Making the Impossible Possible? The Senate Moves the DRIVE Act

"Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

~ Alice

Analyzing federal transportation bills such as the newly minted Senate DRIVE Act (pdf here) is an interesting exercise, like following a trail left by various lobbyists. Who asked for this piece? Why did this get included? What is this section supposed to do?

First, it's clear this bill is about roads and highways. It increases the size of highway programs over 6 years, and until changes just a couple of days ago it looked like the mass transit account would get shortchanged vis-à-vis what percentage of money goes to it. That's changed, so the ratio of growth in highways vs. transit is more balanced. Of course, "balanced" in this context means highways still get about 4 times as much funding as transit!

Yes, the highway provisions are the most robust in the bill. Two emblems of this are the new freight and Assistance for Major Projects (AMP) programs. Kevin DeGood at the Center for American Progress has already done yeoman's work critiquing these here. The upshot is that both are highway-centric programs (e.g., multimodal projects would get less than 10 percent of the funding), continuing the federal and state DOT tradition of addressing transportation problems in bureaucratic silos with limited competition between possible solutions (e.g., would a different type of project or a different regional plan be smarter?).

And once again in spite of the fact that an overhaul in the last transportation bill is still being implemented, environmental and historic preservation reviews of projects take hits in the bill. I wrote about these provisions a month ago, and now even more provisions got dropped in that damage reviews of rail and other projects.

This bill also includes a lot of refreshing provisions that aimed at improving the performance of our intercity rail system. Specifically, it includes $7.6 billion in authorized funding for Amtrak over 4 years as well as the entire "Railroad Reform, Enhancement and Efficiency Act" cosponsored by Senators Booker (D-NJ) and Wicker (R-MS). This 100+ page section of the bill contains the best policy moves in it. The act would improve route planning, create new metrics for performance, put states and corridors (such as the important Northeast Corridor) on better footing as partners in planning and decisionmaking, and otherwise rationalize and reform rail investments so they are more nationally strategic. For more on these important sections see this analysis from the National Association of Railroad Passengers. The huge downside for rail title is the bill's adoption of the shortsighted and unnecessary rollbacks for environmental reviews for highway projects included in 2012's MAP-21 (I've written about these here and here) and applying them to rail. Cutting out public participation and consideration of alternatives for any transportation project, rail or roads, is harmful policy.

Tightening the lens reveals several smaller changes to law that help or hurt.


  • A focus on innovation, with more funding available for intelligent transportation technologies (ITS) that help improve system efficiency (e.g., electronic tolling and signage). ITS America clearly had the Senate's ears, since the bill includes a new $30 million/year competitive grant program for deployment of these technologies, continued funding of $100 million/year for ITS research, and new competitive Innovation Grants drawn from an existing Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) program. There's also a big new competitive grant program - "Achievement in Transportation for Performance and Innovation" that supports innovative planning activities at a not-shabby $150 million/year. The bill also supports work at two universities on low-emission transit vehicles as well as a new "Smart Cities Transportation Study."
  • Improvements to metropolitan planning so that it addresses resilience (important as climate changes) and puts intercity buses on equitable footing with other modes of transportation, with the latter showing that the American Bus Association got traction in this bill too.
  • Creative expansion of the Transportation Infrastructure Financing Innovation Act (TIFIA) program with a new pilot infrastructure accelerator program to fund predevelopment activities to grease the skids for innovative projects, as well as reducing the minimum amount allowable for ITS or transit-oriented development (TOD) projects. Interestingly, these changes are coupled with a pretty dramatic cut to the overall TIFIA program, which Congress was so bullish about in 2012.
  • Requires the Secretary of DOT to "encourage" protection of pollinator habitat and makes such activities eligible for highway funding, something NRDC and allies including the American Society of Landscape Architects favor.
  • Complements traditional American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials road design guidance with more city- and suburb-friendly National Association of City Transportation Officials urban street design guidance (this is where Greenroads certification would also be a good idea moving forward).


  • Eliminates the congestion management process required of metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), an important step for examining projects which can give travelers relief from congestion (e.g., by providing public transportation options). The law also takes a step back from integration of public transit agencies on MPO boards, making that a "may" not "shall" proposition for these agencies.
  • Provides an incentive for states to tax electric vehicles in order to generate revenue for transportation, a move that NRDC calculations show would generate little return while deterring the commercialization of this clean energy technology.
  • Removes mentions of "policies and land use patterns that promote public transportation" from project development, engineering and selection criteria for investments in new fixed-route transit lines in the New Starts program, puzzling given the importance of such a context for success of bus or rail transit.

Thanks largely to the rail provisions and the handful of good policy proposals listed above, this bill would advance transportation policy on several fronts. However, it makes little progress on making the whole transportation program more strategic. An earlier draft of the highway title attempted to do that by instituting a complicated structure of preferential matching - the more Congress favored an investment the higher the federal match (e.g., this would have put a thumb on the scale in favor of repair and maintenance, a "fix-it-first" policy that makes eminent strategic sense). That was intriguing, and strategic in a big picture way. But it got stripped out.

What's left is a transportation bill that seems impossible with Senators such as climate-skeptic Jim Inhofe at the helm. One that is, granted, laden with too much highwaybuilding. AND - one that also contains several laudable policy advances. Credit Senator Barbara Boxer for this achievement.

However, there is another impossible section of this bill. The final piece, the Finance Title. First of all, the bill authorizes spending for 6 years but only funds three. Congress is counting on future selves to take a more courageous and far-sighted look at the challenge of funding this bill in an era when former Senator Russell Long's old quip "Don't tax me, don't tax thee, tax that man behind the tree" is turbocharged by fear of primary election challenges to anyone who endorses a tax increase.

And the three years of funding is fantastical in itself. The Finance Committee literally scraped the bottom of the barrel, pulling together odds and ends from customs and passport fees, mortgage financing and - get this - future sales of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). Yes, that's right, future sales of oil from this reserve supply subject to controversy from previous drawdowns helps fund the first three years of this bill. Specifically, the Senate proposes to sell 97 million barrels of oil from the reserve from 2018-2024 (perhaps hoping for higher oil prices?) to fund this bill for the next three years.

The Finance provisions step beyond the looking glass, and that's really unfortunate given the surprisingly good policies tucked into this bill in other sections.

Bottom line - Despite a lack of unifying strategy that makes it too highway-heavy, unacceptable additional damage to environmental and historic preservation protections, a Finance Title that reads like bad fiction, and a stark contrast with the Administration's more visionary GROW AMERICA Act, I still give this bill one cheer and urge the Senate to knock out the harmful and keep the helpful moving forward.