Senate Transportation Bill Misses Opportunity for Historic Change; Includes a Mix of Positive and Negative Measures


Statement by Phineas Baxandall, U.S. PIRG’s Senior Transportation Analyst, regarding the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s draft transportation two-year bill released Friday and marked up today. The nation has been without a new transportation bill since the previous law expired in September 2009 and has been subject to repeated temporary extensions.

“The Senate bill falls far short of the kind of decisive progress that America’s transportation system needs. America’s beleaguered transportation system is ailing and needs new direction for the 21st century, especially to become less dependent on oil. While this bill has some good provisions, it does not step up to the task. It contains some half measures and a few meaningful fixes, as well as real missteps that we hope will be addressed.

“The best part of the bill is the creation of initial steps toward state accountability for maintaining transportation assets in a state of good repair. This is an area that has been seriously neglected in past years and has led to unnecessary costs and reduced performance for highways and bridges. The bill would finally require states to develop plans for managing the expensive assets that taxpayers have funded and to establish performance targets for the condition of roads and bridges. The program includes provisions that could help to ensure that states do not allow their roadways to fall into disrepair while they divert funds toward building new and wider highways. These are important steps, though the provisions mostly lack teeth and potential accountability measures could not begin until after the bill expires.

“Unfortunately, the past history of implementing toothless federal accountability measures in transportation is not encouraging. The initial metrics and planning requirements will need to be followed up with more automatic “fix-it-first” rules to prevent wasteful spending.

“A notable change is the more than eight-fold increase in funds for TIFIA, the program meant to provide federal financing to provide greater leverage of local and private investments in public infrastructure. In addition to being larger, the program would have greater potential to be spend well or badly. The committee should be applauded for eliminating past obstacles which prevented cities like Los Angeles and public transit agencies from applying to use their dedicated revenues with these funds. On the other hand, the bill would eliminate selection criteria that were meant to ensure the most deserving projects are selected. It would instead spend the larger pool of funds on a first-come-first-served basis among eligible applicants. This is a step backwards when it comes to delivering the best performance for these public dollars. Congress should instead strengthen the selection criteria along the lines laid out by the Department of Transportation in late 2009

“One cause for concern is the elimination of three programs that have been important for bike and pedestrian transportation and for integrating larger transportation assets into public streetscapes. These functions will now be served by a smaller pot of funds that will be divided also among additional functions.

“Another disappointment in the Senate bill is that it appears to only maintain the currently inadequate portion of transportation funds directed to public transit. America needs to invest in more and better public transportation to meet the rising demand for ridership and reduce our nation’s dependence on oil. Public transit spending will be the jurisdiction of the Banking Committee, but the Environment and Public Works Committee has not made financial room for greater transit investment.

“We are encouraged by positive signs and look forward to working with the committee to improve this bill as it moves its way through the Senate and is joined by companion legislation from other committees.”

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U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, is a non-profit, non-partisan public interest advocacy organization.

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