Senate Commerce Committee Pushes Improvements to Transportation Law

The Senate transportation bill took a laudable turn en route to passage today, with the Commerce Committee voting out a major component (called a "title," in this case covering rail and safety issues). This title addresses safety programs -- including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which also has authority to set fuel economy performance standards -- and rail policy and investments.

Senators Lautenberg, Cantwell and Begich played key roles in improving the title by including a version of the FREIGHT (an acronym sparing us the mouthful of "Focusing Resources, Economic Investment, and Guidance to Help Transportation") Act as well as a "complete streets" policy to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians. This means that the title now has actual performance objectives, allows for funding to be used for rail as well as highway investments to improve goods movement, and that there would be an office at DOT tasked with implementing an actual national plan for freight investments.

This title provides a useful model for others in the bill, including most notably the highway title voted out of the Environment and Public Works Committee a few weeks ago. While I have blogged favorably about that title, the Commerce Committee just delivered a better model. The highway program desperately needs a national plan as well, and performance objectives to make sure federal taxpayer dollars aren't wasted by state governments. An enterprising USA Today reporter underscored this with a great article this week showing that the Federal Highway Administration seems to simply hand over money to state bureaucrats with no accountability. The era of unplanned, unaccountable federal spending needs to come to an end.

I'm proud to say that NRDC worked with Transportation for America to build support for the Commerce Committee's approach. Let's hope others -- the Banking Committee, the Finance Committee as well as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee -- follow its lead so we can get to work on shoring up our deteriorating transportation system in smart, well-planned ways.