The Republican-led House of Representatives, having cobbled together legislation described by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as the “most partisan” and “worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service,” is now recognizing political reality and delaying a vote until sometime after its recess next week. A bitter fight is ahead, but in the meantime we can take a closer at this highly partisan approach to “reforming” transportation—which could be made even worse by 300 pending amendments that would, among other things, zero out public transit and cut off Amtrak completely.
John Mica (R-FL), who heads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says the legislation will “reform our federal transportation programsand rebuild our nation’s roads and bridges,” but that’s a minority opinion. The ultra-conservative Club for Growth called it “a remarkably bloated and inefficient piece of legislation.” The San Francisco Chronicle writes, “House Republicans may have set a record for how many counterproductive ideas can be stuffed into one package with their version of a $260 billion transportation bill.”
San Francisco would lose $638 million annually in transit funding under the bill, the paper said. The White House has threatened to veto the bill because it “jeopardizes safety, weakens environmental and labor protections, and fails to make the investments needed to strengthen the nation’s roads, bridges, rail and transit systems....” Obama’s recently proposed 2013 budget contains $10.8 billion for mass transit, an increase of $233 million over the current funding. Through 2018, the administration would allocate $107 billion to transit (including $47 billion for light- and high-speed rail).
The House legislation has also been hit with considerable flak from the right, which doesn’t like many of the funding mechanisms. And local communities are up in arms about the loss of guaranteed transit funding that’s been in place since Ronald Reagan put it there 30 years ago. I talked to advocates from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the Natural Resources Defense Council and Transportation for America, and with their help put together these bullet points defining why exactly this bill would equally appall both Ronald Reagan and Ralph Nader. Here are 10 very good reasons why people on both sides of the aisle say this is the worst transportation bill ever:
- It does away with the 30-year practice of bi-partisan support for federal investment in public transit, diverting nearly 50 percent of such funding. It cuts subsidies for Amtrak by 25 percent, bars funding for high-speed rail, and it ends the earmarking of 20 percent of federal gas tax revenue (which amounted to $40 billion in 2010) for transit, including mass transit and infrastructure maintenance. That steady stream of cash is replaced by a one-time appropriation with no known funding source.
- It slashes bus investment for all the large cities of the U.S. The bill moves much funding into discretionary areas, and specifies that cities with transit systems such as light rail (which tend to be bigger urban centers) can’t spend federal money on buses. “It puts all the money into systems that carry only 20 to 25 percent of bus riders around the country,” said Rose Sheridan, an APTA spokesperson.
- It weakens the environmental review process for new highway projects, sets deadlines as to when such reviews are completed (a lobbyist’s dream) and gives states discretion as to whether such reviews need to be done at all.
- It would mean that, after 2016, all public transit funding is in jeopardy because no funding is allocated. It would require public transit systems to compete with all other programs in the general fund, and make it impossible for public transit agencies to develop any kind of long-term projects because there’d be no way to guarantee funding for them.
- It plays fast and loose with ac counting by funding programs with uncertain revenue sources. According to David Goldberg of Transportation for America, “House Speaker Boehner tried to make this the Republican jobs bill, as an answer to President Obama. The original bill contained 35 percent funding cuts, but that produced howls of protest, so he restored the cuts by dedicating potential revenues from allowing oil drilling on both coasts and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). That solution theoretically makes fewer people unhappy and advances favorite Republican talking points about oil drilling. The oil money is supposed to make up the big gas-tax revenue gaps that are expected in the Highway Trust Fund, but it relies on uncertain gimmicks because nobody knows how much money will come in or when.”
- It dumps support for nearly everything other than driving on highways, at a time when Americans are facing very high gas prices. Dedicated funding that makes it safer to walk or ride bicycles is eliminated in the bill. “It’s an assault on bicycle and pedestrian safety,” Goldberg said.
- It defers much-needed bridge and tunnel maintenance. Federal highway bridges have 50-year lifespans, but their average age is 42 years old and a third are over 50. The bill does away with dedicated bridge funding and essentially turns Highway Trust Fund money over to the states without making them accountable for doing anything in particular—such as repairing bridges, not always the sexiest projects—with the revenue.
- It could get even worse. The amendments would, among other things, zero out funding for transit entirely and defund Amtrak except for the Boston-to-Washington Acela train; deregulate emissions from cement production; prevent regulation of hydraulic “fracking”; and cut oversight on coal residue and ash. Is it a surprise that the latter amendment is from coal stater David McKinley (R-WV)? >
- It’s unsafe because it allows both longer and heavier trucks on the nation’s roads. States would be allowed to permit big rigs of as much as 126,000 pounds on interstates. In most states now, the limit is 80,000 pounds. That’s a giveaway to the trucking industry, and a kick in the face to safety advocates.
- And, finally, it eliminates funding for the Safe Routes to School program, which gives millions to states and communities to promote accident-free biking and walking. According to Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), “This is a wildly popular program, costing a fraction of a percent of the transportation budget, and it's had a huge impact nationally on our children because it deals with real consequences for them.” Goldberg added, “It’s hard to know why they would have it in for such a small but well-intentioned program.” But there’s precious little logic in this transportation bill.
Here’s a video view on the bill from NRDC federal transportation policy director Deron Lovaas, who calls it the “worst transportation bill ever":