Congress Will Continue Debate on Transportation Legislation

February 27, 2012

by Leslie Wollack

This week, the Senate will resume debate on S.1813, the two-year surface transportation authorization bill funding federal highway, transit and bridge programs, after a week-long recess. The Senate still must overcome a number of unrelated and highly controversial amendments that will be part of the debate before working on numerous transportation-related amendments. 

The Senate will combine legislation from four different committees, which have been working over the recess to resolve remaining controversial provisions and retain the bipartisan support the bill has enjoyed. Senate leaders are working to pare down the number of amendments. NLC encourages city officials to contact their senators to support several local government amendments that will be offered during Senate debate. 

NLC urges local officials to show their support for the following amendments:

  • The Casey-Blunt amendment to Restore Funding for Off-System Bridges: The Senate bill would collapse federal bridge programs into a larger program for states to spend on all transportation programs and eliminate a 15 percent set-aside for off-system bridges, which funds local bridges. The amendment would maintain the set-aside for bridges not on the federal-aid system, which has been in place since 1978 and has been of substantial help to local governments in their efforts to upgrade local bridges. The Casey-Blunt amendment would provide full funding for the 15 percent set-aside to fund local off-system bridges. 

  • The Cardin-Cochran Additional Activities Amendment: The Senate bill creates a new program called "Additional Activities," which includes a broad range of eligible projects, such as Main Street revitalizations, local street safety improvements, street and boulevard redesigns, bus stop and rail station access improvements, Safe Routes to Schools and Recreational Trails, among many others - including the former programs that invested in safe walking and biking. The Cardin-Cochran Amendment would turn that Additional Activities program into a competitive grant program for local governments, giving local elected leaders more control over how to spend the funds. The amendment would give increased decision-making authority and control to local governments to fund important transportation projects.

  • The Shaheen (and others) Amendment to Grandfather Existing Metropolitan Planning Organizations: Current law provides that areas over 50,000 in population are designated as a metropolitan planning organization and have regional planning responsibilities and decision-making authority over transportation and other projects in their region. The Senate bill would change that threshold to 200,000 in population and set up new criteria for remaining an MPO. The Shaheen amendment would grandfather in existing MPOs.
Last week, House Republicans announced they will rework the House bill to lower the price tag, shorten the duration and eliminate a controversial provision on transit funding. The $260 billion, five-year bill has drawn criticism from transit advocates as well as fiscal conservatives, who have expressed concern that it wouldn't cut enough from current spending and would diverge from a "user-pays" model. 

Concerns over a provision that would end the 30-year dedicated funding for transit programs from gas tax revenues, opposed by NLC and more than 600 other groups, is a key source of opposition to the bill. 

House debate is controlled by the Rules Committee, which must decide what amendments to allow for consideration. The Rules Committee has not yet met to decide on the more than 300 amendments that have been proposed, several of which are supported by NLC. 

Please check the NLC website for the most recent information on the transportation legislation debate.