Senate Transportation Bill: A Tank Half Full

Isaiah J. Poole

The Senate has finally passed a transportation reauthorization bill today, more than 896 days after the last full authorization bill expired.

But this is legislation that is much like the transportation infrastructure in much of the country today: well behind the curve of what is needed to keep pace with the nation’s transportation needs.

The Senate bill, referred to as MAP-21 or Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, is for two years, rather than the five- or six-year periods covered by bills passed by previous Congresses. And it would authorize $109 billion in federal spending during that two-year period, significantly less than what has been authorized in previous bills. Our needs are greater than they have ever been for support for infrastructure at all levels—the American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that we need to spend at least $2.2 trillion over the next five years just on repairs—but the Senate bill would have our commitment as a nation shrink to historically low levels.

The most positive news is that it least it’s not what was being cooked up by conservatives in the House of Representatives. That was a disaster that not only would have committed even less to highway and public transit spending, but would have written transportation policy to the dictates of the fossil-fuel industry and anti-environmental zealots. That bill would have for the first time ended dedicated funding to mass transit, while opening wide the doors to the Keystone XL pipeline and fast-tracked offshore oil drilling. But with House Speaker John Boehner unable to get a critical mass of Republicans to even agree to the meager level of spending proposed in the bill, the bill effectively died.

Meanwhile, the Senate bill will create or save an estimated 2.8 million jobs, according to one of its co-sponsors, Environment and Public Works Chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. If the House takes up this bill, which Boehner has suggested it will, and moves it quickly to President Obama’s desk, some of those jobs would begin to open up during the crucial spring and summer construction season.

But the House, which is in recess this week, only has until the end of the month to act. That’s when the latest temporary extension of spending authority for federal transportation programs expires; without actual legislation or another short-term extension, work on federally-funded transportation projects around the country will begin to come to a halt on April 1.

Progressives can take solace in the fact that a series of conservative amendments that would have made the bill truly horrible did not succeed. They included an effort to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, bypassing the Obama administration’s review process; repeal of incentives for clean energy, including tax credits for alternative-energy vehicles; and a lifting of existing environmental protections against mercury and toxic air pollution from incinerators and industrial boilers. Attempts by conservatives to essentially turn the federal highway program over to the states were beaten back as well. Another defeated amendment that split progressives would have enacted subsidies to encourage the increased use of natural gas vehicles: While some liked the idea of promoting the use of less-polluting vehicles running on a lower-cost, American-sourced fuel, other noted that the subsidy would primarily benefit a small cartel of natural gas suppliers and encourage the use of hydraulic fracking, an environmentally damaging process, to increase natural gas production.

Transportation For America, a largely progressive coalition of urban, environmental and business organizations, today said that some of the benefits it sees in the Senate bill include the fact that it:

  • For the first time, establishes national policy goals and performance measures for the federal surface transportation program, such as addressing congestion, improving access to multiple travel options, supporting domestic manufacturing and reducing impacts on the environment and adjacent communities;
  • Consolidates programs and streamlines project delivery, while maintaining existing funding levels;
  • Holds states accountable for the safe upkeep of our roads and bridges;
  • Maintains local control over a share of funds and ensures access funding for safer walking and bicycling;
  • Includes emergency provisions to allow transit agencies to avoid service cuts and fare hikes;
  • Extends the commuter benefit for transit users, commensurate with parking benefits for drivers;
  • Helps communities make plans to meet the growing demand for walkable neighborhoods with access to jobs, services and public transportation;
  • Ensures that federal funds streets that are safe and complete for everyone who uses them, whether motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users or transit riders.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that today’s vote “is a wonderful opportunity for the Senate and a great accomplishment for our country,” adding that “one of the most progressive members of the Senate and one of the most conservative members of the Senate got together and they wanted to do a bill that was good for the American people.”

In fact, it is a further testament to the dysfunction that conservatives have wreaked in Congress that this less-than-half-a-tank of transportation legislation is that passes for “great accomplishment” in the Senate. At a time when we have both an infrastructure emergency and an unemployment emergency, the obvious imperative is to spend big today on projects that would put people back to work, building the network that would enable a growing economy to move people and goods more effectively and efficiently.

The Senate bill on balance is better than the wreck that would have been precipitated by the conservative extremists in the House. (For this reason, our sister site, TheMiddleClass.org, gives the bill a thumbs up.) But the fact that this bill does not rise to what the nation actually needs is a conservative failure, and for their obstruction conservatives should have to answer to the people who will remain stuck in traffic jams or dependent on inadequate public transportation because conservatives stand in the way of the investment we need.

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