House Transportation Bill Would Worsen Traffic

House Republicans have an opportunity to pass transportation legislation that would help create new jobs, fix our roads and bridges, and improve our commutes. What have they decided to do instead? Load up their version of a transportation bill (HR. 7) with an ideological wish list that will prevent Congress from passing a measure that could provide real transportation improvements.

Unfortunately, House Republican leaders are doing exactly what they promised they wouldn’t do. In their “Pledge to America,” after taking control of the House of Representatives, the GOP promised it would not package unpopular legislation with must-pass bills. They promised they would take up major legislation one piece at a time, and not sneak in politically motivated provisions. They’ve done the exact opposite with the transportation bill.

Among many reasons, NRDC strongly opposes the legislation because it is a blatant bait-and-switch to boost drilling off our shores and even in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But another big problem with this partisan "poison pill" bill is that it essentially declares war on public transportation.

Everyone should be alarmed that the House transportation bill threatens to derail dedicated funding for mass transit throughout the United States. Currently, roughly 3 cents of every 18 cents collected from the federal tax on a gallon of gasoline goes to fund light rail, subways and buses in cities and towns all across the country. Since President Reagan created this cost-share arrangement in 1982, approximately $1 out of every $5 in federal funding has gone to transit, with the rest spent on highways. House Republicans are now seeking to undo the Reagan legacy by restricting gas tax revenues to highways and leaving transit projects to compete for shrinking general funds.

Less Transit, More Traffic

Make no mistake: It is a really bad idea to slash transit funding, not just for riders who rely on that system but for drivers too. After all, less money for transit means fewer alternatives to travel than by car. So the House bill perversely promotes congestion on our roads and highways. Washington Post political satirist Tom Toles captured this problem perfectly in his cartoon today. 

In her blog "Seven Fatal Flaws in the House Highway Bill," Donna Cooper noted increased congestion as a big problem: 

Increased access to affordable and reliable mass transit is a certain way to deal with congestion. Millions of Americans already spend the equivalent of a week of work or more a year sitting in traffic.[1] Frustration with gridlock is a raging bipartisan complaint. The late Paul Weyrich, a central player in the forming of the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, said in 2009, “Conservatives are just as tired as everybody else of sitting stuck in traffic.”[2]

Yet this bill terminates the Reagan legacy of using a small portion of gas tax revenues to pay for mass transit. To assuage the pro-transit outrage, the bill cynically establishes a separate four-year fund for transit improvements. But that measure has been widely attacked by business leaders, mayors, and others who looked behind the curtain and found out that the special transit fund is far too small and worse yet dependent on imaginary annual appropriations of federal general-fund dollars. It’s a farce to think that general-fund dollars will be allocated for transit when the federal deficit is the Republicans’ favorite cudgel.

The inevitable result of this bill will be more Americans stuck in their cars, higher cost for American businesses that will pay truckers even more to sit in traffic, and higher fares for transit- and rail-reliant commuters.

A book I read recently -- Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation -- reinforces why transit is a non-partisan solution, not a partisan problem:

If transit suddenly ceased operating in any large American city, commuting would become almost impossible. Rush-hour traffic is already horrendous, to the point where in places like Los Angeles and Washington...the rush hour itself has become rush many-hours, even "permanent rush hour." In urban areas, there isn't any place to put more higways...If all the people now on trains, subways, light rail lines and buses suddenly joined the rush-hour drive, getting to work might take as much time as the job itself.

Consider this: every rail car has the potential to remove up to 125 passengers from our roadways (and every bus full of passengers removes 40 cars from traffic). Therefore, the more people who have access to trains -- as well as buses, carpool lanes, bike baths and walkable communities -- the less they have to hit the roads in their cars to get where they want to go. But aside from traffic reduction, there are several other societal benefits of transit:

  • More transit means more jobs: Spending on transit makes economic sense because every $1 invested in public transportation generates approximately $6 in economic returns. In fact, over 300,000 jobs  and $30.8 billion in economic activity is supported through transportation spending in a recent congressional appropriations bill.
  • More transit makes us more secure: Giving people the freedom to travel other than by automobile is good for national security because less driving helps lessen America's dependence on oil. On average each person riding transit rather than driving alone in a car saves 200 gallons of gasoline a year. The fact is that the House bill, by boosting oil drilling, would only feed our nation's fossil fuel addiction.
  • More transit means less pollution: Simply put, reducing the distance and frequency people may be forced to drive reduces dirty, harmful, unhealthy tailpipe exhaust that pollutes the air and cooks the planet. Federally mandated vehicle-pollution controls help, but more cars on the road idling on congested roadways will drive up pollution and make it harder for all us to breath clean air.

NRDC is joined by environmental advocates, transportation experts, fiscal conservatives and even right-wing think tanks in calling on Congress to kill this bill for a variety of reasons. The threat to federal transit funding is a major concern of NRDC and many others who are fighting the bill. Feel free to visit our website to learn more about the bill and to take action. You can also make your voice heard by dailing 1-877-573-7693 and urging your representative to vote NO on HR.7.