Don't Make A Good Transportation Bill A Pipe Dream

As I sit here watching the Senate debate on the national transportation bill (a long series of debates and votes on amendments dubbed "vote-o-rama" by insiders), for the first time I see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for this bill.

That's good news, since it has been a looong time coming (almost two-and-a-half years). Looking in the rear view mirror, I see previous proposals from former Transportation Committee Chair Oberstar and the Obama Administration, which provided some of the grist for the current debate (for example, both bills proposed dramatic consolidation of the program to decrease bureaucratic inefficiencies). I see advocacy campaigns by national groups as varied as the Chamber of Commerce and Transportation for America, as well as host of state and local groups. I also remember the proposal to build a "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska which poisoned the well irrevocably against such wasteful earmarks.

And now the Senate is finishing up work on its 2-year, $109-billion investment program, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or MAP-21. As I've written, as reported out of committee this was a solid bill which improved as amended repeatedly since its unveiling in December.

Can it pass? Hopefully. However, it's being debated in the U.S. Senate where every single member can blow up a policy if they set their mind to it. Consequently there are 30 votes stacked one right after the other this afternoon, as per a deal struck by the Majority Leader (Sen. Reid) and Minority Leader (Sen. McConnell).

NRDC has positions on them, as detailed below:

OPPOSE: Vitter amendment #1535 - This amendment would allow drilling off of every coast without any consideration of environmental impacts by requiring the Administration to revert to a Bush Administration schedule of lease sales that even Bush bureaucrats said lacked important safeguards for the environment. It would allow possible lease sales off every shore – including California, the entire Atlantic Coast, Alaska and the Arctic, in addition to the Gulf of Mexico.  This program never received a legal environmental review, and as a draft proposal, was never meant to be the be-all end-all program for leasing, even under the former Administration.  By forcing the implementation of this draft program, Senator Vitter’s amendment would not only drastically increase drilling off of all of our coasts, but also it would mandate drilling with absolutely zero consideration of environmental safeguards for our coasts and the communities who depend on healthy and clean oceans. For more information, see here. NRDC urges a NO vote.

OPPOSE: Collins amendment #1660 - This amendment nullifies existing protections against mercury and toxic air pollution from incinerators and industrial boilers, then delays compliance with any new standards by a minimum of 3.5 years. For just the amendment's minimum 3.5 year delay beyond current law, this will result in up to 28,350 more premature deaths, over 17,000 heart attacks, and more than 180,000 cases of asthma attacks.  But this amendment is not just a simple delay.  It rewrites the Clean Air Act itself to eliminate compliance deadlines entirely and to eviscerate longstanding Clean Air Act provisions that require deep reductions in toxic air pollution from incinerators and industrial boilers. The amendment would mandate that EPA set meaningless standards based on the emissions of the dirtiest sources, rather than the cleanest. More information is available hereNRDC urges a NO vote.

OPPOSE: Coburn amendment #1738 - This amendment, which failed last year, would cut the discretionary caps by another $10 billion from the recently agreed upon level in the Budget Control Act (BCA).  The amendment is another devastating cut in discretionary levels, which will harm our nation’s ability to protect our natural resources and environment.  The Senate should reject this attempt to lower the discretionary spending cap that was agreed to just six months ago.  NRDC urges a NO vote.

SUPPORT: Nelson-Shelby-Landrieu amendment #1822 - This amendment would address a key recommendation of the President’s National Oil Spill Commission to direct 80% of Clean Water Act penalties collected as a result of the BP Gulf oil disaster towards restoration of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.  Ecosystem restoration of the Gulf coast is critically needed.  Restoring resilience to the Gulf ecosystem is essential to sustain the Gulf economy now and for future generations.  This amendment would also authorize a National Endowment for the Oceans, an important investment in ensuring our oceans are able to sustain our nation and coastal economies well into the future.  NRDC urges a YES vote.

OPPOSE: Hoeven amendment #1537 - This amendment would have Congress approve the already rejected Keystone XL tar sands pipeline without necessary environmental review or a process to determine if the project is in the national interest. It would also circumvent a process designed to protect the public’s safety, health, and economic well being. It is not in the public interest to approve a project that that will  worsen climate change, have a high chance of oil spills, and raise oil prices – all so that tar sands companies can get export tar sands from the Gulf.  The amendment also would turn Congress into a permitting agency.  For more information, see here. NRDC urges a NO vote.

SUPPORT: Stabenow amendment # 1812 – this amendment includes provisions to extend critical incentives that support renewable energy and energy efficiency.  It helps level the playing field for these critical clean technologies, and helps American companies compete around the world.  It extends the renewable energy production tax credit, the 48C manufacturing tax credit, the 1603 Treasury Program, the efficient existing and new homes tax credit and the efficient appliances tax credit, allows for the inclusion of algae in biofuel incentives and expands the 48C investment tax credit to offshore wind.  We do not support the reauthorization of the production credit for refined coal, the suspension of limitation on percentage depletion for oil and gas for marginal wells, and alternative fuels excise tax, and this provision should be dropped in conference.  However, on balance, this amendment is an important step forward in the continuing expansion of our nation’s clean energy economy.  NRDC urges a YES vote.

OPPOSE: DeMint amendment #1589 - This amendment would repeal critical incentives for clean energy, including the renewable energy production and investment tax credits, and the cellulosic biofuel tax credit. While the amendment also repeals a limited number of fossil subsidies that are no longer justified, we should not have to choose between subsidizing mature fossil fuels and deploying new energy technologies that the nation needs. This amendment would delay our transition to safer, cleaner forms of energy.  NRDC urges a NO vote.

OPPOSE: DeMint amendment #1756 - This amendment would strike and replace the entire bill with a version that drastically shrinks the federal transportation program, eliminating all but core highway programs and eliminating the Mass Transit Account, the Surface Transportation Program, the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, and Transportation Enhancements. This would destroy a host of programs that finance construction and maintenance of commuter and light rail lines, bus systems, bike paths, sidewalks, and other clean transportation choices. It would also dramatically shrink highway investments by ramping down user fees from 18.3 cents to 3.7 cents by 2016 in the case of gasoline taxes and 24.3 cents to 5.0 cents for diesel taxes and slashing the overall program proportionally. This amendment would take the transportation program back to the 1950s at a time when the nation faces an incredibly competitive 21st-century global economy, jeopardizing environmental quality and economic prosperity.  NRDC urges a NO vote.

OPPOSE: Coats amendment #1517 - This amendment would move the minimum apportionment of transportation revenues up to 100%, which defeats the point of a federal program that might redistribute some revenue for national purposes. NRDC urges a NO vote.

OPPOSE: Portman amendment #1736 - This radical amendment would allow state highway agencies to pull out of the federal program entirely if they so wish, jeopardizing environmentally beneficial investments in programs such as the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement and Transportation Enhancements programs. NRDC urges a NO vote.

OPPOSE: Corker amendment #1785 - This amendment would cut discretionary spending by $20 billion on top of the cuts Congress already has agreed to. The deficit cannot be controlled by cutting the heart out of discretionary spending, which includes funding for environmental programs.  NRDC urges a NO vote.

SUPPORT: Shaheen amendment #1678 - This amendment would provide operating assistance to small bus systems, which will improve air quality in small towns and rural communities. NRDC urges a YES vote.

SUPPORT: Carper amendment #1670 - This amendment would allow states to place tolls on Interstates with proceeds available for investments in the corridor. This would end the requirements of states needing federal approval. If passed this amendment would price road travel more accurately, finance road repairs (which reduces pollution-generating congestion), and help finance clear alternatives such as bus rapid transit. NRDC urges a YES vote.

OPPOSE: Hutchison amendment #1568 - This amendment would prevent federally assisted highways from being tolled, making the financing of road maintenance more difficult and thereby potentially increasing congestion and reducing capital available for transit alternatives. NRDC urges a NO vote.

SUPPORT: Boxer amendment #1816 - This Sense of the Senate Resolution urges agencies to take advantage of procedures in current law to move expeditiously when rebuilding after a disaster. NRDC urges a YES vote.

OPPOSE: Paul amendment #1556 - This amendment would exempt from any environmental reviews, approvals, licensing and permit requirements for rebuilding a project that was closed due to safety reasons. This amendment would undermine public oversight and necessary environmental safeguards for rebuilding—and it would do so unnecessarily since the law already allows for expedited procedures after emergencies. NRDC urges a NO vote.

However, even if these big roadblocks are cleared there's more trouble up ahead.

On the one hand, the House Leadership appears to be leaning towards passing the Senate bill. Perhaps they finally recognize the wisdom of one of the most frank and outspoken members of its caucus, OH Rep. LaTourette: "They could, God forbid, produce a bill that could get some Democrats to vote for it.” Legislating is, after all, about addition (you need majority support to pass anything).

On the other hand, Rep. Mica, current Chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, seems to have no appetite for reaching across the aisle. This is one of the guys who wrote the worst transportation bill ever. In his committee his bill got zero Democratic votes, and even lost a Republican vote. And that happened in the wee hours of the morning after an extremely contentious 18 hours of fighting over more than 100 amendments.

Today he quipped "As many as we could make" when asked how many amendments he'd make to the Senate's bipartisan, balanced bill. That's deplorable.

The Senate is about to take us closer to a two-year transportation law that would funnel badly needed investments to states and communities across the country. Let's hope the controversial, anti-environmental riders described above fall by the wayside.

And then let's hope the House takes that vehicle the rest of the way to the end of this long tunnel, with no more partisan game-playing by the Speaker and the Transportation Chair.

It's time for the Senate and House to pass a clean version of MAP-21.