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Congress Must Act Now
UPDATE: Last Thursday, the Senate voted to pass the House's original bill to extend transportation funding and policy to May 31st with a vote of 81-13. On Tuesday, the Senate rejected the House bill in favor of a shorter funding patch that would have forced Congress to pass a new transportation bill this calendar year. Earlier today, the House rejected the Senate changes and sent their original bill back to the Senate.
The House was helped along by an error in the Senate bill, which caused the bill to be $2 billion short. Instead of fixing the Senate bill, the House bill had a 'closed vote' where members could only vote to reject the Senate bill or not.
Still, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and two Oregon House Democrats, Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio, put up a strong fight for a long term fix to transportation funding. Speaking on the floor, Rep DeFazio stated "I used to be a bike mechanic so I know how to patch a tube. But when you can't see the tube through the patches -- it's time for a new tube."
UPDATE: Congratulations Senators Boxer, Corker and Carper! In a slightly surprising but welcome vote last night, the Senate passed an extension and funding patch for the Highway Trust Fund that expires at the end of 2014 rather than May 2015 (as proposed by the House and original Senate bill).
This is important as it forces the hand of this Congress to come up with a long term transportation bill and revenue source, rather than simply delaying the difficult decisions ahead as to how to do that. And as if a reminder were needed as to why it might be preferable to make those decisions with the current Senate make-up, a vote to waive all environmental regulations for disaster relief projects came within three votes of passing last night -- so even a slight shift in the composition of the Senate in November could dramatically affect the nature of the debate on a long-term bill if it happens in 2015. We'll keep you up to date as this important debate continues in Congress.
The Highway Trust Fund is going broke, jeopardizing hundreds of thousands of construction jobs and throwing thousands of public works and transportation departments into chaos as their work plans are thrown out the window.
Congress has to act to fix this funding shortfall or, starting next month, the U.S. Department of Transportation will be unable to reimburse State DOT's for projects they've built, and ongoing Federal transportation funding will be reduced to the amount generated by the out-dated gasoline tax. But, for a variety of unsatisfying reasons, Congress hasn't acted to fix this problem -- and time is running out.
For bicycling and bicycle-related projects this is significant for a couple of reasons. First, everytime this kind of uncertainty has arisen -- i.e. each time the federal transportation bill is set to expire -- bike and pedestrian projects are put on hold and funding dips dramatically. Secondly, if there is a long-term cut in transportation funding of up to 30% or more, we can pretty much guarantee that bike and pedestrian projects are going to be the first on the chopping block.
The impasse in Congress is, of course, complicated, and all kinds of politics are entwined in the negotiations to fix the issue. One approach is to use a funding patch to kick the can down the road to May of next year. Another option is to accept that the trust fund isn't generating the money it used to and that the next transportation bill should cut its cloth accordingly and either cut funding by 30% long-term or simply devolve the entire program to states.
A third option, and one that we prefer, is to deal with the funding issues and long-term health of the program now, and not put off the tough decisions to a later date, again and again. Remember, not only is funding running out for the highway trust fund, but the transportation bill itself -- which directs how the funding is to be used -- expires at the end of September and has to be renewed or extended.
Sens. Boxer (D-CA), Corker (R-TN), Carper (D-DE) and others are pushing for action now, and we are reaching out to key members of the Senate to support that push over the next few days. Time is of the essence and we need action before Congress heads out of town for the Summer recess.