walkable again, and eliminating those programs--just as they are starting to make tangible progress--will have real ramifications for the health and fitness of our nation.

The League of American Bicyclists outlined the Top Ten Reasons the House's Proposed Transportation Bill is Bad for Biking and Walking:

10. No traffic calming.

 Under current law, traffic calming and bicycle/pedestrian safety are eligible for funding from the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP). The House’s proposed bill would make traffic calming and bike/ped safety ineligible for funding, encouraging faster, more dangerous streets.

9. More unsafe rumble strips.

 Current law requires that rumble strips on roads “do no adversely affect the safety and mobility of bicyclists, pedestrians or the disabled.” The proposed House bill eliminates this language, allowing for unsafe placement of rumble strips that create deadly safety hazards for people riding bicycles.

8. No bike/ped technical assistance.

 Currently, when a state or local community is interested in making their streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, they can turn to clearinghouses for information about funding sources, best practices, and other technical assistance. The House’s transportation bill would eliminate bicycle/pedestrian and Safe Routes to School clearinghouses, making it harder for states and local communities to find technical assistance.

7. No state-level staff support.

 Today’s federal transportation laws require states to keep Bicycle/Pedestrian specialists and Safe Routes to School Coordinators on staff. As huge agencies with thousands of employees, state Departments of Transportation benefit from having one or two people familiar with biking and walking issues. The House bill would eliminate these positions, effectively making state DOTs less familiar with bicycling and walking safety.

6. No transit funds for bicycling.

Under current law, transit funds can be used for projects that make it safer and easier to ride a bike to and from bus stops, subway stations, and train stations. Even though bicycle parking at transit stations, bike access to transit, and bike-sharing are cost-effective fixes that improve safety, the proposed House bill would eliminate federal support for these projects.

5. No rail trails.

Current transportation laws allows for the use of federal funding in converting abandoned railroad corridors into walking and biking trails. The House’s proposed transportation bill makes rail trails ineligible for federal funding.

4. No safe access on bridges.

Under current law, when states do work on a bridge that has bicycle or pedestrian access on either side, they are required to build safe bicycle or pedestrian access across the bridge itself.  Even though it’s only logical that people on traveling by bicycle or by foot should be able to cross bridges safely, the proposed House bill eliminates the requirement that states provide bridge access for walkers and bicyclists when it makes the most sense.

3. CMAQ is gutted.

Under current law, states can receive Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funding to support projects that reduce transportation-related pollution. Currently, states use CMAQ dollars to support bicycling and walking infrastructure, which are proven to help reduce air pollutants by encouraging people to walk or bike instead of drive.

No longer. The House bill would change CMAQ by making congestion reduction, not air quality, the operative measure for eligibility. In other words, in order to qualify for CMAQ funding, a project doesn’t need to reduce air pollution; it just needs to be “likely” to reduce congestion. Under this new definition, the construction of new highway lanes qualifies for CMAQ funding. If the House bill were to become law, states would likely allocate CMAQ funds for highway construction at the expense of bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly projects.

2. Safe Routes to School is eliminated.

In the House bill’s own words, the Safe Routes to School Program is “repealed.” This wildly successful program helped communities fund transportation infrastructure and education to keep kids safe on their bike rides and walks to school and encourage healthy activity.

Despite the program’s success and very low cost, the House bill would completely eliminate the program, reversing years of progress in making streets safer for kids.

…And the number one problem with the House transportation bill is…

1. Transportation Enhancements is gone.

For the past twenty years, Transportation Enhancements has helped communities build the sidewalks, crosswalks, and bikeways that keep people safe on the streets. As less than 1% of all federal transportation spending, this tiny yet effective program financed projects that made it easier, more convenient, and much safer to walk or ride a bike.

In short, the House bill rolls back all the programs, funding, and policies that have helped the U.S. turn a corner in the past 20 years, in making the country more bicycleable, more walkable, and more livable.

Does federal funding for bicycling and walking make a difference--the historical perspective

We are just starting to see the first real progress, the first real results, from that 20-year experiment now.  It started in 1991 when Congress passed ISTEA--the first federal transportation bill to integrate all travel modes.  ISTEA created most (though not all) of the groundbreaking programs and policies outlined above in the Bike League's Top Ten.

And guess what--those programs and policies worked.  Over the past twenty years, the amount of bicycling and walking in the U.S. bottomed out and has now turned around.  For example, since 2000, the amount of bicycle commuting in the U.S. is up about 40%--and that is after a 50-year near continual decline.

And just when that 20-year experiment has proven how important federal bicycle and pedestrian funding is, how much of a difference it can make in the health, fitness, and livability of America, the House leadership now wants to turn back the clock.

Turning back the clock 70 years . . .

The situation the House bill creates is exactly like the federal transportation funding and policy situation in the 50 years before 1991, when federal policy was about all highways, all motor vehicles, all the time.

That is an experiment we do not need to repeat--because we know that the results for the nation's health were nothing short of abysmal. The amount of bicycling and walking went down nearly every year, reaching record low levels in the 1990s.  

Entire neighborhoods and cities were built without any bicycle or pedestrian access.  State and federal highways cut through towns and neighborhoods, provided no bicycle or pedestrian access along or across them, and cut our cities and neighborhoods into small, inaccessible pieces.

Federal transportation policy and funding--which makes up something like 50% of all transportation funding in the country--touches far too many transportation projects and has far too large an influence on our country's transportation decision-making for it to simply ignore bicycling and walking.

A fair share of funding for transportation used by every American: Bicycling and walking

Far from ignoring bicycling and walking, federal transportation policy needs to increase its attention to these modes of transportation--for the nation's health and fitness, for true transportation choice, and for real livability.

Right now in America, bicyclists and pedestrians make up 14% of roadway deaths, yet receive only 1.6% of transportation funding.

In Missouri, we spend $2 billion per year on the direct medical costs of obesity--and amount projected to rise to $8 billion annually by 2018--and only a small fraction of that on making our neighborhoods and communities safer and more inviting for bicycling and walking.

At this point in history, we need to be spending far more on bicycling and walking--not less.  Investment in bicycling and walking is a small proportion of our national, state, and local budgets that pays off many times in economic development, health, and community vitality.

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