Senate Highway Bill Highlights: Weak on Reforms, Keeps the Waste Intact
Emily Goff /
Late last night, the Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works released its 150-page proposal for a six-year reauthorization of the current highway and surface transportation law, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21).
Below are a few details worth noting up front:
- Current spending levels plus inflation. Spending on highway programs would come to $38.44 billion in 2015 and rise to $42.59 billion by 2020. The bill would also set up a formula-based freight program, funded at $400 million in 2015 and rising to $2 billion by 2020.
- More of the same. Not surprisingly, the bill would keep the structure of highway programs that was set up under MAP-21, since the original law is less than two years old.
- Fails to eliminate diversions to local or non-road programs. The bill would continue to divert federal gas taxes paid by motorists to fund purely local programs and activities that have no relationship to road and bridge improvements. The bicycle paths and historic-style street lamps funded under the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) provide an example.
- Reduces flexibility for the states. One example is the restrictions placed on how states can allocate the funding they set aside for TAP-eligible projects. Under current law, half of a state’s TAP funding must be allocated to areas according to population, and the other half is up to the state’s discretion. This new proposal would shrink this discretionary portion to one-third of the state’s total TAP funding. Short of eliminating TAP, at minimum Congress should give the states greater flexibility in how they spend their gas tax dollars.
- Does not live within its means. The bill proposes increased spending on core highway programs and other programs, plus $125 million annually for a new “competitive grant” program, but it does not reduce spending elsewhere. It continues Congress’s habit of increasing spending when the money is not there, which is one reason why the balance in the Highway Trust Fund is nearly depleted.
- “Strengthens” environmental review streamlining. This bill would make minor changes to the larger environmental review streamlining contained in MAP-21, but those original reforms appear stalled. The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) inspector general has reported slow progress on the environmental streamlining guidelines and suggested the rulemakings might not be complete by the deadlines laid out in the law. Instead, Congress should reform the outdated, onerous National Environmental Policy Act.
Bold reforms are needed in surface transportation, such as bringing funding and spending decisions closer to the people affected by them. Senator Mike Lee (R–UT) proposes just as much in his Transportation Empowerment Act, as does Representative Scott Garrett (R–NJ) with his transportation opt-out bill. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R–WI) explored empowering the states in his budget proposal. Yet such innovative, bold thinking does not seem to be coming out of the committee any time soon.