Local Officials Seizing Bully Pulpit on Transportation to Get a Better Deal for Cities and Towns


Just before the August recess, the Senate passed the "Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy (DRIVE) Act", a bill that authorizes over $50 billion in federal funding annually for six years to support highway, bridge, and transit projects and programs.

At the same time, the Senate was forced to pass another short-term extension for transportation funding - the 35th time an extension was required over the past decade. The latest short-term extension was necessary because the House refused to vote on the Senate bill and announced it would consider a House originated bill in September.

NLC President Ralph Becker, Mayor, Salt Lake City, UT, applauded the Senate for answering NLC's call for a long-term transportation bill; but he also delivered a harsh message, saying "Today, for the 35th time in the past decade, Congress has passed a short-term extension to fund the nation's transportation systems. While Congress has promised further consideration of a long-term bill in the fall, it's far too long overdue to have a real and robust, long-term plan that would allow greater certainty in the planning process necessary for good projects that contribute to local economies."

It's the same message President Becker delivered in face-to-face meetings with Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe and Ranking Member Barbara Boxer in the days before the DRIVE Act was introduced; and to Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last spring as the only local official to testify in a full committee hearing on the transportation bill; and to Congressional staffers and the political press alongside other NLC Advocacy Committee Leaders and local elected officials representing USCM and NACo to demonstrate unity among local governments during Infrastructure Week.

The success of the DRIVE Act may have surprised many in Washington who considered the obstacles against a new long-term transportation bill to be too high - but it did not surprise local officials whose visibility on transportation issues has been rapidly building over the last year. And, with over $50 billion a year a stake, creating and continuing to seize opportunities on Capitol Hill to elevate the visibility of local officials is critical to achieving a better deal for cities and towns.

September Advocacy Critical for House Bill

In his testimony before Congress, NLC President Becker explained that local officials are "seeking a course correction, not radical departure from the current authorization. But with a few substantive changes, [NLC's recommendations would] provide for a useful and needed reorientation of federal surface transportation policy toward cities and metropolitan areas where the changes in the transportation market are happening."

In NLC's analysis of the DRIVE Act, the Senate bill is a good start. The bill generally provides greater local control over federal transportation programs, but in some cases the trade-off is reduced funding for local projects. Among the gains, the bill would restore or increase funding for locally owned bridges, busses, and for local projects eligible under the TAP program. A reduction in overall funding for cities and towns under the Surface Transportation Program is the most significant loss in the bill.

When Congress returns in September, transportation advocacy will turn to the House to deliver a bill that maintains the gains in the Senate, and that restores funding to cities and towns under the Surface Transportation Program. Last week, NLC President Becker joined with other local government leaders on a letter to House leaders recommending targeted legislative actions to accomplish just that. The most important thing local officials can do this September to protect the gains of cities and towns in the transportation bill is to communicate to the House your individual or municipal endorsement of the priorities outlined in NLC's letter, and to inform NLC when you have done so.

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