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New Rules for the New Year — what they might mean

Let me say up front that this blog post isn’t trying to make a partisan point and it is going to be impenetrably wonky.

Still with me? OK, let’s dig into House rules and procedures… The incoming leadership team in the House of Representatives is proposing a raft of changes to the way the House is run; it’s part of the larger effort to rein-in government expenditures and get a grip on the deficit, as well as ushering in an era of transparency and allowing members to use their blackberry’s on the floor of the house.

In amongst the 11 pages of rule changes is a provision that would prevent any new, or extension of the existing, transportation program from exceeding the amount of money that is projected to be generated by the gas tax – on the face of it, not completely unreasonable. Right now, Congress can only extend the current bill at the current bill’s spending level regardless of whether or not there’s enough money in the trust fund (from the gas tax) to pay for it. At the moment, there is enough, but last year there wasn’t (and Congress had to use general funds to make up the difference) and there might not be in the future. We just don’t know.

That degree of uncertainty is a problem. For the state Departments of Transportation, concrete-pourers and bridge-builders it’s a problem because it’s hard to plan and program multi-year projects when you don’t know if there’s going to be enough money next year to carry on with the project you just started – and our experience over the last 20 years of ISTEA, TEA-21 and SAFETEA-LU funding is that if there is any uncertainty it is bike and pedestrian projects that end up in that zone of uncertainty and don’t get funded. Look at the chart of Federal spending on bike/ped projects and you see a dip each time the transportation bill is about to expire and there is uncertainty over what will happen next. Look at what happens when “rescissions” come around…bike and pedestrian program funds make up a far larger proportion of the amount of money turned back to Washington.

Obligations 1992 to 2010

So the new rule changes would set an upper limit – albeit an uncertain one – on the amount of transportation expenditures. Up until now, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has authorized programs and funding levels for five or six years at a time through the transportation bill. Another proposed change would allow the Chair of the Budget Committee, annually, to set overall spending ceilings that individual appropriation bills could not exceed. The next transportation appropriation, therefore, could set funding levels below the amount of money generated by the gas tax and well below current levels. At some future date, the Highway Trust Fund could be sitting there with a very attractive surplus. Although the new rules do continue to protect any such balances from being raided for deficit reduction (at least for now), it allows a return to the days when that surplus could be used to mask expenditures elsewhere in the budget. Plus, once again, massive uncertainty is created by making transportation funding subject to the whims of annual appropriations rather than more secure, multi-year funding.

Is this a direct attack on bike/ped funding? No. Does it make such an attack more likely – absolutely. Changing the rules, and allowing appropriators to wield significantly more influence over which portions of the transportation program gets funded each year, is a real challenge and will bring a level of excitement and anticipation to each annual appropriations cycle that we probably won’t come to cherish. Sometime before the beginning of March, we’ll get a taste of what this means. Under these new rules (assuming they pass, and there’s a three-line whip on to make sure they do), Congress must either pass a continuing resolution or a new transportation bill to keep highway and transit funding flowing…and at that point, we will need your help!

In the meantime, if you happen to be meeting with your members of Congress please put in a good word for popular, cost effective transportation investments that have a great economic return and dramatically improve the quality of life for businesses and middle-class taxpayers…if you know what I mean.

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