Friday, July 29, 2011

Update on Federal transportation legislation & funding, by Darla Letourneau

BikeWalkLee is a member of the Alliance for Biking and Walking and Transportation 4 America, among other national groups. As part of those two organizations, I participate in frequent conference calls about what’s happening at the federal level and what actions we can take at the local level in support of bike/ped, complete streets, and transit.

National transportation policy and funding is derived from the transportation authorization bill which is revised every 5 years or so. The last authorization, called SAFETEA-LU, expired in 2009, and we’ve been living under short extensions since. One of the critical issues facing the transportation world is that the gas tax is bringing in less money, which means that the Highway Trust Fund, which funds transportation programs, is short of funds to maintain current funding levels. Either additional revenues will need to be found ($12 billion for 2 years) or program levels will have to be cut 35%!

This summer, both the House and Senate Transportation Committees have announced the outlines of their transportation reauthorization bills. The House proposal, announced by Chairman Mica, is a 6 year bill that would require living within the Trust Fund revenues, meaning a 35% cut in funding. In terms of bike/ped programs, they would all be eliminated (TE, SRTS, RTP), providing states with the flexibility to decide how to spend the greatly reduced funding levels. This bill is bad news for bike/ped advocates from every angle.

A bipartisan Senate proposal was announced by Chairman Boxer & Ranking Minority Inhofe. The Senate approach is a 2-year bill that is funded at current levels. It assumes that the Senate Finance Committee will come up with the additional $12 billion needed to fund the shortfall in the Highway Trust fund. Although the bill language isn’t available yet, Senator Boxer’s staff is telling bike/ped advocates that Safe Routes to School, Rails to Trails program, and “bike paths” will be funded in the bill. It’s likely that the Transportation Enhancement program will be replaced by another program that will provide funds for bike/ped facilities. The devil will be in the details. The position of the national advocates is that bike/ped funds be “dedicated funding” (not just “eligible activities”), meaning that bike/ped projects don’t have to compete with road projects. Clearly, the Senate bill is preferable to the House bill.

Given the debt limit debate, which is sucking up all the oxygen in DC, nothing more is likely to happen on transportation reauthorization until that is settled. The current SAFETEA-LU extension expires September 30th. In addition, appropriations for the transportation programs also expire on September 30th and to date, neither house has taken up the 2012 appropriations bill. So, if we’re lucky, we’ll have a couple of short term extensions/continuing resolutions around October 1st…otherwise, we’ll face another government shutdown and no funding authority for transportation projects.

What can we do about this mess? We need to continue to tell our elected officials that we want dedicated funding for bike/ped programs at the current funding levels. Tell Senators Nelson and Rubio and Representative Mack that you care about these programs and why they are a benefit to our communities. Even though we’re not likely to see any long term legislation this Fall, the debate on the reauthorization will shape the content of whatever short-term solutions are crafted, so our voices matter.

Our national partners, Alliance for Biking and Walking, America Bikes, League of American Bicyclists, National Complete Streets Coalition, and Transportation for America, are working together as a coalition and doing a great job of representing our interests in D.C. Stay tuned for further updates and action alerts!

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