The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Transportation Bill
After over two years of delay, Congress has finally passed a transportation reauthorization bill. The legislation properly excludes environmentally damaging riders, including a rider to approve the Keystone XL pipeline and another to exclude toxic coal ash from regulation as hazardous waste. Overall, however, it represents a step backward for sound transportation policy.
The bill reauthorizes transportation programs through September 30, 2014, authorizing about $120 billion of funding during that period. This is roughly the same as current levels, and the lion’s share of funds will continue to go to highways.
The bill contains a variety of positive provisions and does not contain earmarks for specific projects. SELC supported keeping earmarks out of reauthorization since earmarks have tended to fund wasteful and destructive highway projects in our region. The bill also eliminates the Appalachian Highway Development System as a stand-alone program, creating additional opportunities to steer funding away from destructive proposals in the Southeast.
Unfortunately, the legislation also contains a range of damaging provisions and represents a missed opportunity to produce a transportation bill that gives Americans cleaner transportation choices.
Of particular concern, a variety of limitations on the environmental review process for transportation projects will reduce the ability of the public to participate in the decision-making process for projects in their communities and to ensure that the impacts of proposals are adequately considered. These limitations include penalties if agencies fail to make decisions within a certain time period, allowing projects within the right of way to proceed without review, and allowing state DOT’s to acquire property for a project before review is complete-further reducing meaningful consideration of alternatives.
In addition, the reauthorization bill significantly boosts loans for infrastructure projects under a program states in the Southeast have sought to use to fund a number of destructive and unneeded highways. At the same time, the legislation eliminates the key criteria for reviewing such applications that have helped ensure that taxpayer funds are spent wisely.
Other provisions that are a step back for transportation policy include significant cuts for biking and walking projects; lack of dedicated funding for repair of highways and bridges; lack of provisions to advance passenger and freight rail projects; and allowing state DOT’s to spend half of the funds designed to improve air quality for other purposes.
After years of work on this legislation, the public deserves better. The short term period of the reauthorization means that work on the next surface transportation bill will begin almost immediately. We will work to promote more comprehensive transportation reform in the next reauthorization bill, and to capitalize on the opportunities and limit the damage done by the legislation Congress just passed.