Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives unveiled their version of a national transportation bill this week. This is the legislation that doles out billions of dollars annually to highways, train lines, and — at least in the past — to bike lanes, pedestrian walkways, and a program called Safe Routes to School that helps kids get to home room each morning without being flattened by a passing car.
The last few would seem like a populist no-brainers, but if House Republicans have their way, even Safe Routes to School will get no more love from Washington.
I mean, really. Is nothing sacred?
Granted, this is a first draft of a bill that still needs to go through the meat grinder of more committees, the full House, and a conference with the Senate, but in gutting Safe Routes to School and wiping out designated funding for bike and pedestrian infrastructure (not to mention the byzantine way they want to fund this behemoth, which I’ll get to in a minute), these lawmakers have just re-affirmed the GOP’s identity as the party of the ’burbs.
Overall, the House bill, unveiled yesterday by Rep. John Mica of Florida, would divide federal funding between highways and public transit about the same way it is today: About 80 percent of the money would go to highways, and about 20 percent to rail and other transit projects, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Transportation for America. But biking and pedestrian advocates and environmentalists are losing their minds over the details of the 800-page legislation.
Here’s what they’re so mad about:
- If the bill passes, Safe Routes to School, which today gets roughly $122 million a year, is zeroed out. Tough luck for a program that has helped some of the country’s most vulnerable kids.
- The Transportation Enhancement Program, which sets aside a percentage of transportation funding for bike and pedestrian infrastructure, disappears. States would have the option of spending money on these types of projects, but would no longer be required to. (Here’s the response from the American League of Bicyclists.)
- Funding for the TIGER program dries up. The Obama administration has used this program to drive innovation from states, promoting “complete streets” projects that make room for bikers and pedestrians in addition to cars.
- Presently, some cities receive federal funding to encourage people to drive less when traffic is particularly bad as a way to simultaneously mitigate air pollution and traffic congestion. A new rule change would allow them to solve their congestion problems by simply building more roads. Never mind that this approach backfires every time.
- Environmental review for new transportation projects get severely curtailed, and the president wins the power to waive it altogether if he so pleases.
To be fair, the bill contains some positive items for public transit:
- The federal government would back local bonds with $1 billion a year to fund transit projects. This would allow cities like Los Angeles to build out light rail and other transit systems much more quickly than they otherwise would.
- Transit systems in large metro areas would gain the ability to use some federal funds for operating expenses — welcome news to systems across the country that have cut service and raised fares due to funding cuts in recent years.
So not all progressive urban planners are running for the hills. “We can work with this bill,” says Christopher Leinberger with Locus, a group of smart-growth-minded developers.
But the way the Republicans want to fund this thing is the real deal-killer. In the petrochemical version of a snake eating its tail, the GOP wants to fund highways by — you guessed it — drilling for more oil! The bill would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil rigs, require more drilling off-shore (including in the Gulf of Mexico), and open vast tracts of land to oil shale development. Whee!
Oh right, and House Speaker John Boehner also wants to attach language to the bill paving the way for the Keystone XL pipeline. (I’m getting a weird sense of déjà vu.)
Chances are, the worst parts of this bill are dead on arrival: The Senate strikes a more sensible compromise in its version of the bill, and many of the more egregious House provisions will likely be stripped out in the next month or two. (The current bill expires March 31.) Then again, House Republicans may end up killing the transportation bill entirely in their effort to score a few points for the GOP at large.
That would be too bad. If Congress can’t come up with an acceptable transportation bill, it will probably punt, extending the current bill, which is already an extension of a Bush-era transportation bill. How adequate is that bill? Suffice it to say that it’s currently a hell of a lot easier to build a highway than a light rail line in this country.
“We’re still building on yesterday’s priorities,” says Transportation for America spokesman David Goldberg. “We still don’t have a bill that allows us to address our 21st century needs.”
Apparently, that’s just fine with Rep. Mica and his buddies. House Republicans are still dreaming about the good ol’ days, when a place in the ’burbs and a big chrome-plated behemoth in the driveway was what we all wanted — not what we were all trying to get rid of.