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Feds Pass Weakened, Delayed Transportation Bill

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New transportation bill dedicates zero funding to existing road and bridge repair, leaving room for more and more highways.
New transportation bill dedicates zero funding to existing road and bridge repair, leaving room for more and more highways.

The wait is finally over: Last week, President Obama signed a $105 billion, 27-month federal transportation bill, ending a three-year delay in setting the country’s “long-term” transportation strategy. The last transportation bill, titled SAFETEA-LU, expired on Sept. 30, 2009; since then, the best Washington could do was to keep passing temporary extensions.

The bill will disappoint Michigan folks who want to see thriving cities, more transportation choices, wise spending, less sprawl, and better, safer, more efficient streets.

As I’ve noted in the past, the federal transportation bill guides planning and funding for state and local transportation agencies. It provides the stability most local agencies need from Washington to plan and fund their long-term projects.

That’s why, since SAFETEA-LU’s 2009 expiration, a broad coalition of groups and businesses, including many of our partners around the country, worked tirelessly to align the next bill with 21st-century values: better cities, better streets, more choices, and less dependence on oil and autos.

The end product, though, fell way short of those values.

While the Democratic-controlled Senate was busy crafting a bi-partisan bill that most thought would advance a sound policy, the Republican-controlled House clung to the status quo. And, ultimately, the final bill that showed up on the President’s desk last week looked more like the House version: more investment in new highways and cuts to transportation choices.

The best part about the bill, according to Tayna Snyder of DC Streetsblog, is that “it will be over in 27 months.”

Overall, the bill is not that different from current federal policy. But, when it comes to things we value in northern Michigan, there were a few surprising cuts and changes.

Here are a few of the bill’s most significant features, as reported by some of our national partners:

Fix it later. This bill dedicates zero funding to repairing roads and bridges. Currently, about 32% of highway funds are dedicated to road and bridge repairs. However, the new bill, as passed, removes any requirement that roads and bridges be improved before any new roads and highways are built. This means wasteful spending can go unchecked.

Drastic cuts to funding for walking and biking. Congress cut popular programs that help cities create safer streets for motorists, cyclists, those with disabilities, and bus riders, as well as offer more travel choices. The remaining money will go to states, which must spend half on street improvements and half at their own discretion and, according to reports, for things like left-turn lanes.

Some House conservatives said most bicycle and pedestrian money was a “frivolous waste of money,” largely spent on trees and flowers, even though bike and pedestrian spending represents less than 2 percent of transportation funding, according to America Bikes.

Congress also stripped Complete Streets language and dedicated funding for the popular Safe Routes to School from the final bill.

Transit survives. Surprisingly, transit funding didn’t take a large hit. While there were cuts to emergency transit programs and cuts to transit system expansions, the bill included new grant programs that could spark investment and development around bus and rail transit lines and streamlined the popular New Starts program.

Passenger rail chugs along. Despite its regained popularity because of high gas prices and downtown-to-downtown connections, the Senate’s proposals to improve passenger rail were excluded from the final bill. The only substantial rail-related provisions in the bill included improvements to dangerous crossings in order to prevent vehicle and train collisions. In Michigan, however, freight and passenger rail remains a bi-partisan priority.

More local control. States and cities will have more discretion about how transportation dollars are spent. In addition, the feds made more loan money available for regions that find a way to raise their own money to pay for transportation.

I see two positive signs for Michigan:

First, as a result of this bill, lawmakers in Lansing will be under pressure to let cities and regions control their own futures by allowing them to raise their own money to meet their own transportation needs. Right now, our cities and regions lack options like regional or county sales taxes, popular tools in other states, to fund our own transportation goals. The time for local funding options is now.

Secondly, most of us agree that this will be the last outdated transportation bill. The rise in citizen-led advocacy for better cities, better streets, and better ways to get around will soon catch up with Washington. It’s time to get to work on the next bill.

To read about the bill, check out these blog posts from our national partners, DC Streetsblog, Transportation for America, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

James Bruckbauer is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation policy specialist. Follow him on Twitter at @jimbruckb. Reach him at james@mlui.org.

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