New Transportation Bill Passed

Bike lanes on Oakwood Road in Huntsville.

In a rare case of election-year bipartisanship, Congress passed a Federal Transportation Bill on Friday that will run through September 30, 2014. Although it appeared that Congress was headed towards yet another temporary extension of the transportation bill that expired in 2009, leaders of both parties agreed on legislation that also addresses many important environmental issues in Alabama, most notably the RESTORE Act.

Elected officials and organizations across the Gulf Coast have been working to pass legislation to ensure 80 percent of the fines from the oil spill return to the Gulf for economic and environmental reclamation projects. Between $5 and $21 billion of fines will be divided up by Gulf Coast states as a result of the passage of the RESTORE Act.

The RESTORE Act was tacked onto the transportation bill and ultimately adopted. Other issues, like extending funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Keystone XL pipeline approval, and regulation of coal ash, were ultimately dropped from the final bill. We are hopeful we’ll see the funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund to come back up before this Congress wraps up its business this year.

While none of these items fit in a transportation bill, officially dubbed MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century), that is the way of Congress. Among the actual transportation portions of this bill, some provisions fail to truly address needs of a modern, comprehensive transportation network, but there are positives in the bill as well.

MAP-21 includes the Cardin-Cochran amendment, which enables local governments to directly receive a portion of money dedicated to bike lanes and sidewalks. These projects will now be eligible under the newly created Transportation Alternatives Program that consists of the consolidating of programs such as Safe Routes to School, Transportation Enhancements, and Recreational Trails programs. Unfortunately, funding for these programs will be cut from $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2011 to approximately $800 million per year over the next two years.

While a 33% cut in funding is never cause for celebration, these types of popular projects were targeted for much more draconian cuts in the weeks leading up to the final passage. Half of these funds must go directly to local governments, while states were given the authority to ‘opt out’ of the other half of the funds and dedicate them to other transportation projects. Historically, Alabama has put a little more than one percent of its annual federal transportation allocation into these important transportation projects. We will be working with our state leaders to ensure that officials at the local level are given full authority to implement projects that will make our communities vibrant and healthier.

Another positive in the bill was a new grant program that will assist with planning efforts to encourage neighborhood development along transit stops. This program will be important to providing improved housing and shopping choices in neighborhoods across the country, but these communities will only thrive if the transit systems are reliable and effective. Although transit ridership is on the rise nationally, funding for expanding and improving transit networks was clearly not a priority in the bill. In order to create a truly integrated, 21st century transportation network, transit must be allocated appropriate funding in the future.

Congress has gone nearly three years without adopting a new transportation funding bill. With last week’s vote, transportation funding is set for the next two years, but Congress typically adopts six-year funding plans for transportation. Therefore, the fight to increase funding for important programs as complete streets and safe routes to school will begin anew soon, and we’ll keep you informed as that effort gears up again.

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