House of Representatives transportation bill fraught with bad ideas


Funding for trails? Forget it, say House Republicans. Photo by Eric Rogers.

Updated 15:36: See additions to this article under “updates”

No matter how you get around, whether on foot, by bike, in a car, on a bus or by train or water taxi, the federal surface transportation bill impacts your travel.

The surface transportation bill does essentially two things:

1. It sets national transportation policy. This includes plans on how much to subsidize monthly car parking for workers, monthly transit passes (see note 1); regional planning; safety goals; and environmental protection from vehicle pollution and infrastructure impacts.

2. Defines which transportation modes and programs get how much money.

A majority of trains, buses, bike lanes, roads, and highways in Chicagoland were built with funding from the surface transportation bill. And they continue to be majority-funded by federal tax dollars, year after year.

The last surface transportation bill is called SAFETEA-LU and it expired on September 30, 2009, at the end of fiscal year 2009 – Transportation 4 America has a clock counting the time since expiration. Since then, it has been extended many times while Congressional committees and representatives work on a new one.

A new one may be enacted this year!

Two divergent transportation bills in Congress

Like all bills in Congress, there is a version in the Senate, and a version in the House of Representatives. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, chaired by John Mica (R-FL), released their version on Tuesday and will “mark it up” today at 9 AM eastern time. It is for five years and will cost $260 billion. It is called “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act” (read House Resolution H.R.7 on the Congress website).

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Barbara Boxer (D-CA), released its version in November 2011. It is for two years and will cost $109 billion. It is called “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century”, or MAP-21 (read Senate S.1813 on the Congress website)

Marking up a proposed bill in the committee means adding amendments that the full House would then consider along with the bill. The bill’s text does not change.

Criticisms with the House version

The criticisms with the House version of the bill lie in two areas: what’s not included, and how it will be paid for.

The bill does not include a category of projects called Transportation Enhancements (TE). This is how many cities and counties build bike lanes, bike trails, sidewalks and crosswalks, and add landscaping to streets. There are many other types of projects that can be built with TE.

The bill also excludes the Safe Routes to School program (SRTS). There is an amendment that will be considered tomorrow to restore TE and SRTS, into a new program called Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). Update 12:01: The amendment was defeated this morning, news at the League of American Bicyclists website.

It has been suggested that the bill would be paid for by “expanding oil and gas drilling in places where drilling is currently off-limits”. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) also says that he may attach to the bill approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project from Canada to Texas, for which a decision to approve or deny President Obama postponed.

The bill is traditionally paid for by gas taxes, and there’s a benefit to tying infrastructure spending to user taxes. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., is opposed to “drilling and driving”. In concert with their briefing (like a press conference) on Monday, they listed five reasons on their website why “the user pays, the user benefits” principle is better.

(The bill also makes it easier to bypass current environmental regulations that force project managers, planners, and engineers to quantify impacts on people and nature as well as consider alternatives to the project.)

The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant program, which funds many of the CTA’s new equipment purchases, new train stations, as well as the upcoming bike sharing system, remains, but with a new definition. From the League of American Bicyclists:

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.

I don’t see this being an issue in Illinois. Only parts of Illinois are even eligible for this funding (although our eligibility is at stake) and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning is in charge of applying for this funding for Chicagoland projects. They and the applicants have been extremely successful. This includes hundreds of millions of dollars for Metra, Pace, CTA, and CDOT.

The problem

Aside from the issue of cutting funding for projects that enhance and add infrastructure for walking and cycling, there is the issue of wasting time by making a bill that is very controversial and partisan. Transportation bills have largely been a bipartisan effort.

“We are very concerned that attaching contentious provisions to a bill that has traditionally earned broad support could short-circuit discussion on what the spending actually should accomplish, and make it all the more difficult to pass a bipartisan measure that makes the best use of taxpayers’ money,” said Transportation for America Communications Director David Goldberg (quoted from Politico).

Advocates of sustainable transportation, like Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Transportation 4 America (T4A), and now Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), do not like where the House surface transportation bill would lead America. As they stand, Grid Chicago prefers the Senate version of the bill, even if it only covers two years of program funding (a longer term bill is better, mainly to continue funding the projects that take longer to plan and construct). Get a quick breakdown of other things we don’t like, from Ben Goldman at Greater Greater Washington.


Update 11:19: The House Ways and Means Committee, which has two Illinois Reps, released a bill last night that would remove the Transit Account and its receipt of gas taxes from the Highway Trust Fund and put it in the General Revenue fund, where it would fight with everything else that comes out of the General Revenue (pretty much everything that’s not roads). The markup for this bill is Friday, 9 AM. The bill can be read at H.R.3864 (not accessible pdf*). See contact info for Reps. Roskam and Schock below in “What to do about it”. Additionally, the “Mass Transit Account” would be renamed “Alternative Transportation Account”. Transit is not alternative transportation!

Update 11:56: Transportation secretary Ray LaHood, a former Congressperson from Peoria, Illinois, and champion of sustainable transportation and livable cities, calls the House bill “the worst”: “The former GOP congressman said that during his 14 years in the House, and six on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the panel and Congress as a whole came together to rally around transportation”, via Politico.

Update 12:01: The amendment to restore bike and pedestrian infrastructure funding was defeated. See the League of American Bicyclists website.

What to do about it

Transportation 4 America has a great tool to contact your representative.

Keep in mind that by the time you read this, the House committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will be in the process of marking up the bill, adding and removing parts.

There is still opportunity to find these provisions and bad policies. If the committee does refer this bill to the full House, the House will have to debate it and then vote on it. That presents a different opportunity to tell your representatives what you think. If the House passes it, then the Senate and House will have a conference committee to “merge” their two bills.

This bill was brought up by an attendee at last night’s Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan meeting at the Sulzer Library during the question and answer session. They asked if the bill would affect the Streets for Cycling plan, the process, and constructing bikeways in general. If it passed, it would most likely not affect those things (they are paid for by a variety of funds, including local sources and the federal CMAQ grant).

Luann Hamilton, deputy commissioner of project development at the Chicago Department of Transportation expressed some uneasiness (that I presume the department feels) about the idea of this bill passing. She mentioned that the bill calls for roadways to be “categorically excluded” from environmental review processes, something that runs contrary to regional and local goals for congestion reduction and reducing pollution, as well as balancing our transportation system.

Contact these two Illinois representatives on the House Ways and Means Committee. This committee figures out how to pay for the surface transportation bill. Ask these two to VOTE NO on H.R.3864 (which eliminates the Mass Transit Account and lets transit funding fight for itself).

Peter Roskam, R-6th  District (Cook, DuPage, Lake, Kane, McHenry counties)
David Mork-Deputy Chief of Staff
(202) 225-4561

Aaron Schock, R-18th District (Peoria, Springfield)
Mark Roman-Legislative Director
202.225.6201 phone

List of projects that wouldn’t be built with the House version


There may be other things in the bill that deserve criticism, but without actually reading it, and without understanding what the text means, I must rely on other people’s information. I started reading parts of the proposed bill and saw that several sections were being repealed (like the Express Lanes demonstration program) but I couldn’t find the full text of the sections those repeals were referring to. You can read the full bill here.

I recommend reading Yonah Freemark’s opinion on the “grim transportation outlook” for 2012, wherein he references (before it was made available) the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee bill.

(1) The transit benefit and car parking benefit (the cost of the pass for either is deducted from your paycheck before taxes are calculated, saving you a couple hundred dollars each year) used to have parity. Then the bill that made the transit benefit temporarily equal to car parking expired, dropping it down to $5 above the previous level (now $125), and raising the car parking benefit to $10 above the previous level (now $230). I wrote about this in December.

* A non-accessible or inaccessible PDF means that it’s a scan of a printed page or that all text has been removed. You cannot select the text, nor can people with screen readers have their computers read the document aloud.

4 thoughts on “House of Representatives transportation bill fraught with bad ideas”

  1. Tangentially related, but that 59th Street connector will not be terribly useful unless a signal is added to Cornell. That street is a real shit show to cross, as it’s basically a secondary piece of Lake Shore Drive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *