Greater Greater Washington

Government


House transportation bill is "a march of horribles"

The House's five-year transportation bill is slated for release on Tuesday. Based on an early summary, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act looks like a return to 1950s-style transportation policy. It is particularly unkind to transit and bike/ped programs, and to cities in general.


Highways 'n' pipelines: The cover page to the House transportation bill brochure. Image from Politico.

The bill's overarching themes, again in the absence of official language, seem to be:

  • Funneling as much money as possible to highways
  • Giving even more power to spend that money to state DOTs, not cities and metro regions
  • Shortening the environmental review process
  • Eliminating programs "that do not have a federal interest," which apparently includes all dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs
  • Doing away with discretionary transit programs, which would spell the end for the very successful TIGER
  • Augmenting gas tax revenue with a yet-unspecified revenue stream from oil and gas drilling

One example the summary gives of a project not in the federal interest is the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, which distributed four $25 million grants "to demonstrate how improved walking and bicycling networks can increase rates of walking and bicycling." One of those grants went to Minneapolis, which is making great strides in promoting biking and walking. If reauthorized at current levels, NTPP would account for 0.04 percent of the bill's total appropriations.

The "flexibility" afforded states to minimize spending on bike/ped and transit, as well as the bill's reliance on oil drilling, have advocates outraged. The Sierra Club's Jesse Prentice-Dunn told Streetsblog that the bill represents "a significant step backwards for safe biking and walking."

"Americans are looking for transportation choices that can conveniently get them where they need to go without polluting the planet," Prentice-Dunn said. "Today more than 12 percent of trips are made by foot or bike, yet less than 2 percent of our nation's transportation funding goes towards biking and pedestrian infrastructure.

According to the Alliance for Biking and Walking, bike commuting increased 57 percent between 2000 and 2009. Instead of increasing investment in transportation options that Americans want, the House bill appears to funnel more dollars towards roads, further deepening our addiction to oil."

The bill would also cut Amtrak's operating subsidy by 25 percent in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, would keep existing lanes on the interstate highway system toll-free, and would allow states to use up to 15 percent of their total highway funds to capitalize state infrastructure banks (currently the maximum is 10 percent).

Deron Lovaas, Federal Transportation Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Streetsblog that the bill "looks uninspiring at best, giving states a lot of authority without a lot of accountability."

"The language about curtailing environmental reviews is alarming, but it's probably the tip of the iceberg compared to what we'd see in the bill itself. It's a march of horribles... and they'll go much further than the Senate in eliminating environmentally beneficial programs," Lovaas said. "I can't help but conclude that the house Republican leadership has hijacked the transportation bill and shattered the idea of bipartisanship in transportation policy making."

The new date for the full bill's unveiling is Tuesday, January 31.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.
Ben Goldman is a freelance writer and city planner who is covering the federal transportation beat for Streetsblog Capitol Hill while Tanya Snyder is away.  

Comments

Add a comment »

I've asked this question before, but what is the federal interest TODAY in paying for the interstate highway system?

by charlie on Jan 30, 2012 11:00 am • linkreport

While I agree with the sentiment of the article, please recognize the difference between federal and local governments. Interstate highways are federal infrastructure. Sidewalks and bike lanes are local infrastructure. States and municipalities can fund these if they want (and they should) but it is not the federal government's role. It is not Washington's job to examine competing municipal projects and pick winners and losers.

by Pat on Jan 30, 2012 11:21 am • linkreport

@Pat: I see your logic, but it's extremely hard to separate federal infrastructure from state or local.

For example, I-95 near D.C. is hugely important for the economy and well-being of the area. Many (I admit I don't know the number) people use it to get to work, tons of freight travel on it, emergency providers use it, etc. But it's also a vital link in long-distance travel, which is obviously a federal concern. So who should pay for it?

And of course, the state of I-95 affects sidewalks and bike lanes (bike lanes moreso). If I-95 is in worse condition or has worse traffic, bike commuting is likely to increase, and vice versa.

by Tim on Jan 30, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

@pat - that is not correct. Interstate highways are owned by state govts. The congress choooses to fund work on them, but they are not federal property.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 30, 2012 11:38 am • linkreport

I could be wrong but I read Pat's response as making a distinction between what we consider local and federal "projects"..if you will. This was in response to the idea that bike lanes/ped "projects" should receive equitable funding.

There is a rather big difference between a project the spans an entire corridor...like I-95 vs. bike lanes in DC.

by HogWash on Jan 30, 2012 11:47 am • linkreport

I am only addressing the funding issue. Who technically owns the highways is not too relevant compared to where the money comes from. I agree that it is a tough issue as most interstates have a tremendous local impact. And federal highways will affect local transportation. But it is extremely difficult to argue that the federal government should be involved in dictating funding for specific bike/ped projects. We should look for greater consideration when it comes to federal government but I certainly don't want the federal DOT analyzing whether a town in South Dakota is more worthy of a $500k bike/ped grant than a county in Maryland. That is not a federal role in my opinion.

by Pat on Jan 30, 2012 11:50 am • linkreport

"Eliminating programs "that do not have a federal interest ... "

Assuming this summarization is correct, then this is a very good thing for the District. By definition, nearly all our roads have federal interest. (They're even titled to the federal government.) So, when the choice comes between funding some downtown street in Anywhere USA or funding road work in DC, DC comes out the clear winner based on this constraint.

And if the case can be made that other amenities such as bike lanes are also in the federal interest by virtue of their being located in the federal district, then the same adavantage exists here too for us.

Our priviledged position in terms of funding in this case is really the other side of the coin of our having to put up with the 'burdens' that come with being the nation's capital (e.g. hosting protests that have a national aspect to them vs. a local one.)

by Lance on Jan 30, 2012 11:52 am • linkreport

@HogWash
Exactly. I firmly believe in funding for bike/ped/local transit projects but I don't think it is bad that the federal government gets out of this arena. I think cities, states, and metro regions should decide these things for themselves. I don't want the federal government telling me how and where bike lanes should be built in Annapolis or Bethesda. I think GGW should applaud this, although I'm sure the whole transportation bill has a lot more going on than federal vs local transportation projects.

by Pat on Jan 30, 2012 11:54 am • linkreport

@Charlie "I've asked this question before, but what is the federal interest TODAY in paying for the interstate highway system?

I can think of two right off the top of my head: national defense (moving troops and materiel from one location to another) and interstate commerce.

The first reason, national defense, is what got the Interstate sytem kicked off in the first place, and the second reason, facilitating interstate commerce is clearly in line with one of the federal government's first mandates ... facilitating interstate commerce. (I.e., what caused the Articles of Confederation to fail, and a new federal constitution to be written in its place, was the disjointedness that was being caused by each of the several states having customs and trying to be protectionist. The European Union likewise started off by facitilitating interstate commerce via the coal treaties of the 50s followed by the Common Market and then the harmonization of standards and abolition of customs and border posts which allowed the transitioning to the European Union. I.e., this is a BIG reason. And the problem with making the case that bike lanes will help in this is that I don't imagine much interstate transport occurs via self-propelled means ...)

by Lance on Jan 30, 2012 12:00 pm • linkreport

@Lance; from what I read, the national defense argument was used as a purpose mostly to overcome the interstate commerce objections of the Taft Republicans back in the 1950s.

Again, I see a federal interest in building these interstates, but I am unclear on the federal interest in maintaining them. Certainily there is a federal interest in regulating it and keeping it free.

I use interstate bike transport about 3x a week. However, as in many things, the DC area is an outlier for that.

by charlie on Jan 30, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

When the federal government stops funding all projects that primarily benefit the residents of a given state, and only applies the gas tax to purchases for interstate travel (or replaces the gas tax with tolls), I'll buy the argument that bike-ped (and transit) do not belong in a federal highway bill.

But until then, we have a system in which the federal government funds almost all types activities that take place in our nation. To exclude bike-ped from the highway bill would be to enact a federal policy against biking and walking.

by Jim Titus on Jan 30, 2012 12:25 pm • linkreport

The federal government's interest is to better connect localities/states, ensuring that our transportation system benefits from "network effects". Ensuring a strong transportation network that spans the country isn't going to get done without federal funding and coordination.

Unfortunately, the federal government has metastasized through pork barrel spending and general power grabbing to take a role in transportation well beyond this scope. Many road projects have only a partial-to-tangential relationship to the federal interest. So, if the federal government is going to go beyond scope on roads, then it needs to go beyond scope for other types of transportation projects, including transit and bike/ped.

We'd be better off with a more limited federal government but the more important point is that we minimize distortions created by the feds. To do that, we need to balance road spending on non-fed interests with transit/bike/ped spending on non-fed interests.

by Falls Church on Jan 30, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church "The federal government's interest is to better connect localities/states, ensuring that our transportation system benefits from "network effects".

Are you sure you can tie that into one of the powers handed to the federal government in the Constitution? I'm not seeing a place to connect the dots between 'better connect localities/states' that gives a blanket coverage to all modes of transport ... i.e., you need to explain 'whats the reason for the better connectivity?' is it to move troops and materiel around? is it to allow for easier interstate commerce (eg. moving people or goods around?) ... you're reason doesn't stand on its own as enunciated.

by Lance on Jan 30, 2012 12:50 pm • linkreport

The federal government certainly has a legitimate role in promoting programs that remove cars from congested interstates within and between metropolitan areas. They don't even have to steer the funding, but they should allocate funds for that purpose.

by CJ on Jan 30, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

@Lance. Please Gibbons v. Ogden by Justice John Marshall.

Basically, the commerce power has included all interstate transportation since 1824.

by Jim Titus on Jan 30, 2012 12:58 pm • linkreport

If greater proportions of funding are returned to States &/or regulations are loosened on how they can spend that money, then in the context of cutting ped/bike programs... are there any new regulations which would make it more difficult to pick up the tab, assuming net funding availability remained otherwise unchanged? If not, I might actually be inclined to see that aspect as a good thing.

by Bossi on Jan 30, 2012 12:59 pm • linkreport

"I am only addressing the funding issue. Who technically owns the highways is not too relevant compared to where the money comes from."

Then if bike ped projects are federally funded, they are just as federal as Insterstates, yes? Interstates are just a set of numbers and signs on roads meeting certain standards.

"I agree that it is a tough issue as most interstates have a tremendous local impact. And federal highways will affect local transportation. But it is extremely difficult to argue that the federal government should be involved in dictating funding for specific bike/ped projects. "

I dont think thats how it works now. There is a portion of $$ set aside for bike/ped projects, that metro areas (through MPOs) prioritize as they wish. IIUC this would eliminate that set aside - the amount to go to bike/ped would be determined by states - which A. could be less than the current set aside and B. Its hinted above, would be less than what the MPOs would like.

It can be argued that bike/ped projects are completely local in impact - I could see the logic of that more if we priced carbon, and so could ignore GHG impacts. And if we neglected the likely public health benefits.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 30, 2012 1:06 pm • linkreport

The federal government's interest is to better connect localities/states, ensuring that our transportation system benefits from "network effects". Ensuring a strong transportation network that spans the country isn't going to get done without federal funding and coordination.

Yes but it's hard to argue that a local transportation network (DC for instance) should network itself to North Carolina. Much easier to talk about I-95 connecting NC and DC.

The question this article raises is how things are funded.

by HogWash on Jan 30, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

@Charlie "I've asked this question before, but what is the federal interest TODAY in paying for the interstate highway system?"

@Lance "I can think of two right off the top of my head: national defense (moving troops and materiel from one location to another) and interstate commerce."

By now, everyone knows the experience of a young Captain Eisenhower trying to move the Motor Transport Convoy along the Lincoln Highway in 1919. That would morph into the perceived need in the 1950s to build a network of highways that would permit the evacuation of cities in times of national emergencies. Or so the story goes.

I wouldn't bet on any of our Interstates being a reliable evac route, would you?

The military angle is beside the point anyway. The feds provided funding to states for the interstate highway system much as they had for the U.S. highway system 30 years prior, and that was for interstate commerce. The feds do not "own" the interstates; they simply helped the states build them.

In so doing, Washington created an infrastructure with minimum standards for speed, safety, and reliability. I-80 in Pennsylvania looks just like I-80 in California. (well, almost) Travelling from state to state is seamless; the signs look the same, the ramps are constructed the same, the pavement is the same, the curves are the same.

That is the legacy of the Interstates, and hence, the fed interest in them.

by Jack Love on Jan 30, 2012 1:15 pm • linkreport

FWIW, the Eisenhower story about the difficulty of travel across the country may be true, but it has little to do with the reality of the planning for, lobbying for, and creation of an interstate highway system, which was first hypothesized in the late 1930s, almost 20 years before Eisenhower signed the bill.

I happen to have a copy of an issue of Fortune Magazine from 8/36, with an article explaining how such highways could work with great graphics.

- http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/3559613458/

2. The justification of continued federal funding for interstate highways and the US routes (e.g., Route 1 or Route 50) has to do with interstate transportation, as Jim Titus pointed out, which derives from early Supreme Court holdings.

3. Really, the funding is federal but under the general handling of states, with reporting and operating requirements, planning requirements etc. It's not like the FHWA is there micro-managing the projects.

The system was created by the guy who ran the Bureau of Public Roads back in the 1920s as a way to get federal funding for state-managed projects, to build a national road system.

4. FWIW/2, plenty of federally designated road infrastructure is created that has locally serving characteristics, where accommodation of bicyclists and pedestrians should be prioritized, and too frequently isn't.

by Richard Layman on Jan 30, 2012 2:10 pm • linkreport

RE: the following:
It is not Washington's job to examine competing municipal projects and pick winners and losers.

Bike/ped funding doesn't pick winners and losers - it just dedicates funding to be spent on a certain type of project.

As for those of you arguing about the "federal interest," the federal interest in specifying that a certain amount of funding be spent on bike/ped is that biking and walking have positive benefits for the community and the nation, health & wellness, creating walkable places that reduce travel distances and therefore energy usage, etc.

As someone else said, the market and current built environment is distorted because of decades of roads/highway only funding. Specifying money for bike/ped is trying to make up for that distortion.

by MLD on Jan 30, 2012 2:12 pm • linkreport

Any indication whether the streamlining of regulations/simplifying multi-agency jurisdictional overlap and the shortening of the environmental review process might meaningfully aid non-automotive transportation projects?

I believe there's a provision to allow federal, state, & local governments to start to acquire land for transportation projects before completing the review, in contrast to some situations now where that is delayed. If so, that might be a positive.

by Arl Fan on Jan 30, 2012 3:07 pm • linkreport

First off, let's put aside the question of whether the government has the constitutional authority to meddle in transportation. This is not a question that's being seriously debated and it's not an issue that's going before the Supreme Court anytime soon.

Second, let's define "federal interest". A reasonable definition is the federal government has an interest in promoting its citizen's overall well-being by taking actions that are productive AND can be best taken by the federal government (as opposed to the private sector or local governments).

Yes but it's hard to argue that a local transportation network (DC for instance) should network itself to North Carolina. Much easier to talk about I-95 connecting NC and DC.

Exactly. The federal government's role should be limited to things like better connecting DC and North Carolina, not meddling in DC and NC's local transportation network. But, meddle they do! Many road projects that get federal money have little to do with connecting two different states/localities. Now, the question is that if the feds are going to fund road projects that are really part of a local transpo network (and have nothing to do with the "federal interest"), why shouldn't they also fund bike/ped that's part of a local network (and has nothing to do with "federal interest")? They should fund both in proportion to their current demand and their projected future growth -- allowing market demand to drive allocation decisions.

Of course, the federal government has interests that stretch beyond the scope of transportation to include the environment, public health, etc. But, there's clearly a relationship between transportation and things like the environment and public health. Since that's the case, it's reasonable that money allocated to things like clean air are spent on CaBi or money that's allocated for public health gets spent on improving walkability.

you need to explain 'whats the reason for the better connectivity?' is it to move troops and materiel around? is it to allow for easier interstate commerce (eg. moving people or goods around?)

Yes, it's to facilitate the movement of people and goods, which promotes commerce and other aspects of citizen well-being (such as being able to go to grandma's house for Thanksgiving).

by Falls Church on Jan 30, 2012 4:09 pm • linkreport

For the purposes of this act, the "federal interest" is defined on p. 2 as transportation "programs and projects that have regional and national impacts" that are paid for by the Highway Trust Fund. FWIW.

by goldfish on Jan 31, 2012 8:56 am • linkreport

Why would anyone think federal bureaucrats in Washington would know best how a locality such as say Savannah or Dayton or Grand Junction feels they do...or do not...need to promote pedal transportation or bike trails? The problem is that the FEDS take the money from taxpayers, dole it out, add tons of silly regulations and then expect localities to fund the up-keep.

If voters don't want bike share or bike trails or walkways they surely should not have to pay for them. By returning $$$ to the states and municipalities...communities can spend it on their needs...not those of wild eyed urban planners who don't understand economics.

by Pelham1861 on Jan 31, 2012 4:39 pm • linkreport

If Savannah or Dayton or Grand Junction don't want or need a bike trail, they don't have to apply for the funds.

by Matt Johnson on Jan 31, 2012 4:46 pm • linkreport

While we're on the subject of rural bike infrastructure, Lydia DePhilis just tweeted this:
@DDOTDC picks outsider to head up Bikeshare, Circulator, Streetcar: bit.ly/ztjsgV

by oboe on Jan 31, 2012 4:54 pm • linkreport

"March of horribles" (I think you meant"Parade of horribles") are terms used to usually described somebody committing a logical fallacy.

And when bikers start paying gas taxes, I'll worry about them getting taxpayer funded trails

by Bill on Feb 10, 2012 9:11 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or

Support Us

How can our region be greater?

DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC