For the 112th Congress, the path to passing a new transportation bill has been full of starts and stops, partisan politics and low expectations. While Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently said he doesn’t expect a multi-year bill to pass this Congress, livable streets advocates should still be on alert in the weeks ahead. Momentum is building behind bills in the House and Senate, and there are strong indications that the bills could advance quickly in the coming days.
For one thing, the highway lobby is mobilizing right now to push a transportation bill through Congress. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has sent an open letter to the Senate, the House, and the White House, with more than a thousand signatures — mostly construction firms, a few transit authorities, and not a single bike/ped advocate. The letter urges lawmakers to pass legislation heavy on highway and bridge projects. The Chamber has backed up the letter with a $500,000 publicity campaign, and it’s unlikely it would commit to such an investment if this legislative push was doomed from the outset.
Here’s a look at what’s in store for the rest of the week:
Tuesday, January 31
The full text of the House transportation bill — rumored at 1,000 pages, give or take — will be unveiled. So far, indications are that it will represent a return to 1950s-era transportation policy in many ways, funneling money to highways and giving broad powers to state DOTs when it comes to spending that money. An outline unveiled last week indicates that House Republicans have set their sights on eliminating dedicated bicycle/pedestrian funding as well as successful discretionary transit programs like TIGER.
Wednesday, February 1
The Natural Resources Committee will take up the oil drilling section of the House bill for markup at 9 a.m. The “drilling for infrastructure” component of the House bill is among its most controversial provisions. It is likely to make the bill very unpopular among the Democrat-controlled Senate, but even the Libertarian thinkCompetitive Enterprise Institute believes that funding infrastructure with oil and gas drilling revenue undermines the “user pays, user benefits” philosophy that has governed transportation funding for over half a century.
There are also doubts that oil and gas would yield enough revenue to fill the gap in the Highway Trust Fund left by dwindling gas tax receipts. Still, House Speaker John Boehner has made drilling a clear priority, and has even indicated that the Keystone XL Pipeline would be included in his bill if not approved independently beforehand.
Thursday, February 2
A very busy day. First, at 9 a.m., John Mica’s House Transportation & Infrastructure committee will take up the highway and transit portions of the House bill. The committee will vote on at least one amendment which would restore dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs.
Then, at 10 a.m. across the Capitol Grounds, the Senate Banking Committee will markup the transit portion of MAP-21, the Senate’s two-year reauthorization proposal.
Friday, February 3
There could be as many as two additional markups on Friday. Both committees responsible for figuring out where the money comes from — House Ways and Means and Senate Finance — could take up their portions of their respective bills. Senate Finance needs to fill a $12-13 billion gap in its two-year bill, but Politico reports that the committee could be pursuing as much as $17 billion in funding over that span. How they will do so is still anyone’s guess.