The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted unanimously this morning to pass a two-year transportation reauthorization bill, moving the bill one step closer to passage by the full Senate.
Unlike in the House, where the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has full responsibility for the transportation bill, the Senate splits jurisdiction among several committees, so the saga isn’t over yet by a long shot. The Senate Banking Committee still needs to consider the transit part of the bill, Commerce will get its hands dirty on the rail portion, and Finance is going to figure out how to pay for the whole thing.
Non-Motorized Transportation Takes a Hit
Rarely have bike and pedestrian safety been so squarely at the center of a Congressional boxing match as during the debate over this bill. The fight over dedicated funding for bike/ped projects – much of it focused on the Transportation Enhancements program – threatened the delicate bipartisan consensus for this bill. What emerged was a compromise that placated even the most hardened TE haters like Sens. James Inhofe and Tom Coburn.
This morning, Sen. Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking member on the committee and its chief TE opponent, explained the change.
There’s a difference of opinion and philosophy here as to how much money should be spent on things like bike trails, walking trails, highway beautification, museums and all that stuff. I think the compromise we came up with is a very good one because if a state wants to use that percentage – whether it’s 10 percent as it applies to the surface transportation or two percent of the total funding — they can instead put it in areas of unfunded mandates. And I can assure you there are enough unfunded mandates we have to comply with – I’m talking about endangered species, Americans with Disabilities, Historic Preservation and all that — we can use it. In my state of Oklahoma, that’s where we’re going to use ours. I think that is a great solution.
What Inhofe is calling an “unfunded mandate,” however, is just part of the cost of building a road with federal funds. By allowing Transportation Enhancement money – previously reserved for non-motorized modes – to be used to offload some of the costs of building a highway, the Senate gives a green light to state DOTs to use every penny of that money for road-building expenses, if they want to. And if they don’t even want to do that, after 18 months, they can just opt out of the TE program altogether.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced (and then withdrew) an amendment to restore dedicated funding for bike and pedestrian programs, with support from several other Democratic senators. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) also wants to introduce amendments making it harder for states to “opt out” of the TE program by ensuring that they solicit localities for TE uses before refusing to use the funds. And Sen. Tom Carper withheld his amendment requiring states and MPOs to draft plans for reducing transportation-related oil consumption.