Senate Inches Forward on Transportation Bill

Margo PedrosoWhile the clock ticks quickly towards the July 31 expiration of transportation policy and funding, the Senate has been moving quickly (well, quickly for a legislative body that prides itself on a deliberative approach) to reach resolution.

In our last update, we reported on Sen. McConnell’s efforts to combine the Senate DRIVE Act with the Commerce bill, funding and transit provisions. Those efforts are now moving forward—although many of the provisions that were combined with DRIVE are controversial.  Over the past week, a number of changes have been made to the bill to remove the most disputed funding mechanism and make policy adjustments to needed support.  Since changes have been made since our last report and new issues have arisen, I wanted to quickly recap some of the most pertinent issues for Safe Routes to School, bicycling and walking:

  • All changes to the Transportation Alternatives Program secured in EPW in June remain intact, including the increase in funding to $850M/year, elimination of state transfers, shifting all funding into the “population pot” to maximize local control, making nonprofits eligible and lowering regulatory burden.
  • A Complete Streets amendment that was accepted by the Commerce committee was regrettably removed from the floor version.
  • The language requiring Amtrak to study bike roll-on service is still included.
  • The TIGER program is not included, although this program has traditionally been funded by the appropriations committee and thus has not been included in the transportation bill in the past.
  • The legislation still allows transit funding to be used for “transit enhancements” (i.e. sidewalks, bike lanes, lighting, etc that increases access to stations) but it unfortunately removes a requirement that a minimum of 1% of certain kinds of transit grants be spent on these enhancements.

This week, the Senate got enough votes to proceed with HR22, the DRIVE Act—though with the removal of several of the more controversial proposals for how to pay for it, it is now a three-year bill.  Sen. McConnell has also “filled the amendment tree,” meaning that he offered enough amendments to block any others from being offered to speed the process.  Starting on Sunday, the Senate will vote on two unrelated amendments: one to repeal Obamacare and one to reauthorize the Export Import Bank.  

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Sens. McConnell and Boxer will continue to talk with Senators about their desired changes, with Senators hoping their proposed amendments and priorities could make it into one last “managers package” (which contains changes that have been agreed to by leadership).  While no more amendments are expected to get votes, we are supportive of several amendments, including:

  • Sens. Booker (D-NJ) and Wicker’s (R-MS) amendment to increase local control and competition in the Surface Transportation Program—making it operate more like the TAP program.
  • Sens. Heller (R-NV) and Schatz (D-HI) effort to restore the Complete Streets language to the bill.
  • Sen. Cardin’s (D-MD) effort to restore the transit enhancements requirements that make transit projects more accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Sen. Lee (R-UT) has also filed an amendment to eliminate the Transportation Alternatives Program, which we oppose.  However, he filed a number of other amendments, and given the leadership of Sens. Cochran (R-MS) and Cardin (D-MD) to support TAP, we do not believe his amendment will be considered or included in the bill at this time.  Senators have until Sunday at 2:30pm to file amendments, so there may be more pertinent to Safe Routes to School, bicycling and walking.

We will continue to monitor Senate action closely, and will do a call to action once we know the full picture on amendments and where our support is most needed to either fend off a bad amendment or back a good amendment.

It does appear at this time that Senate leadership has assembled enough votes to secure final passage, in spite of the angst among many Senators about the rushed and partisan process. But, there are still several more hurdles to get over in the next week. 

Even if the Senate passes DRIVE, House leadership is thus far adamant that they will not pass the Senate bill and are insisting on an extension of existing transportation policy and funding through the end of the year, to give them more time to do tax reform that gives enough revenue to do a six-year transportation bill.  We are thus likely to end up with some sort of extension, though it’s possible the Senate may insist on a shorter extension to keep the pressure on for the House to consider the DRIVE bill. 

More to come as this shakes out over the next week.