Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Commissioner Judah's commentary: Senate's transportation bill beats House's

Commissioner Judah's op ed explains why Lee County's officials support the bipartisan Senate-passed transportation bill and urges the House to pass a bill along the lines of the Senate bill.   
Guest opinion: Senate's transportation bill beats House's

Ray Judah
Congress is racing toward a March 31 deadline to pass a much-needed update to our national transportation program. While the Senate overwhelmingly passed (74-22) its bipartisan transportation bill on March 14, the House has stalled while its leaders continue to push for a more extreme bill.

During the Senate deliberations, Lee County officials supported an amendment to protect bicycle/pedestrian funding for cities and towns, and we are pleased this amendment was in the final Senate bill. We are also pleased that the Senate-passed bill includes a provision for a “Safe Streets” policy requiring federally funded road projects in Florida to meet federal standards for safely accommodating all road users. We know the importance of Lee County’s complete streets policy and welcome a federal policy that complements and enhances our local efforts.

Now the action shifts to the House, which is considering a transportation bill that’s terrible for the residents and the local governments of Florida. The bill:

Ends three decades of dedicated federal funding for public transportation. Both the Lee County commissioners and the Metropolitan Planning Organization sent letters to U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, strongly objecting to this provision. The opposition has been so intense that the House leadership had to regroup and is considering deletion of this provision.

Takes away local control, planning authority and resources. While the House bill talks about devolving power away from Washington, it actually takes away some of the latitude local governments now have. Current federal transportation law is a shared partnership between states and local governments and is an effective approach to distribution of limited transportation dollars. However, a provision in the House bill allows a governor to force major interstate highway projects upon local communities, overruling local vision and comprehensive transportation plans.

The Lee County MPO has spent a great deal of effort developing a Long-Range Transportation Plan that reflects local needs and priorities. To think that state leaders, who are out of touch with local needs, could unilaterally require changes to our transportation plan undermines the role Congress set forth when it created the MPOs in 1973. To that end, MPO members passed a resolution March 16 urging House support of the Senate bill.

Ends the Safe Routes to School program and other dedicated funding to make streets safer for walking and bicycling. Florida is the most dangerous state in the nation for pedestrians and cyclists. However, funding projects to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists would be totally at the whim of the governor and FDOT if this House bill passes — and their track record of spending on ped/bike projects is poor.

Fails to hold states accountable for fixing crumbling bridges and rutted highways. It off-loads responsibility for thousands of deficient bridges to local governments.

Increases dependence on oil. The bill opens up swaths of the country for drilling, including the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast, with the intention of diverting a share of leasing fees to the transportation program. Tying infrastructure to drilling means increasing, not reversing, dependence on fossil fuels.

Abandons any true “national” interest in transportation. Rather than thinking of transportation as a national priority to help the country compete in the global economy, the bill sets the stage for treating transportation investments like block grants, with no national system.

The country desperately needs a new transportation bill that provides robust funding and updates national priorities and policy for the needs of this century. Luckily, the House can follow the Senate’s lead and pass a similar bipartisan bill. The Senate bill achieves much of what House leaders say they want, such as consolidating and eliminating programs and streamlining the approval process for faster project delivery. The current transportation program runs out on March 31, so the House needs to act quickly or they are courting another shutdown of a major government function.

There is much at stake for Lee County’s future in this national debate on transportation legislation. I urge the House to quickly pass a bipartisan bill along the lines of the Senate-passed bill.

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