NLC Leadership Goes to the Hill to Make the Case for Transportation Funding
As the deadline approaches for transportation funding to run out, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-CA) unveiled the bipartisan "DRIVE Act" (S 1647), the long-awaited Senate proposal for a new long term transportation bill. The DRIVE Act would authorize funding levels for programs supported by the Highway Trust Fund over six years. "For cities and towns, the DRIVE Act is an improvement over the status quo. The bill would improve local control of funding under the Surface Transportation Program and the Transportation Alternatives Program. But there is much more that could - and should - be done. The National League of Cities looks forward to continuing our strong partnership with Chairman Inhofe and Ranking Member Boxer to achieve our goal of enacting a forward-looking, long-term, multi-modal transportation bill," said NLC Executive Director upon the bill's introduction.
The current short-term authorization for federal transportation programs under the Highway Trust Fund will expire at the end of July, and additional short term extensions will likely be necessary so that all the committees of jurisdiction in the House and Senate can complete work on their sections of the transportation bill.
In the Senate, three Committees have jurisdiction over the Transportation Bill - the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW), the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (Commerce), and the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee (Banking). A fourth, the Senate Finance Committee, is responsible for raising revenue to pay for programs authorized under the transportation bill. In the House, two committees have jurisdiction over the Transportation Bill - the House Ways and Means Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
While the DRIVE ACT supports many of NLC's transportation goals and has now passed the EPW Committee, NLC is working on a floor amendment with Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) to increase the percentage of funds allocated to local jurisdictions under the Surface Transportation Program (STP).
In addition, in meetings on the Hill last week, NLC President Ralph Becker met with EPW Chairman Inhofe, Ranking Member Boxer, and others to brief them on the city perspective on the importance of a long term bill and to urge their support for an increase in the STP allocation when an amendment comes up on the Senate Floor.
Following EPW approval of the DRIVE Act, earlier this week, the Senate Commerce Committee approved the Comprehensive Transportation and Consumer Protection Act of 2015 (S 1732), which would authorize rail and highway safety programs in the Transportation bill. Among other things, the bill authorizes Amtrak funding and requires new safety mandates on speed, grade crossings, and train control in response to recent derailments and explosions. The Senate Banking Committee has indicated that it will introduce a bill soon that covers the transit portion of the bill.
One area of concern for NLC in the Commerce bill are changes being proposed to the popular TIGER Grant program that has provided millions in funding for local transit priorities, including light rail and streetcar projects. The Commerce bill would authorize a "TIGER-like" program that may eliminate the multi-modal approach to rail and focus TIGER funds much more narrowly on projects benefitting freight infrastructure only. NLC urged the Commerce Committee to reconsider this in light of the successful multi-modal approach. The Senate Banking Committee, which holds jurisdiction over transit, may also be able to enact a fix.
In the House, lawmakers conceded the impossibility of passing a long-term bill before the August recess by approving a five-month extension of surface transportation programs that would keep projects funded for the rest of the year. The extension, sponsored by House Ways and Means Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) would provide $8 billion through a combination of tax compliance measures and reduced spending of Transportation Security Administration fees in 2025 and 2026. Of that amount, $6.07 billion is for the Highway Account and $2 billion is for the Mass Transit Account.
Despite the short-term extension, leaders in the House and Senate have said approval of a long-term bill will remain a priority for this year.