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Transit Reformers Say<br>New Bill Comes Up Short

Supporters say the proposed federal transportation bill fosters better mass transit and safer roads for walking and biking, but reformers say it doesn't go far enough for seniors.

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

fund. The result gave highway projects a leg up on funding. Oberstar’s bill, though, calls for government to also weigh the “other important benefits that new transit projects bring to communities,” like better access to jobs and housing, reduced emissions and energy consumption per capita, and the efficient land use and walkable neighborhoods that result from well-planned mass transit systems.

The Oberstar bill would also fund highway and mass transit projects at the same rate. Currently, the federal government funds about 80 percent of states’ costs for highway and bridge construction projects, but only 50 percent of their costs for new transit rail projects. Under Oberstar’s proposal, the federal government would fund all types of projects equally.

“As we are well into the 21st century, I think if we’re concerned about energy and about the environment, a greater public investment in public transportation makes sense in an oil-constrained world,” says Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is also part of the T4 coalition.

The Bill's $500 Billion Price Tag

The proposed bill’s $500 billion price tag is more than twice the size of the current transportation authorization, which is scheduled to run in six-year cycles. That breaks down to $337 billion invested in highway construction, $100 billion in public transit and $12.6 billion in safety programs. There’s also $50 billion for the nationwide high-speed rail system that Obama envisions.

The hefty cost is the real hurdle for Oberstar’s ambitious proposal. The country’s transportation bill is historically funded out of the Highway Trust Fund, which is financed by a federal gas tax. But the highway account will be depleted by August, and there aren’t many options available for replenishing it. That’s because the gas tax has been at the same rate since 1993, while revenues have declined because of more fuel-efficient cars and decreased travel during the recession.

Oberstar has said he’s open to a gas tax hike, something the Obama administration firmly opposes during a recession. And most lawmakers will be loathe to siphon that much off the general fund every year.

The current transportation bill is scheduled to expire Sept. 30.  The Obama administration has requested an 18-month extension, a move that would forestall decisions on how to fund such a costly bill.

“Our No. 1 priority is to work with [the Office of Management and Budget] and the Congress to find the money to plug the Highway Trust Fund for the next 18 months,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Transportation, Housing and Urban Development subcommittee last Friday. “During our discussions, we should at least talk about the way forward and begin discussions about some reforms, whether we all can agree on what those are and whether they can be enacted. But our No. 1 priority will be to work with all of you to plug the Highway Trust Fund, to find the money to do it and to pay for it.”

Eighteen-Month Extension or Six-Year Bill

LaHood has also been arguing that Congress should take its time to fully focus on a new bill, rather than rushing it through while health care, energy and a Supreme Court nominee are also on the docket. LaHood left open the possibility of shoehorning some reforms into the 18-month extension, although he declined to say just how much reform could be written into a temporary fix in the five weeks before the August recess.

Reform advocates say they could support a number of legislative options, as long as they involve substantial change. “We want to see a transformative bill, and we can believe we can do that either in an 18-month bill or a 6-year bill,” says Corless. “The fact that they’re even talking about an 18-month bill lets you be a little more transformative—usually extensions run for just three months—which is why we’re calling that a bill, not an extension.”

But Oberstar tells AARP that he plans to forge ahead. He stresses that a full, six-year bill would let states start planning and constructing new projects, leading to job growth and a stronger economy.

“An 18-month extension of current law and temporary restoration of the Highway Trust Fund will leave states without the certainty and reliable funding source that they need to plan, design, and construct significant multi-year highway and transit projects,” Oberstar says. “States will slow investments, and this slowdown will offset much of the benefits of the increased transportation investment provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.”

The Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee is scheduled to start marking up the bill this morning. The bill’s next stop will be the full Transportation Committee and the Ways and Means Committee—where it is likely to be held up by the health care and energy bills.

Christie Findlay is the former editor-in-chief of "Politics" magazine.

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