After only a handful of hearings in the Senate and House this year focusing on a long term fix for our nation’s surface transportation needs, Congress sent a clear message last week to all those who hoped for long-term action: let’s talk next year!
Here’s how it all went down:
MAP-21, the current federal transportation law, provided a two-year authorization of our surface transportation programs, and was set to expire in September 2014. Congress struggled to deal with the impending expiration date of transportation policy, coupled with huge funding shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund.
Even so, the House committee with jurisdiction over financing, has not held a single hearing on transportation in the past two years. That’s not to say all hope was lost. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure worked in a bipartisan way to pass a long-term water reauthorization bill, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed their portion of a long-term highway bill, and the new Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee promised action on long-term solution. To all of their credit, it did seem for a short time as though something might come together.
That all fell apart in recent weeks when both chambers resigned themselves to a short term patch while they continued working on a long-term funding solution. The question in each chamber became, how far do we kick the ball?
In a surprising show of bipartisan force, the Senate voted 79 to 18 in favor of extending MAP-21 through December, while the House punted to the 114th Congress, extending the program through May. Both chambers used 10 years of ‘savings’ from pension smoothing – a gimmicky tactic that temporarily increases taxable income to raise revenue –and a one-time transfer from the Leaking Underground Storage Trust (LUST) Fund, to fund their proposals. The thinking in the Senate was that a shorter extension would force this Congress to act on reauthorization while preventing a potential lapse in funding at the peak of construction season next May. The House, in return, accused the Senate of trying to force their hand on a potential vote to raise the federal gas tax.
In the end, the House rejected the Senate version outright, sending their own bill back shortly before skipping town for their month-long August recess. Without much fanfare, the Senate ultimately passed the House proposal and, like their counterparts, went home.
It’s unclear what happens next. Chairman Shuster of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has repeatedly promised legislation this year, but with only a handful of legislative days left on the calendar, that is likely up in the air. The same goes for the Senate Banking, Commerce, and Finance Committees, each of which must pass their portions of a transportation bill before a long-term measure can move forward. And with smart money on an even more divided Congress next year in a presidential election cycle, it’s possible that MAP-21 will face additional short term extensions into 2017.
The good news, at least for now, is that both the Senate and the Obama Administration have both laid out a strong path forward for the federal Safe Routes to School program, which is currently housed in the Transportation Alternatives Program.
Even if MAP-21 is not reauthorized for quite some time, we do need to remain vigilant and keep letting our members of Congress know about the value of Safe Routes to School, bicycling and walking projects to our communities. During Senate consideration of the transportation extension, Sen. Vitter (R-LA) nearly offered a devastating amendment to eliminate funding for Transportation Alternatives and even to eliminate eligibility of bicycling and walking projects for any federal transportation dollars. While Sen. Vitter ended up not offering the amendment, it shows we are not out of the woods yet.
While a great deal remains in question over the shape of the next Congress, you can be assured that we will continue fighting hard to ensure the long-term success of Safe Routes to School at the federal level.