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New Highway Bill Leaves Bumps in the Road

Congress Has to Start Working on Legislation that Meets 21st Century Needs

SOURCE: AP/Pat Wellenbach

A truck drives past a crumbling road in Durham, Maine. The new federal highway bill takes some steps to improve our infrastructure, but it doesn't go far enough to meets the transportation needs of a 21st century America.

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Congress finally reached a bipartisan agreement on Friday to continue highway and transit funding, and passed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP 21.

The bill faced a rough road to passage. Some Republicans in the House and Senate pulled out all the stops to derail an agreement. They proposed to link passage of the bill to forced approval of the Keystone tar sands pipeline from Canada without determining the pipeline’s impact on air or water pollution and overturning the Environmental Protection Agency’s ruling on coal ash. But Senate leadership stood firm, demanding a two-year bill without the highly charged and environmentally damaging provisions.

The bill is a political victory for Democrats. It also means America’s construction sector will enjoy a year and a half of predictable work, nearly 2 million jobs will be sustained, and some of the urgently needed road, bridge, transit, and rail improvements will get underway. But let’s not kid ourselves. The bill falls far short of what’s needed to build a 21st century transportation system capable of improving U.S. competitiveness.

The far right plays politics with our rails and roadways

The current highway bill—the Safe, Accountable, Efficient Transportation Equity Act—was on its ninth temporary extension and set to expire on June 30. Without an agreement on a new bill or another extension, tens of thousands of construction and related jobs would have vanished within weeks. The ripple effect on the economy could have set the markets tumbling, with grave consequences for the fragile recovery.

Nevertheless, the Heritage Foundation and Tea Party Republicans called for a “no” vote on the bill. Blind to the devastating economic impact of failing to pass a bill, the Grover Norquist-driven misinformation campaign prompted the far right to label this status quo-funding bill as a “massive increase in federal gluttony.”

Of course, this Tea Party talking point is flat-out wrong. Annual federal highway appropriations have not been increased above the rate of inflation since 2009 and the bill maintains current levels of funding through September 31, 2014.

But that flat funding is bad news for the U.S. economy. Nearly 150,000 bridges need repair and half of all the nation’s road miles need to be resurfaced or significantly repaired. The poor condition of both roads and bridges leads to more frequent vehicle repairs, contributes to higher costs for goods, and requires detours and slow travel.

Moreover, the construction sector’s unemployment rate is still more than 14 percent. Yet for every $1 billion in new highway or transit investment, approximately 20,000 new jobs are likely to be created. The Center for American Progress’s in-depth review of U.S. infrastructure needs found that federal appropriations need to double from their current level to bring our infrastructure up to par.

Although the bill’s flat funding undermines progress on transit and rail, the full House roundly rejected the Tea Party ploy to cut transit funding and decouple it from the Highway Trust Fund. Had the decoupling succeeded, the Reagan legacy of funding transit improvements from a small portion of the gas tax would have ended, forcing transit improvements to rely on annual appropriations from Congress.

It’s a mystery why Tea Party leaders seem intent on slowing transit expansion. Measures to increase transit and rail access grow more popular with gas prices averaging more than $3.50 per gallon. Slowing the pace of transit and rail expansion is tantamount to a national policy for more choking congestion on our roads.

What the bill gets right

The bill wisely adopted a Center for American Progress recommendation to expand by 10-fold the funding for the transportation loan program, the Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act. The program will grow from $122 million in federal lending authority to $1 billion for low-interest loans to support high-impact projects that mobilize private and other investment for large-scale and multimodal improvements.

Already in line for loans from this program are innovative projects that increase transit access in cities such as Dallas and Washington, D.C.; major bridge projects over the Ohio River; the rebuilding of the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York; and the urgently needed rail improvements at the nation’s largest port in Los Angeles.

The bill also opens the door to a serious discussion on improving port infrastructure by urging Congress to permit the full spending of the more than $6 billion surplus in the Harbor Maintenance Fund—another priority championed by the Center.

Our busiest ports can only use 50 percent of their capacity 95 percent of the time. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates needed port channel repairs run in the billions, so the language in this bill is a welcome signal for boosting the efficiency of moving goods. The bill also calls for a National Freight Strategy that can open the door to an integrated improvement strategy to reduce congestion and fuel costs by ensuring more port containers travel to markets on freight rail.

Eliminating government programs in the bill and using funds more accountably are the right’s bread and butter. But the Democratic Senate can also take credit for the bill’s good government provisions. For instance, the bill reduces the number of federal highway programs by two-thirds due to consolidation, and it eliminates dozens of programs as well. This is no small feat given the calcification of federal agencies and Congress.

Equally impressive, the bill breaks tradition and adopts another CAP recommendation of establishing ambitious performance targets that steer funds toward highway, bridge, and transits projects that will best increase safety, reduce congestion, and promote efficient travel at a reasonable cost.

States must set targets for six performance measures and show progress toward the targets over time. It might seem obvious, but this shift toward ensuring state performance is a welcome improvement in each of the performance areas: highway conditions, transit state of good repair, highway safety, transit safety, congestion, and freight movement.

Where the bill goes off track

Not all the bill’s reforms are so good. The provisions to undermine citizens’ review of the impacts of proposed highway and transit projects on air and water quality are troubling and likely to backfire. As Christy Goldfuss, Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress, points out, “The public will not be given an opportunity to comment and the public will not have an opportunity to see how the highway, bridge, or other transportation project will impact their community.”

We must increase the pace of infrastructure improvements but do so without leaving the public in the dark or degrading lands and waterways. The short circuiting of our environmental review processes spell disaster for air, water, and lands protection as well as federal efforts to upgrade our transportation system.

Moreover, neither party demanded an end to the wastefulness in distributing scarce federal funds. The bill continues to dole out to states the same share of funds they received under SAFETEA-LU, a bill where at least 20 percent of the funds are distributed based on politics rather than need.

For instance, the bill distributes 10 times the amount of funding per capita to Alaska than to California. CAP found that California has 13 times the number of road miles as Alaska and 52 times the number of people. It is home to our nation’s largest port and as a result has the most heavily trafficked roads.

The bill inflicted more injury to transit by failing to restore the $230 tax deduction for transit users, which the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act put in place to create parity in for transit and parking.

Congress needs to finish the job

The bill’s new focus on goods movement, congestion, pace, performance, and safety is good. But Congress still has a great deal of work to do on this front.

It now must address the following priorities:

  • More funds from dedicated revenues for transportation improvements
  • New formulas that distribute funds based on real needs that reduce congestion and fuel use and that promote ongoing maintenance
  • A national infrastructure bank coupled with more federal flexibility for earning and using tolls or other revenues to build out our infrastructure
  • More financial tools for attracting private investors to U.S. infrastructure projects

With only 18 months till this funding expires, Congress needs to start work immediately on a multiyear authorization bill that meets the transportation needs of a 21st century America in name and in substance.

Donna Cooper is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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