Tuesday's Senate Votes Must Not Derail Transportation Bill

The vote-a-rama on the Senate's transportation bill, which got underway last Thursday, continues tomorrow. The good news is that several harmful amendments were deflected last week, as NRDC President Frances Beinecke wrote about here. These were non-germane amendments that would have linked unrelated, awful energy amendments to an infrastructure bill.

Tomorrow debate and votes begin anew. Transportation for America has descriptions of bills including those remaining for consideration here, and NRDC has positions on tomorrow's amendments too, as detailed below:

OPPOSE: Roberts Substitute #1826: As my colleague Elly Pepper describes in her blog, his amendment takes two amendments that were defeated on Thursday -- expedited approval of the Keystone Pipeline and the Vitter amendment to open up drilling from Maine to Florida, off the California coast, and in the Alaskan Arctic Refuge and throws in for good measure two additional questionable ideas -- opening up oil shale development on millions of acres of federal lands in the west and opening up leases canceled in response to the BP Gulf Oil Disaster. It also includes a mix-bag of tax provisions. These include some extensions of some of the expiring tax provisions for energy efficiency that we support but fails to address a number of tax extensions critically needed for alternative and renewable energy.

This "drill, baby, drill"  or "all of the above except for renewables" amendment is a political response to the higher gas prices, in spite of the fact that the active rig count (i.e., the number of rigs drilling for oil) has increased five-fold in North America, eclipsing the rest of the world (see eye-popping graph accompanying this piece) without denting prices. Despoiling our coasts, our public lands, and risking our nation's most valuable aquifers so that big oil can make even more profits, is not in our nation's interest.  We need to move towards decreasing our demand for oil through a more efficient transportation system that uses transit systems, hybrids, less polluting fuels, and newer technologies rather than continuing to think we can drill ourselves out of this problem. 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 - Allows all states to participate in the Value Pricing and Interstate Construction and Express Lane programs and expands slots for the Interstate Reconstruction pilot program from just three to 10. If passed this amendment would allow states to price road travel more accurately, finance road repairs (which reduces pollution-generating congestion), and help finance clean 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.

The gas price trends so far this year underscore that our transportation system is at a crossroads. Public transportation ridership is soaring, with the highest ridership in more than 50 years as reported by the American Public Transportation Association. Meanwhile, vehicle miles-of-travel continue sliding, and as a new NRDC fact sheet shows less traffic could actually be helpful economically.

A new transportation bill would help to finance the infrastructure that underpins transportation's future, helping us to navigate this crossroads successfully, taking a high road to less oil dependence and greater choices for getting around in America.

However, that will only happen if the Senate rejects ill-advised amendments and passes a balanced, bipartisan transportation bill, and if the House then follows suit. Let's hope leaders in both chambers keep their eye on the ball as the clock winds down on current transportation law (which expires March 31!).