Moving a new national transportation law has been a challenge for the President and Congress, to say the least. The previous one, with a mouthful-of-a-name (the Safe, Affordable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act – a Legacy for Users or SAFETEA-LU), expired more than two years ago.
For the first time since then-House-Transportation-Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar introduced a proposed sequel to that law more than two years ago, we now have a new contender: Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or MAP-21. The Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee will mark up the bill today.
The 600-page bipartisan bill would make some pretty dramatic changes to the transportation program. Directionally, many of the changes are helpful. And it contains much needed investment. Senators Boxer and Inhofe are off to a good start, and given what’s needed to compete in a harsh global economy, and to reduce our perilous dependence on oil, much more must be done to cross the finish line.
First of all, there’s the overall question of funding. The bill would invest about $85 billion over two years, while a transit bill that would be married to it is now due from the Senate Banking Committee and should come in at $24 billion. This preserves a three-decades-long deal for dividing up highway and transit spending in the transportation bill, with about 20 percent of new money going into the mass transit account of the highway trust fund. That’s good news, although based on the investments made in the Recovery Act and additional rounds of the successful TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) program, it’s fair to say the Obama Administration would boost the portion going to transit up from about one-fifth to one-quarter or more of the funding.
Second, there’s the question of program architecture. As with previous proposals, MAP-21 proposes wholesale consolidation of 20 core highway and formula programs into just five big buckets. Transportation for America has a useful graphic illustrating this significant change:
Thankfully the largest program (NHPP) must devote more than half of its funding to repairs, which is helpful given the massive amount of deferred maintenance throughout the highway system. Prioritizing repair of potholes and bridges in danger of falling down is hugely important.
Flexibility is maintained for the next largest program, TMP (as is the case with the Surface Transportation Program, one of the largest under current law), such that states and regions can “flex” (i.e. transfer) funding into transit investments or any other of a list of more than 20 eligible measures. This funding, and a small portion (too small, at ten percent) of the funding in the new freight program can also be “flexed” into rail investments.
Another large program is maintained in the new bill, the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program (CMAQ). The program would fund a host of projects as it does under current law, in order to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion. One important amendment is the addition of fine particulate matter (PM-2.5, since it is 2.5 microns or smaller in diameter) to the list of pollutants the program must control. Reducing this pollution is prioritized in the new program, which makes sense given the health effects that science has uncovered in recent years. In fact, there was an alarming article about health effects from such tailpipe pollution in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. Interestingly, there’s the option to apply for funding for a set of projects if they fit into a scenario that demonstrably reduces emissions.
And in a move that has sparked controversy and opposition from bicycle and pedestrian advocates, the bill takes three programs dedicated to such projects and adds them to CMAQ. This pits them against a host of other eligible activities in a competition for funding, which could well yield less investment in these popular and cost-effective transportation projects.
Another program worth noting in the bill is the dramatically expanded Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), which grows more than eightfold to $2 billion over two years. This program leverages other public sector as well as private sector investment, and therefore could yield tens of billions of dollars worth of investment. This is one of the least surprising parts of the bill, since Chairman Boxer has made it clear that it is a priority which will benefit, among others, the remarkable initiative to boost highway and transit capacity rapidly in Los Angeles (dubbed 30/10). The bill is clear that projects are subject to environmental as well as creditworthiness reviews (although more performance criteria should be tied to this boost in funding).
And that brings up the last and arguably most important question about getting better results from the program, including for the environment. There are contrasting provisions in the new bill. On the one hand, the bill takes cues from a variety of groups including Transportation for America with our "objectives and targets" and the Bipartisan Policy Center with its focus on a performance-driven system. It also includes a remarkable section that requires the development of performance plans at the state and metropolitan regional levels. There’s even an optional scenario-planning section. However, the list of performance criteria is limited to conditions and performance (i.e., preventing deterioration of roads, bridges, etc.) and does not include energy or environmental goals.
One huge area of concern to us is the section devoted to “accelerated project delivery.” Such terms set off alarm bells, because I have seen a lot of wrongheaded proposals supposedly aimed at getting things built faster but which would shortchange important environmental reviews. Unfortunately, it looks like the bill includes unwarranted shortcircuiting. It could aggressively expand the use of “categorical exclusions,” a tool for avoiding a thorough examination done during environmental assessments or environmental impact statements. Because state agencies get more leeway to use this tool it could also be abused. Parts of the process would be compressed, which could make it more likely that reviewers wouldn’t spot damaging design flaws in time. And fines would be imposed to provide a serious incentive for agencies to come to a decision sooner, which could also lead to hurried, mistake-prone reviews. It’s disappointing to see such potentially harmful provisions in the bill. NRDC will work to remove them before enactment.
The bottom line? This now moves us forward in the infrastructure race. It includes some environmentally beneficial provisions, as well as ones that should help prevent more “bridges to nowhere” by requiring better planning and performance management. And it has flaws such as the unnecessary provisions that could shortchange environmental reviews.
That said, MAP-21 represents bipartisan, forward progress, which in the current political environment is well worth applauding in and of itself.