Boxer blinks, OKs a train wreck of a transportation bill
Lawmakers worked late last night to hammer out a final transportation bill — the product of years of wrangling over how we’ll spend billions of dollars on roads, public transit, and biking and walking paths. The final language, which will be voted on before Congress breaks for the Fourth of July, is a huge disappointment to advocates of a cleaner, greener transportation system.
“If you’re not a paving contractor, you didn’t get much out of this bill,” says David Goldberg of the nonprofit Transportation for America. “This is just a really disappointing day.”
If there’s good news here, it’s that some of the worst provisions that House Republicans tried to attach to the bill have been removed. Those include language that would have halted EPA regulations on coal ash and forced the approval of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline. Yesterday, Grist’s own Philip Bump likened the Keystone provision to “the political equivalent of crossing your arms and holding your breath until you turn blue.”
The resoundingly bad news, however, is that the Republicans’ political shenanigans seem to have worked. “It looks like [Democratic leaders] traded away the store to get Keystone off the political agenda,” Goldberg says. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, “ended up capitulating on almost everything.”
Among the concessions in the final bill:
- Language was dropped that would have increased funding for public transit and allowed transit agencies to use a portion of their capital funding to keep bus lines in service — important in a time when cash-strapped agencies are cutting service even as demand for transit soars.
- Funding for walking and biking infrastructure was slashed by at least 40 percent from the Senate version of the bill, and states will have the ability to use up to half of what remains for other purposes.
- Improvements to the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, which helps clean up the air in areas that don’t meet federal air-quality standards, were dropped.
- Also gone is a provision that would have increased funding for maintenance and performance measurement. Translation: States can let existing roads crumble, while stoking sprawl and air pollution by building new ones.
- The bill contains language that will allow agencies to “streamline” environmental reviews for road projects, though it is apparently not as damaging as it was in earlier drafts.
Wrapped up in all the muck of the bill is language that will reform federal flood insurance policy and direct fines paid by BP for its role in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to coastal restoration.
But that’s cold comfort for transportation advocates, who, assuming Congress passes this thing and the president signs it (and it looks like they will), now have two years to rally the troops for a better bill when this one expires.