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A Terrible Transportation Bill

The New York Times: A Terrible Transportation Bill

Published: February 8, 2012

The list of outrages coming out of the House is long, but the way the Republicans are trying to hijack the $260 billion transportation bill defies belief. This bill is so uniquely terrible that it might not command a majority when it comes to a floor vote, possibly next week, despite Speaker John Boehner’s imprimatur. But betting on rationality with this crew is always a long shot.

Here is a brief and by no means exhaustive list of the bill’s many defects:

¶It would make financing for mass transit much less certain, and more vulnerable, by ending a 30-year agreement that guaranteed mass transit a one-fifth share of the fuel taxes and other user fees in the highway trust fund. Instead it would compete annually with other programs.

¶It would open nearly all of America’s coastal waters to oil and gas drilling, including environmentally fragile areas that have long been off limits. The ostensible purpose is to raise revenue to help make up what has become an annual shortfall for transportation financing. But it is really just one more attempt to promote the Republicans’ drill-now-drill-everywhere agenda and the interests of their industry patrons.

¶It would demolish significant environmental protections by imposing arbitrary deadlines on legally mandated environmental reviews of proposed road and highway projects, and by ceding to state highway agencies the authority to decide whether such reviews should occur.

In 1982, with President Ronald Reagan’s blessing, Congress agreed to apportion 80 percent of the highway trust fund revenues to highways, bridges and tunnels, and 20 percent to subways, bus lines and other forms of mass transit. In 2010, this meant around $32 billion for highways, bridges and so on and $8 billion for mass transit.

The House bill would direct all the trust fund money to roads and bridges. It would authorize a one-time payment of $40 billion over five years for all the other transportation programs, including mass transit and smaller initiatives to improve air quality and ease congestion. That means that mass transit would have to struggle with others for yearly appropriations — and would almost certainly get less than the $8 billion it received in 2010.

Where that $40 billion will come from is also unclear. The idea that oil revenues from increased drilling will provide it is delusional. Even if new leases are rushed through, oil will not begin to flow for years, and neither will the royalties.

In any case, none of this is good news for urban transit systems, including New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which, in 2010 alone, received about $1 billion from the trust fund.

Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, rightly calls this the “worst transportation bill” he has seen in 35 years of public service. Mr. Boehner is even beginning to hear from budget-conscious conservatives who believe that relying on user fees is the most fiscally responsible way to pay for all transportation programs.

Perhaps the House speaker will listen to these warnings and send the bill back to the relevant committees for the wholesale revision it needs. If he does not, and it passes, then the Senate must stop it.