Political gridlock in Washington has resulted in years of legislative limbo in dealing with our nation’s aging infrastructure. But something needs to happen by March 31, when the eighth (!) extension of the SAFETEA-LU federal surface transportation bill expires.
In a possible sign of progress, both the House and Senate have pledged to take action on the reauthorization process, which sets the laws, priorities and spending levels for federally-funded transportation projects and programs for the next several years. And indeed there has been a lot of Congressional activity this past month and even this past week.
But reaching agreement on what exactly will be included in the new transportation bill—and how to pay for it—is a convoluted process. Enacting a bill by the end of March will require that both the House and the Senate negotiate no fewer than ten procedural hurdles and more significantly, overcome deep political and philosophical differences. And from what we’ve seen just this week, there are plenty of differences to reconcile.
Good news, bad news
The House released its version on January 31st, a five-year, $260 billion, 800-page surface transportation bill known as the “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act.”
From our perspective, the proposed legislation contains some good news in that it is favorable to existing MPOs such as the MIC so that we can continue our work to plan, prioritize and coordinate federally-funded transportation projects with local input.
Of concern to us, however, is that funding for the Safe Routes to School program is eliminated, along with the Transportation Enhancements (TE) program and “complete streets” projects that make infrastructure improvements for bikers and pedestrians in addition to cars.
Certainly important to all MPOs, these funding categories would be turned over to the discretion of state DOTs to decide if and how they are continued. Essentially, states would have the option of spending money on these types of projects, but would no longer be required to. As the League of American Bicyclists commented, “it basically eliminates the status and standing <of the bicycling community> in the planning and design of our transportation system—a massive step backwards…to a 1950s highway- and auto-only program.”
Then, also troubling, the House Ways and Means Committee weighed in with a proposal to eliminate gas tax funding for bus transit and other mass transportation systems. Transit, Air Quality Improvement, Congestion Mitigation and other programs would be placed into a renamed Alternative Transportation Account and would need to be funded annually through the general fund and annual appropriations process.
Non-auto oriented transportation programs, however, do have a measure of bipartisan support, which up until recently has been how our country has made its important transportation infrastructure investments. Several House Republicans, led by Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) with backing from Democrats, attempted to amend the draft bill to restore funding for bike and pedestrian projects and Safe Routes to School.
And the Senate has so far managed to reach bipartisan agreement on their version of the bill. A two-year, $109 billion reauthorization, called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century or MAP-21, passed the Environment and Public Works Committee last month. The transit component of that bill was released by the Senate Banking Committee with unanimous bipartisan support for public transportation programs at current funding levels and includes some reforms — such as allowing federal funds to be spent on operations — that transit advocates have been pushing for.
The sticking point: how to pay
You may have heard by now that the House’s bill, in addition to cutting some transportation programs to pay for the reauthorization, proposes a new source of revenue in the form of royalties from new oil and gas drilling leases on public lands and federal waters. This, however, is a contentious issue and may or may not make it into the final bill during the step when the House and Senate reconcile their two versions into a final bill.
It also extends the federal gas tax at the 1993 level of 18.3 cents-per-gallon (as well as the 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax and the .001 cents-per-gallon leaking underground storage tank tax) for the next five years.
Pressure at the state level
Much of the pressure to pay for the problem of the nation’s aging bridges, highways, and transit systems will fall to the states. Most—like Minnesota and Wisconsin—are refocusing their priorities on preserving and maintaining the existing system rather than constructing new roads.
Although states may consider raising their portion of the gas tax, or automatically increasing the existing rate for inflation, finding new ways to fund transportation will require innovation, new technologies, and smarter management practices to ensure their scarce resources address the key problem areas.
MnDOT is conducting studies on new user-fee mechanisms that assess fees based on how many miles you drive on the roads rather than how much gas you put in your tank. Other states are considering expanded use of tolling and state infrastructure banks.
Unpopular at the personal level
And many of these new options may be downright unpopular. As we noted previously, it’s not just our politicians who will need to make some attitude adjustments.
No matter how long it takes for Congress to hammer out a new transportation bill, and despite the cuts it will make or efficiencies it will impose, all of us, as beneficiaries of the transportation network, will need to be willing to make a shift in how we think about paying our way.
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