Moving Ahead: An Incrementalist Senate Transportation Law

Spanning just an hour, a work session of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) held a work session this morning culminated in passage of a cornerstone piece of transportation law reauthorization. The new bill, simply titled “MAP-21 Reauthorization Act,” spans 6 years and includes nearly $243 billion in authorized spending on the federal-aid highway program.

It is, of course, incomplete since in the Senate unlike the House jurisdiction over this big program is split between four committees. It does mark the start of the legislating process, or as Senator Carper appetizingly put it, “eating an elephant begins with the first bite.”

A couple of red flags on this bill:               

  • Section 1303 strikes at section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act, a durable and effective protection of historic sites and structures. The National Trust for Historic Preservation wrote to EPW leaders pointedly on this:

“We are deeply concerned that the “MAP-21 Reauthorization Act” you released Monday night would severely undercut the long-standing protective mandates of section 4(f). Section 1303 would replace the long-standing substantive commitment to avoid harm to historic resources with a set of bureaucratic procedures that would depart sharply from long-standing practice.”

         The Trust also provides alternative wording that would fix this problem.

  • Senator Inhofe’s amendment to allow “alternative fuel vehicles” into HOV lanes, which could degrade their effectiveness in fighting congestion without providing offsetting environmental benefits.

Generally this is an incremental bill, making some useful if modest changes to current law. Notably, these include:

  • Changes to bridge investment requirements, including allowing for “bundling of bridge projects,” “flexibility for certain rural road and bridge projects” and bridge project eligibility, presumably meant to help clear the appalling maintenance and repair backlog that Transportation for America has so effectively highlighted via reports.
  • A host of freight provisions, ramping up federal and state strategic planning vis-à-vis the nation’s freight network. Some of these provisions resemble what’s in the Administration’s GROW AMERICA bill, which the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) rightly praises for their multimodalism and comprehensiveness. However, EPW deals mostly with one mode: Highways. I understand that this is their jurisdiction, and to a hammer everything resembles a nail. So now it’s incumbent on other committees to expand the reach and vision for this program so it’s more balanced and complete.
  • A “research and innovation program” to examine ways to secure user fees to maintain the solvency of the highway trust fund (HTF). This section creates a “Surface Transportation Revenue Alternatives Advisory Council” to examine a host of issues related to solvency and the user fee question (“user fee” has in the past referred to gas taxes although increasingly it can also mean tolls or road user charges of some sort) and reports with findings and recommendations. Just don’t enroll bomb-thrower Grover Norquist in this panel, since any recommendations are likely to include some sort of tax or fee to generate revenue.
  • An “American Transportation Awards,” which like TIGER is meant to spur virtuous competition for scarce federal dollars, rewarding innovations and best practices. This is a proven way to leverage taxpayer investments.
  • An entire subtitle on HTF “Transparency and Accountability” which would, among other things, create a de facto “National Highway Database” analogous to the National Transit Database currently in existence. This fits squarely in the “boring but important” category of policy change. I have long lamented the inverse law of government spending, in transportation and elsewhere: The bigger the account, the more opaque it is. Lo and behold, highways would now deliver a searchable database on par with transit and nonmotorized (i.e., bicycle and pedestrian ) projects.
  • Inevitably, streamlining of environmental reviews is in here as well. Except that – in lieu of a fixation on time limits and exclusions from reviews which can undercut their quality – the bill includes provisions such as a programmatic agreements template, reduction of duplication of subject matter from the planning to project development stages and technical assistance to states so they can complete reviews more quickly. Moving reviews along without undermining them is possible, and it looks like EPW has managed to thread that needle in this bill.

The managers of the bill – Senators Boxer, Vitter, Carper and Barrasso -- accepted 11 amendments including a good one from Senator Sanders that would “develop a plan and map of a potential national network of electric vehicle corridors and recharging infrastructure.”

With this milestone behind us, I look forward to the road ahead in the Senate and beyond.