Senate Passes Transportation Bill

March 19, 2012

by Leslie Wollack

The Senate voted last week to approve a two-year, $109 billion transportation funding measure, forcing the House to act days before the current program and the gas taxes supporting federal programs expire on March 31.

The 74-22 vote for Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) reflected the efforts of the Senate's transportation leaders to find a bipartisan path on an issue that has eluded compromise since federal transportation programs expired in September 2009. House action has stalled due to opponents from both parties disagreeing over the direction of the House bill, which financed the program by expanded oil and gas exploration, approval of the Keystone pipeline and funding only highway programs from gas tax revenues.

In a statement, NLC joined a host of national groups in praising the Senate bipartisan effort to pass the bill and its "recognition of the importance of transportation funding to local economic development and vitality."

"NLC calls on the House to act and adopt the Senate bill in time for the spring construction season," the statement read. "Infrastructure investment puts people back to work and is key to accelerating economic recovery in our communities."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) praised the Senate vote and the bipartisan leadership of Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

MAP-21 would consolidate multiple federal programs into a few, providing greater flexibility for states in making spending decisions, but giving less authority to local governments and the metropolitan planning organizations that represent them. Senators included a number of amendments that would make the bill more responsive to local needs, including funding for local bridges, support for metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and local grants for programs such as Safe Routes to Schools and bicycle and pedestrian walkways.

The bill also extends the tax benefit for transit commuters at the same level as tax breaks for parking and removes wastewater programs from the private activity bond cap.

Concern over impending shortfalls in federal gas tax revenues clouds the future of the federal transportation program. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that federal gas tax funds for highways will run out in 2013 and for transit programs in 2014. Initially, the House proposed a 34 percent cut in funding to ensure the availability of funding over a five-year period, but Senate leaders chose to spend available funding in two years.

Key changes in MAP-21 include:

  • Sets national policy goals and performance measures, including congestion, improved access to multiple travel options, support for manufacturing and reducing impacts on the environment and adjacent communities;
  • Streamlines project delivery;
  • Maintains existing funding levels;
  • Holds states accountable for the safe upkeep of roads and bridges;
  • Maintains local control over a share of funds and ensures access to funding for safer walking and bicycling;
  • Includes emergency provisions to allow transit agencies to avoid service cuts and fare hikes;
  • Extends the commuter benefit for transit users, commensurate with parking benefits for drivers;
  • Helps communities make plans to meet the growing demand for walkable neighborhoods with access to jobs, services and public transportation;
  • Ensures that federal funds support streets that are safe and complete for everyone who uses them, whether motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users or transit riders.
The House returns to Washington this week and will have to make a decision on a proposal that would gain the necessary votes on a bill before the program expires on March 31. Many observers believe that Congress might be forced to enact another short-term extension until after the elections, due to the level of opposition and lack of consensus in the House.