A House Transportation Bill Scarier Than Halloween

PhantomHighways.jpgA big section of the House transportation bill that passed in committee this week jumps out at you -- kind of like the guy wearing a hockey mask and carrying a chainsaw. Well, it's almost Halloween, and current spending on roads and rail threatens to disappear like a ghost just two days prior -- October 29th.

This $325-billion, 500+ page, 6-year bill would allow investments in planning, building and repairing roads, commuter rail, and bike lanes nationwide.

But the frightening part comes in sections 1301-1317, which gut the public's ability to comment or even know what transportation projects are going forward in their neighborhood. Spanning 68 pages, such provisions have haunted previous bills as well, as I wrote about here, here and here.

Ironically, even as the committee was marking up its bill, Obama Administration staff were giving a presentation at the Volpe Center in Boston about new online tools that will make getting permits for infrastructure more accountable, transparent and quick pursuant to a directive from the Office of Management and Budget last month (pdf here). On top of that, the provisions aimed at accelerating project delivery in the current transportation law, MAP-21, have yet to be fully implemented.

This is a pattern with Congressional authorizers of this program. Hear a story about a road that's been delayed somewhere, assume the reason is environmental reviews rather than lack of funding or community opposition, generalize this as common across the country, and howl for new, wholesale changes.

This harmful section of the House Committee's bill has proposed changes that NRDC and several other groups described in a letter to Congress, excerpted below:

  • Elimination of Federal Environmental Review: MAP-21 allowed States to take over NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] responsibilities. Despite that program never being subject to any evaluations, Section 1313 of this bill goes even further by establishing a pilot program to authorize approved states to conduct environmental reviews and make decisions regarding projects under State environmental laws. This would throw environmental reviews - and potentially Clean Air Act protections - into an uneven patchwork of state laws, many of which fall short of federal safeguards.
  • Further Limitations on Public Input: Section 1305(g)(4)(B) of the bill would allow agencies to issue the final environmental impact statement (EIS) and record of decision (ROD) as a single document. Unwisely, this would not only eliminate a critical 30-day period where the public is allowed to evaluate the conclusions of the environmental study, but would also put enormous pressure on the decisionmaker to sign the ROD without any further consideration or input.
  • Further Limitations on Alternatives Analysis: Section 1305(f) would severely undermine what the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) regulations describe as "the heart of the NEPA process" by restricting the ability of agencies to comment on alternatives and, even worse, possibly eliminating the agencies' ability to consider superior alternatives or citizen-introduced alternatives.

There are other sections of the bill that make NRDC shudder. As the American Public Transportation Association notes in its useful analysis, the bill would increase the amount needed to match federal support for new transit projects from 20 percent to 50 percent. This puts a thumb on the scale in favor of road projects which retain their current match, putting light rail and bus rapid transit investment nationwide at a disadvantage. And while the freight section claims to be "multimodal" it is also biased towards highways by only authorizing spending for them (vs. rail, for example). And bicycle and pedestrian funding is cut relative to other modes since unlike them it's not adjusted upward for inflation.

Some provisions in this bill are less fear-inducing, and in fact would improve transportation policy. First, the percentage of funding from the large Surface Transportation Program (renamed in the bill, it would become the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program) that are "suballocated" or sent directly to metropolitan areas vs. state transportation departments would ramp up from 50 percent to 55 percent in 2020. Transportation for America (T4A) has a great explainer for current law here, as well as a great rundown of important amendments considered in yesterday's markup here.

This is a good policy move, since state transportation departments are overly fixated on rural highways and often lack competence in addressing urban transportation even in states with many metro areas such as California. In the markup Thursday, a bipartisan amendment was offered and withdrawn by Reps. Davis and Titus that would boost suballocation to 67 percent. This is a popular idea. As T4A tweeted yesterday, "8 people spoke in favor of Davis-Titus proposal, and we heard that the amendment had enough votes for passage." However, Committee Chairman Bill Shuster blocked it, and many other amendments, in order to preserve the current deal (Did I mention he was a car salesman? I might go as one for Halloween).

The bill also requires "complete street" designs which routinely accommodate bike riders and others who want to enjoy our roads safely (This section was strengthened in committee yesterday), allows for use of smart urban design standards for roads developed by city transportation officials, requires that metropolitan areas address resilience in their transportation plans, and prioritizes reduction of dangerously unhealthy fine particulate matter pollution (soot) in the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program (CMAQ; the companion Senate DRIVE Act does this too).

Unfortunately, the bottom line with this bill is the scariest of them all - there is no actual new funding here. The Senate bill authorizes six years of spending, and cobbles together enough for the first three years (using some pretty ugly tricks like this one). The House bill tops that by authorizing six years of spending without specifying where any of the money would come from, punting that to the Ways and Means Committee.

So in the end, this bill is like an apparition haunting the halls of the Capitol, making empty promises and threats. As my colleague Mariia Zimmerman also notes in her excellent and sharply worded blog today, America deserves better than this, and I hope Congress can deliver someday soon.

About the Authors

Deron Lovaas

Senior Policy Adviser, Urban Solutions

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