Transportation Reauthorization Debate Highlights Critical Role of City Leaders

April 7, 2014

Leslie Wollack

With federal legislation authorizing surface transportation programs expiring on September 30, House and Senate leaders have begun discussions on how to renew the current program in light of transportation revenue shortfalls.

In Washington last month, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer convened a panel representing state and local governments to hear their views on the transportation program and the upcoming reauthorization debate.

Senators and witnesses in attendance highlighted the critical role of local officials in making transportation decisions.  As Senator Thomas Carper of Delaware noted in his opening statement, investment in local priorities needs to be taken into consideration in transportation decisions.  “Local governments need to be at the table with sates when decisions are made,” said Senator Carper.

Senator Boxer stressed the importance of accountability and the need to balance transparency and flexibility in spending decisions. The current legislation, known as MAP-21 or Moving American Forward for Progress in the 21st Century, provides greater flexibility for states to make spending decisions without specifying the involvement of local officials or metropolitan planning organizations.  

Indianapolis Mayor Gregory Ballard noted the revival of America’s cities and the role of the transportation network in vibrant communities. “For many decades transportation planning centered on the movement of people and goods between commercial and residential centers,” said Mayor Ballard.  “Today, our cities face a much different transportation need – one of connecting people to each other and unique experiences.” 

Mayor Ballard called on Congress to “support our cities as we seek to build the bike lanes, trails and greenways that serve all the people who want to live, work and raise their families in the new American city. In this country, local governments have always been the cradle of innovation and partnership.”

Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City also testified on the great importance of a national transportation partnership.   
“The relationship of the national transportation system to the movement of goods, services and people in our Communities is paramount,” said Mayor Cornett. "Well managed dollars committed to infrastructure improvements and community based initiatives directly materialize in our economy and enhance the ability of business and industry to cost effectively move goods and provide services."

This week, the House will consider an FY 2015 budget resolution that would cut many transportation programs, including subsidies for Amtrak passenger rail and transit capital grants, so critical to local transportation networks and the growth of vibrant communities. The budget resolution is a non-binding blueprint and is not signed into law by the President but guides spending decisions for subsequent funding legislation. 

With federal tax receipts not sufficient to pay ransportation bills as early as July, according the US Department of Transportation, Congress will face enormous pressure in working on a transportation bill even before the September 30 expiration of MAP-21.  

Congressional leaders have pledged to move legislation this year and could begin working on a bill by May. Local officials are encouraged to let their Washington representatives know how important these programs are to communities and the need to ensure that local officials are part of the decision making on the future of transportation networks to their citizens.