Highway and Transit Bill: One Step Forward, Two More to Go

Mar 14, 2012

 They did it! The Senate just passed its two-year, bi-partisan highway and transit bill known as “MAP-21.” MAP-21 is short for Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, and carries the bill number S. 1813 (Want to sound like a Beltway insider? Call the bill by its number instead of its name.) We applaud every senator voting for final passage. It’s an important step toward finally passing a multi-year highway and transit bill that maintains—at a minimum—funding for highways and transit AND reforms policies and programs.

MAP-21 tracks with most of the Chamber’s recommendations for SAFETEA-LU reauthorization. To be non-technical about it, there’s good stuff in here representing many months of bipartisan compromise on behalf of the four committees of jurisdiction in the Senate: Environment and Public Works; Commerce, Science and Transportation; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and Finance. The Chamber is deeply appreciative of the hard work and dedication of the leaders of these committees and their staff members.

Is it a perfect bill? Of course not! Compromise is the name of the game when it comes to getting things done in Washington, and that means that no piece of legislation has 100% of what anyone wants. But from the 30,000 foot level, the bill is solid.

MAP-21 addresses the two essential aspects of highway and transit reauthorization:

Funding & Financing

First, the bill maintains investment levels through fiscal year 2013, without which jobs would be lost. In the near term, investment in the nation’s highways, bridges and public transportation systems will support the construction sector, which is still suffering greater than 17% unemployment. In the long term, investment will help prepare the U.S. for economic growth and strength.

The bill also expands the TIFIA program that supports public-private partnerships and major project financing by leveraging federal dollars on a 1:10 ratio.

Policy and Program Reform

Second, this legislation contains much needed policy and program reforms so that every dollar stretches further; projects can be delivered faster, saving time and money; and problems can be addressed with solutions that work for states and communities while maintaining accountability for use of federal funds toward national interests such as interstate commerce and trade.  

More specifically, here are a few highlights of the policy and program reforms:

  • Reorganizes federal programs into a simpler structure, providing flexibility for funding recipients but requiring accountability for use of funds through performance management and reporting strategies.
  • Calls on USDOT to develop a national freight transportation plan and creates both formula and discretionary programs targeting freight needs.
  • Builds on the current performance measurement approach to highway safety by improving data collection and analysis and requires transit agencies to develop their own safety plans.
  • Eliminates earmarks and eligibility to use federal funds on non-transportation projects such as museums. In addition, it eliminates required programs and set asides for transportation enhancements (e.g. bike paths, sidewalks, recreational trails, Safe Routes to Schools), but does give states the discretion to spend resources on those projects.
  • Tackles traffic congestion and urban mobility from a number of angles: highway and transit investments, improved planning, and support for operational improvements and approaches such as travel demand management.
  • Supports the connectivity of rural areas to major population and economic centers.

More information on MAP-21 here.

Next up: the House needs to deliver its version of a bill. Ideally a reauthorization bill would be ready for signature by the President by March 31. Realistically, the House can get a bill passed: substantial progress toward getting something to the President’s desk and requiring a minimal extension of current law.

Speaker Boehner presented three options to the Republican conference last week:

  1. Take up the Mica bill that passed out of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, with modifications including restoring dedicated user fee funding to public transportation. This is a five year, $260 billion bill, with numerous reforms, for which the Chamber expressed support.
  1. Take up the Senate bill. The reforms, financing expansions, and commitment to maintaining funding levels are notably similar to many in the House bill. It’s shorter (two years versus five), but the length of the bill is a direct result of the agreed upon offsets (what’s needed to fill the gap between Highway Trust Fund receipts from user fees and the total amount needed to maintain funding levels). So at the end of the day, the conference committee will have to come up with payfors acceptable to both sides of Capitol Hill, and that will determine the length of the bill.
  1. Punt. Do nothing now except extend current legislation. This is a bad option. Congress can run but it can’t hide from the need to provide resources to maintain funding levels and avoid major cuts. The longer we wait to do a real reauthorization bill, the deeper the hole in the Highway Trust Fund, the more uncertainty there is for business, and the more expensive projects become as they sit idle waiting for reforms and funding.

The objective, quite simply, is for the House to assemble a package that gets 218 votes. If the House cannot come to some agreement on legislation and there is no action, then we’re in a world of hurt.

As the Chamber has said consistently over the past five years, transportation is an economic issue, not a political one. We believe the House can find a way forward, then work with the Senate to send a bill to the president’s desk.

 

 

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