Supporters of walking, biking and mass transit as alternatives to driving are calling a new $500 billion, six-year House transportation bill a milestone. But they say it falls far short of the sweeping reform needed to bring the nation’s transportation networks into the 21st century.
They’ll be pressing Congress to create more mass transit options, to create requirements that make streets safer and easier to navigate, and to flesh out the details that give older Americans more choices for moving around their communities.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., is “the best opportunity we think we’ve had in a lifetime of transportation policy to create something that’s smarter and healthier,” says James Corless, director of Transportation for America (also known as T4), a coalition of reform groups that includes AARP. “We’re encouraged—there’s some good stuff in here, some good language, some good direction. But it doesn’t add up. It’s not the type of transformational bill we were hoping for.”
Needs of Seniors
The bill lacks any mention of roadway design safety for older drivers, one of the key elements AARP had asked Congress to address. And it combines three programs that particularly benefit older people by funding buses and vans, services that go beyond ADA requirements, and transportation to and from work.
“With the consolidation, these programs have to compete against public transit agencies—which aren't experienced serving frail or elderly people—and would probably lose,” says Debra Alvarez, AARP’s senior legislative representative for government affairs. “There's also the specter of pitting elderly, disabled, and low-income populations against each other in jockeying for funding, since there's no set amount allocated for each program.”
When it comes to addressing the needs of seniors, “we’re disappointed it’s not more of a break from previous legislation,” says Dean Sagar, director of livable communities in AARP’s government relations department.
Office of Livability
Still, supporters of alternative transportation will find some things to like in Oberstar’s bill. It would create an Office of Livability that would emphasize “environmentally sustainable modes of transportation, including transit, walking, and bicycling.”
The office would also ensure that “roadways are built with the needs of all users in mind,” and encourage “comprehensive street design” that is friendly to bikes and pedestrians—a key concept of so-called complete streets. And it would establish a U.S. Bicycle Route System, a 50,000-mile network of trails criss-crossing the country and linking key destinations. (Oberstar is an avid cyclist, and his office is filled with bike gear and photos.)
But critics say the proposed livability office falls far short of what can and should be done to create safer, more usable streets. For starters, the bill doesn’t set aside any funding or staffing for the office. And although advocates have been pushing for specific complete streets targets for five years, the bill “mostly encourages the states to do what they can in terms of complete streets, but it doesn’t really create any explicit requirements or standards,” Sagar says.
Funding Mass Transit Projects
Advocates say the new bill does help even the playing field for alternative transportation. There’s always been a huge discrepancy in funding for highways and mass transit projects. But even as gas prices fluctuate, congestion soars and air quality declines, America has continued to support car-based transportation. Even congressional Democrats’ $825 billion stimulus package contained just $10 billion for mass transit compared with $30 billion for road projects.
Under President Bush’s administration, the Federal Transit Administration started weighing cost effectiveness—how much travel time was saved per dollar spent—when deciding which projects to