House and Senate on Different Paths for Transportation

Margo PedrosoThis summer has been a busy one for transportation.  In addition to the late June committee consideration of the DRIVE Act, both the House and Senate are moving forward on transportation.

First – the easy one, the House.  Yesterday, the House passed an extension for current transportation law MAP-21, which would move the expiration from July 31 to December 18.  House leadership says they need those additional five months to work on a long-term funding solution tied to a tax overhaul or other means. 

In the Senate, Sen. McConnell is taking a very different approach:  he wants a long-term transportation authorization and is trying to assemble a package of funding and new policy that can pass the Senate. 

To make sure its bill can be a part of the McConnell package, yesterday the Senate Commerce committee considered a bill that covers safety, freight, Amtrak and some other aspects (S. 1732).  While there’s a lot to cover on that bill, we’ll focus on a few highlights:

  • The original draft of the bill would have eliminated the TIGER program, which is a very popular federal grant program that has supported a lot of great multi-modal projects over the years, and replaced it with a freight-only national competitive grant program in which transit would be eligible only if it could demonstrate it was reducing congestion on a freight route and bicycle and pedestrian improvements would not be eligible at all.  In response, Senators Murray and Collins and others introduced S.1748 to reauthorize TIGER.  When it came time for markup, the freight-only grant program had been stripped from the bill—but TIGER wasn’t added either. 
  • An amendment to require Complete Streets approaches in all phases of project planning and developing was offered by Senators Schatz, Heller, Markey and Udall and accepted.
  • Sen. Manchin’s amendment was accepted that requires Amtrak to study allowing bikes to roll on board of trains (rather than having to be broken down in a box to take on the train.

While the final Commerce bill was an improvement over the earlier draft, it does not have bipartisan support due to concerns over safety provisions and other aspects of the bill.  The Commerce bill passed out of committee on a 13-11 party line vote.

Sens. McConnell and Hatch have initially identified $90 billion in funding, which would support a 5-year transportation bill.  However, $30 billion of it comes from federal worker retirement accounts and is controversial.  Finance committee members and Senate leadership are looking at the package of pay-fors to see what can be agreed to and how long of a transportation bill the funding could cover.

If this all comes together, next week Sen. McConnell will combine a funding package, the DRIVE Act and the Commerce bill, along with some transit provisions and attempt to pass it.  Because the Commerce bill is partisan, it may complicate attempts to get it through the Senate.  It's possible that Sen. McConnell may combine the transportation bills with other unrelated bills to garner more support.  We will also be monitoring for any anti-bicycling and walking amendments as well as supportive amendments.

If the Senate succeeds in passing this package, we are still left with a House that wants a short-term extension and a Senate that is focused on a long-term bill.  With Congress slated to go home to their districts for August, the next two weeks will determine whether we get an extension or a bill.  We will let you know if there are actions to take and where we ultimately end up by the end of July.