Worst. Transportation Bill. Ever.

Partisanship is the reason for constant gridlock in Congress. One exception has been the issue of transportation. NRDC is on the record -- analyzing and critiquing yet supporting -- the bipartisan federal transportation bill that passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Passage of that bill through committee was made possible by the collaboration of two leaders diametrically opposed on the partisan spectrum: Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK). Boxer and Inhofe cobbled together a two-year transportation bill called MAP-21, and while it is far from perfect it includes some advances in transportation policy. Better yet is the Senate Commerce Committee’s addition to the bill, which includes provisions that would benefit our environment.

This is a stark contrast with the House of Representatives, which is rolling out its uniquely terrible bill in pieces this week. The first thing to note is that to pay for the transportation bill, the House is taking the unprecedented step of marking up three drilling bills in the Natural Resources Committee. One opens Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling; another would actually require new drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts (including more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which is still recovering from the disastrous BP oil spill); and another opens millions of acres in the western U.S. to oil shale development. These bills would damage some of America's most pristine natural resources, and as I’ve written about many times before they would do nothing to boost the nation’s energy independence.

Moreover, the linkage with transportation policy breaks dramatically with the tradition of relying mostly on "user fees" (e.g., fuel taxes and tolls on roads), a useful tool that is especially important to fiscal conservatives. In fact, I spoke at a briefing yesterday with some unlikely allies including policy experts with the Reason Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute who also oppose larding the transportation bill up with drilling schemes.

So the House GOP approach has two strikes against it: It would harm the environment and it violates an important principle in transportation finance. Strike three: It won’t work. The revenue from new drilling is too little, too late -- and it is speculative at best. (Who knows what leases might sell, whether drilling will strike oil, what the market conditions will be if it does, and so on?) As policy analyst Erich Zimmerman of Taxpayers for Common Sense puts it, “It’s akin to buying the Ferrari today because you’re pretty sure the raise is coming sometime in the future.” Dumb, dumb, dumb.

And the transportation bill these schemes would supposedly help fund? Even dumber.

Indeed, the transportation bill drafted by Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is a 700+ page march of horribles.

To get an idea, start with Title III, which is supposedly all about “environmental streamlining.” This section contains sweeping changes to environmental reviews, which are key to providing those of us in the public some oversight when highway agencies propose paving parts of our communities. The demolition of community and environmental protections can be put into four buckets:

  • Wholesale delegation of authority for reviews, and for determining whether or not they should even be performed (by deeming a project “categorically excluded” from such scrutiny), to state highway agencies;
  • Limits on what alternatives can be reviewed, or challenged, in the review process;
  • One-size-fits-all, arbitrary deadlines for completing or challenging reviews regardless of project size, including nasty provisions that imperiously grant “deemed approved” status to projects if reviewing analysts or citizens take too long to comment; and
  • Loopholes such as waivers from review should the president decide a project is warranted, waivers if the federal portion of the funding is small, as well as waivers in case of an emergency (already provided for under current law).

This is just a preliminary list of awful provisions undermining community involvement and environmental protection with transportation project development; I’ll write about others if I uncover them.

Okay, what about the investments included in the legislation? The bill spends about $260 billion of our taxpayer dollars, the majority of which, of course, goes to highways. The good news is that much of this is devoted to repairing bridges, a tribute to work that groups like Transportation for America have done to shine a light on the perilous state they’re in. There is also a section with grants for intelligent transportation systems, which can reduce emissions by improving traffic flow using better technology. Pretty much the best that can be said about the rest of the bill’s investments is that transit spending doesn’t shrink as a proportion of the whole bill’s investments.

What about the bad news? The bill, of course, takes a hatchet to bicycle and pedestrian funding. The Safe Routes to School program is eliminated, and funding is withdrawn for bicycle/pedestrian coordinators at state highway agencies. And a new and disastrous loophole has been added to a much bigger program, the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ), opening it up to projects that funnel single-occupant-vehicle drivers around. This program was enacted twenty years ago to address the twin goals of reducing congestion as well as air quality; this new provision could unleash proposals for highway expansions that reduce pollution in their first few years but increase it over time, endangering public health and the environment. Oddly, the bill also removes a provision requiring that cost-effectiveness be a criterion for allocating these dollars. So this bill undercuts the largest environmental program other than the transit account in the bill.

There are provisions worthy of analysis for their environmental implications in the planning title (creating, for example, a national plan with goals including energy savings and environmental protection) and the area of private financing (dramatically expanding the TIFIA program as the Senate bill does, and capitalizing state infrastructure banks). But the former look toothless and the latter appear to benefit highways more than transit or other alternatives.

Whereas NRDC found the Senate transportation bill to be, overall, a positive step toward collaborative federal policy-making, regrettably we have but one recommended course of action for the House version: Kill the bill.