Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Transit advocates are irate at reports from Capitol Hill that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, might support an increase to highway funding in the economic-stimulus bill. The news comes on the same day that Boxer unveiled a rough outline for climate legislation that she intends to push through her committee this year.

Boxer is reportedly considering supporting two proposed amendments to the Senate version of the stimulus bill — one that would shift the $5.5 billion in discretionary transportation grants in the bill to the Highway Trust Fund, and another that would put an additional $50 billion toward roads and highways.

The first has been endorsed by Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Kit Bond (R-Mo.), and James Inhofe (R-Okla.). According to transit folks who work closely with Boxer’s office, the second amendment is also being cosponsored by Inhofe, the Senate’s most outspoken climate skeptic.

Text of the amendments is not yet available, and Boxer’s office did not respond to questions about whether she is indeed considering the amendments. But several transit and environmental groups have already launched campaigns to get Boxer to back away from the proposals, which they say conflict with her plans to pass a strong climate bill this year.

“I’m extremely disappointed that Sen. Boxer is considering backing so much highway funding when it would undermine the climate principles that she’s endorsed,” said Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Colin Peppard, the transportation coordinator for Friends of the Earth, said his group asked Boxer’s staff to at least put in place some sort of a “green screen” on the funding, stipulating that at least half be dedicated to existing roadways rather than new construction, or requiring that states give priority to maintenance of existing roads over expansion. He said her office has declined to include such a screen.

“These amendments will undermine President Obama’s goal of a green stimulus … and most importantly represent a step back on the climate change principles that she laid out this morning,” said Peppard.

He also noted that the amendments don’t bode well for reauthorization of the surface transportation bill later this year, which Boxer’s committee will take the lead on. “It shows that there’s absolutely no new thinking coming out of that committee on the role that transportation needs to play in achieving global warming goals,” Peppard continued. “If anything, if all of these amendments passed, they’d be a step backwards from the transportation statute that has already widely been shown to be insufficient for addressing global warming … We need better leadership from the committee that’s going to be drafting this bill.”

Transportation for America, a coalition lobbying for better transit policy, sent out an action alert on Tuesday urging folks to contact Boxer’s office. “If we don’t prioritize our spending we cannot achieve our environmental, energy, and safety goals, and we run the risk of harming our state and the nation,” wrote the group. Environmental Defense Fund has also put out an action alert on the Boxer-Inhofe amendment.

Another amendment, from Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would have increased transportation funding by $18 billion — $5 billion for mass transit and $13 billion for highways. While they had support from labor groups for the amendment, it was blocked by Republicans.

The Senate stimulus package already contains $27 billion for highways, with no stipulation that the funds go first or primarily to maintenance rather than new construction.