Congress Passes Highway-Transit Reauthorization Legislation-President Obama Expected to Sign Bill

July 2, 2012

Leslie Wollack

On Friday, June  29, 2012, both the House and Senate adopted the conference agreement on MAP-21, the federal surface transportation reauthorization bill, which originally expired on September 30, 2009 and had nine short term extensions. The House voted 373-52 and the Senate voted 74-19 to approve a compromise bill that appeared impossible on several occasions. The legislation now goes to the president for his signature.

NLC President Ted Ellis applauded the action of Congress. "After nine short-term extensions, passing the two-year transportation bill is an important next step in getting resources to our cities and towns for the transportation programs that keep our communities moving and support local economic vitality," said Ellis. He continued, "We appreciate the hard work of our national transportation leaders in recognizing that transportation investment means jobs in our communities and provides the vital link for people to get to their jobs, school and doctor appointments."

Conferees extended the length of the original Senate bill to 27 months, providing a slight increase in funding through September 30, 2014, with a slight increase in funding. The final agreement was reached after the House dropped its insistence on including the Keystone pipeline and regulation of coal ash in the bill and the Senate compromises on provisions funding transportation alternatives known as transportation enhancements and efforts to speed project delivery

Under the bill, highway programs will be funded at $39.699 billion in FY13 and $40.256 in FY14 and transit programs at $10.584 in FY13 and $10.701 in FY14.

Several NLC supported provisions were included in the final agreement, including direct funding for the off-system bridge program, which has funneled $650 million annually to local bridges not on the federal-aid system, and is expected to help support 80,000 deficient off-system bridges. Conferees rejected proposed changes to the Metropolitan Planning program which would have changed the process for local involvement and eliminated many growing regions. NLC supported the conferees decision to reject the proposed changes and maintain the current threshold of 50,000 in population. The final agreement gives rural regions new authority in the planning process to work with their state transportation departments.

Lawmakers compromised on some controversial provisions to streamline environmental reviews that hold up federally funded projects, including a broadening of the definition of categorical exemptions and raising the funding threshold for triggering federal environmental review of projects.

The transportation enhancement program is reduced substantially, though metro areas over 200,000 will receive a sub allocation for project selection with 50 percent of the funding. State transportation departments can choose to not spend the rest of their allocation on transportation enhancement programs, a move opposed by NLC and a disappointment when so many communities are seeking to fund bicycle and pedestrian walkways. The very successful Safe Routes to School program was eliminated as a separate program but eligible for funding from other programs.

The TIFIA credit and loan program was increased to $750 million in FY13 and $1 billion in FY14 with a special set-aside for rural funding.

The federal transit program keeps its basic structure with some reforms. Areas under 200,000 can continue to use their formula funds for operating assistance. A separate bus program is maintained, funded at a somewhat lower level and changed to a formula program. A Senate provision providing flexibility to areas over 200,000 to use funds for transit operating expenses in times of high unemployment was not included in the final bill.

The New Starts program streamlines the approval process to accelerate project delivery. The Elderly and Disabled and New Freedom programs are consolidated and the rural formula program is maintained with a slight increase in funding.

The final agreement also included the RESTORE Act which provides 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalty fines from the Gulf oil spill to the five affected Gulf Coast states.

The conference agreement did not include NLC supported provisions to maintain parity for federal transit benefits equal to benefits for employee parking and did not include the provision to remove water and waste water facilities from the state cap on private activity bonds.

"We are pleased that Congress continues to recognize the national partnership so critical to a national interconnected transportation system and values the important role of local officials in making transportation decisions that impact our communities, NLC President Elis said.

"There is more work to be done to provide federal support for the increasing need for transportation alternatives in our communities and sustainable solutions that protect our communities now and in the future," he noted.

Ellis called on Congress to begin planning for the future of our transportation system. "We look forward to working with Congressional leaders to find new sources of revenue to fund future transportation programs and maintain our national transportation network."