About the best thing anybody can say is that Congress finally managed to pass new transportation legislation — albeit 1,000 days after the previous law expired. Last Friday President Obama signed it into law. Christened the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century” act or MAP-21 (seriously, that’s what it’s called), the law provides funding for highways, roads, transit, bike paths and walkways.
“The greatest benefit is that it gives us stability for two years,” says former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar who headed the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure before his defeat in 2010.
If Congress hadn’t passed something, the Federal Highway Administration would have seen its coffers so depleted that it would have to cut funding to state departments of transportation. That, Oberstar says, would have shut down projects all over the country, to horrible economic effect.
So we can breathe a sigh of relief. And hope that the U.S. Department of Transportation is correct in its estimate that the measure will “create and sustain” 2.9 million jobs nationwide, 28,100 in Minnesota.
But what else hath Congress wrought? The legislation is fraught with acronyms and complicated mumbo-jumbo that some analysts are still poring over. But here are the high (or major) points:
No change in dough
Congress allocated about the same level of funding as in previous legislation, some $127 billion with a little extra packed in for inflation; Minnesota stands to collect a $700 million chunk of that. The Highway Trust Fund supplies most of the money, courtesy of your Federal gas tax (18.4 cents a gallon). But because cars have become more fuel-efficient, the fund’s revenues are declining, and Congress had to scrounge about $19 billion from the government’s general revenues to pay for MAP-21.
“Nobody can now argue with a straight face that highways pay for themselves,” says James Erkel, director of the Land Use and Transportation Program at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
“The law keeps the money flowing, but it doesn’t grapple with the long-term funding problem,” says Lee Munnich, director of the State and Local Policy Program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.”There was no willingness to raise the gas tax” to boost the revenues of the Highway Trust Fund. (Minnesota increased its own gas tax a couple of years ago, and it ticked up a half penny at the start of July.)
Oberstar points out that when the Highway Trust Fund started up in the Eisenhower administration, the gas tax was 3 cents, or 10 percent of the cost of a gallon of gas, and, he says, “Nobody complained.” A proposal to hike the federal gas tax to, say, 37 cents would these days set off a firestorm. With no increase in the federal tax, the Congressional Budget Office predicts the fund will be insolvent by 2015.Once again, we hurtle toward a fiscal cliff.
No rest for the weary
In the past, transportation legislation lasted for six years. MAP-21 expires in just 27 months or 837 days. Unless Congress wants to transportation funding to stagger along on continuing resolutions as it did for the past 1,000 days, it will have to start working on a new bill in the next 20 minutes. The law’s short term also makes it difficult to get projects off the ground — even biking and walking programs, says Barb Thoman, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities, a nonprofit that works on transit funding.
And the winner?
Highways still gobble 80 percent of the money, a portion that has not changed since, well, practically forever. You’d think that Congress would have boosted the mass transit portion a bit since an increasing number of people seem to want to use it. Last year saw the highest ridership in decades, 10.4 billion trips, 264,000 trips a day in Minneapolis, up 3.6 percent from last year.
A U.S. Public Interest Research Group report found that between 2001 and 2009, the average (car) vehicle miles traveled by young people, those aged 16 to 34, dropped by close to 25 percent. Meanwhile, transit ridership among the same group increased. “We’re very disappointed with this bill,” says Thoman. “It does not meet the transportation needs of a changing America.”
Oberstar says that if funding for transit stays flat, the total for the next six years will be about $64 billion. In 2009, he says, funding needed to be at $99 billion to bring the nation to the point where 10 percent of riders used mass transit daily. If that happened, we would reduce foreign oil consumption by 40 percent.
Tax credits for transit riders — sigh
In 2012, employers may provide workers with up to $125 per month in tax-free transit and vanpool benefits (down from $230 per month in 2011). Drivers, however, can collect as much as $365 a month for parking. Congress should have at least edged up the transit benefit to make commuting by train or bus more competitive.
Get out the duct tape and the safety pins
Previous laws required states to spend at least 32 percent of their federal dollars on repairs. That stricture is now gone. Some in Congress have hailed the change because it allows localities to choose how they want to spend the money. Presumably state transportation departments would like to keep everything from falling apart, but, says Munnich: “Politically, it’s easier to postpone repairs. Repairs don’t always show. So they may suffer if money isn’t specifically designated.”
MNDOT does have a “fix-it-first” policy. “Now we’ll see if they’re true to their word,” says Erkel.
Bikers and pedestrians: less money for you
Travel Enhancement programs, which were used to create bikeways, safe pedestrian walkways and recreational trails, were smushed into one giant program called Transportation Alternatives. Then Congress cut funds by a third; so they’ll now receive only about 2 percent of the bill’s funds.
Thoman, whose group advocates for more biking and walking, says that the allocation is insufficient because 10 percent of road fatalities are bikers and pedestrians. “When we have an obesity epidemic, an aging population and worsening air quality, Congress should be making biking and walking safer,” she says.
Further, a state can opt out of the program entirely and use the funds to repair damage caused by natural disasters. This money should put on a scarf and overcoat because it may be headed for Duluth.
High-speed rail? Fuhgeddaboudit
Fastasies that some time in the next 10 years we would be speeding to Chicago for the weekend on the U.S. version of a bullet train will remain nothing more than that. Congress didn’t even discuss the idea. Too bad. Brazil, India, China, Iran and several other countries have lines under development. Unless you’re planning on a Rio-Sao Paulo commute, keep those airline miles piling up.