By Tanya Snyder, June 19, 2015
Coming back to Streetsblog after a few months away, I needed to get
up to speed on the latest with transportation-related legislation, and I
thought some of you might too. Here’s what you need to know:
House Republicans passed a pretty terrible Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (THUD) appropriations bill
last week, decimating the TIGER grant program, cutting $200 million
from New Starts for transit, and reducing Amtrak’s budget by $240
million. Some amendments proposing even more extreme spending cuts were
stripped out, thankfully.
The president has threatened to veto the bill. In days gone by, the
Senate could be counted on to check the excesses of the House, but with
the upper chamber now under GOP control, it’s unclear what kind of bill
they’ll produce. The Senate hasn’t produced one yet. It seems possible
that some of the House bill’s most painful cuts — particularly to TIGER —
might be reversed, but many of them will remain. Look for a Senate
proposal in the next couple of weeks.
Transportation Bill Extension
Last year, before the MAP-21 transportation law expired (and only
days before the money was about to run dry), Congress extended it until
May 31. Miraculously, in May, they found two months of funding still
available (for the not-so-miraculous reason that Americans drove more
than projected and gas tax receipts were unexpectedly high). So, when
May 31 came, it was pretty easy for Congress to extend the bill by two
months without finding any new money.
But the days of easy extensions are over. All the pensions have been smoothed, the LUST funds raided — there’s no more loose change under the cushions to fund transportation.
Democrats’ Challenge and a New Bill
On Tuesday, Senate Democrats challenged Republicans
to come up with a long-term bill in the next 45 days, instead of just
another extension. That same day, the Senate Environment and Public
Works Committee announced that it would mark up a six-year transportation bill on June 24.
Under the chairmanship of Barbara Boxer, EPW was able to pass bills
out of committee with bipartisan support. Observers will be watching to
see if current chair Jim Inhofe is as open to compromise to bring his
Democratic colleagues along, or if the bill he’ll introduce will be a
conservative wish list. Inhofe is in favor of raising revenues for
highways — and only for highways. Jettisoning bike/ped funding is high
on Inhofe’s wish list for a new bill.
But back to the Dems’ 45-day challenge. It’s a little unclear what
their game plan is here. Would Democrats agree to another short
extension to give them time to hammer out the EPW bill if they’re making
progress? Would the Democrats really vote against a short-term
extension, if killing it would shut down the transportation program? Do
they have any viable ideas to fund a long-term bill?
Speaking of funding, on Wednesday the House Ways and Means Committee held its first hearing on transportation funding
since before MAP-21 passed in 2012. It seemed like a sign they were
going to take the issue seriously — until Chair Paul Ryan opened the
meeting by insisting that under no circumstances were they going to
raise the gas tax.