POSTED: Tuesday, February 7, 2012
BY: Lindsey O’Brien
A new federal transportation bill unveiled by House Republicans last week elicited resounding opposition in Oregon.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s chairman, John Mica, R-Fla., last week introduced the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act. It’s a $260 billion proposal to repair U.S. infrastructure, reauthorize transportation programs for five years and increase opportunities for domestic oil drilling.
But in a committee vote last week, every Democrat and even one Republican opposed the bill. Lawmakers, however, are expected to search for a compromise before the present law expires on March 31.
Opponents have a slew of objections to the nearly 900-page bill, including its emphasis on new highway construction, the elimination of money dedicated for projects to aid bicyclists and pedestrians, and reduction of long-term planning for public transit.
“This bill says it’s a waste to spend highway trust dollars to protect cyclists, pedestrians or children, (and that) all of that money should just go into highway projects,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who represents Southwest Oregon and is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It takes us back to pre-1980 in terms of the federal government’s participation in transit. It’s quite radical stuff.”
The bill would eliminate the Transportation Enhancements program, which requires states to set aside a percentage of federal money for bike and pedestrian programs. Instead, those allocations would be left entirely up to each state.
Mica and the bill’s supporters hail the proposal for cutting red tape and addressing critical transportation needs without earmarks.
But Travis Brouwer, federal affairs advisor for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said that even without mandated spending, Oregon is likely to continue investing a portion of its federal money in biking and pedestrian programs now being paid for via Transportation Enhancements.
“(The bill) wouldn’t have a major impact on bike and pedestrian projects,” Brouwer said. “We’d have to modify our Transportation Enhancement program, but we’d still be allowed to continue funding those projects.”
Andrew Cotugno, a policy advisor for Metro, is not as optimistic that active transportation would trump other infrastructure projects for funding if federal mandates were eliminated.
“There is a strong level of support in Oregon around a comprehensive transportation system, but we don’t know if it would remain once new flexibility is provided,” Cotugno said. “In other parts of the country that are antagonistic toward these programs, advocates are saying that spending on bike and pedestrian programs will go away in an instant.”
Supporters of public transportation investments also are concerned about potential impacts of the bill.
“If transit is not part of the highway trust fund, it seems like a very dangerous place to be,” said Alan Lehto, director of planning and policy for TriMet. “My concern is that there wouldn’t be as much federal funding available at all, no matter how forward-thinking we are about what kinds of infrastructure we need.”
While states would have more power to decide how to spend federal money, some programs would be eliminated entirely. The bill, for instance, would prohibit federal money from being used on the Safe Routes to School Program, which provides infrastructure improvements, education programs, and safety training to encourage kids to bike or walk to school.
Oregon receives an annual allocation of approximately $2 million, according to Brouwer.
“I’ve visited a number of schools in my district that participated. The parents are thrilled; the kids are away from dangerous intersections … it’s a great success nationwide,” DeFazio said. “That program was created when Republicans were in charge … but this is a much more mean-spirited bunch.”
By a narrow 29-27 margin, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week voted against restoring money for Safe Routes to School and Transportation Enhancements.
The bill is expected to go to the House floor for a vote by the end of the month, although if it were to pass in its present form, it likely would not be signed into law, according to DeFazio and several others.
The Senate drafted a transportation reauthorization bill with bipartisan support, and a temporary extension of the present law likely would pass in order to allow more time for negotiations.
“This bill reverses decades of progress we’ve made to create safe routes to school and encourage safety on our streets for all users of the roadway,” said Gerik Kransky, advocacy director for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, a Portland-based nonprofit.
“It’s time to kill House Resolution 7,” he said. “It eliminates dedicated funding for biking and walking, slashes funding for transit services, and the way we see it – will actually make streets less safe.”
According to Kransky, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week that the highway spending plan is “the worst transportation bill” he’s seen in decades.
The bill would eliminate the Transportation Enhancements program, which sets aside money for pedestrian and bicycle projects not normally required on highway or transportation projects. The program, since its creation in 1992, has generated 190 Oregon projects worth a total of $97 million.
Projects approved in last year’s Transportation Enhancements program were awarded a total of $15.99 million in federal money. Including local matches, $19.13 million was spent on Oregon projects. They included:
- Completion of The Dalles Riverfront Trail – $1.55 million federal award;
- Pedestrian access to Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood schools on Southeast Holgate Boulevard and Ramona Street in Portland – $1.48 million federal award; and
- Construction of the second phase of the Middle Fork Willamette River Path between Springfield and Eugene – $1.6 million federal award.