What’s up with SAFETEA-LU

SAFETEA-LU is the “current” federal surface transportation funding bill – it builds highways, light rail, bikeways, and funds safety research and education outreach programs. Typically, Congress passes a six-year reauthorization to the bill, changing its name to reflect some of the new funding priorities it contains, and many times modifying the balance between highways, transit, and “ehancements” like pedestrian and bicycle projects and Safe Routes to Schools.

Read about how SAFETEA-LU was extended twice this year, currently expiring December 18, after an original expiration on September 30, 2009.

House Congressperson Jim Oberstar, the Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is opposed to President Obama’s suggestion to extend SAFETEA-LU for 18 months, and is opposed to a three month extension as well. His opposition has been known since at least June 2009. He prefers to give Obama a surface transportation reauthorization bill as soon as possible. Obama wants an 18 month extension so that congresspersons can concentrate on passing a healthcare reform bill.

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Bike lanes are often projects funded by the federal transportation bill, either under the Transportation Enhancements or Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality programs.

Major barriers to new surface transportation authorization bill:

  • Jim Oberstar, himself – Yes, the House Representative may derail his own bill.
  • Healthcare – The House passed its healthcare reform bill 11 days agoo and the Senate Democrats revealed their version of a healthcare reform bill today.
  • Unmodified revenue scheme – Motor fuel tax unchanged won’t work; The Highway Trust Fund, and its companion, the Mass Transit Fund, is mostly supported by a constant fuel tax that hasn’t changed since 1993.
  • The country’s growing deficit – Bailing out banks and providing economic stimulus money isn’t free.
  • President Obama, himself
  • High speed rail

And, as always, the following two barriers have presented themselves:

  • Representatives’ conflicting priorities about what the national priorities should be, and about what a transportation bill should fund; Congressperson Oberstar has developed a National Transportation Strategic Plan in his reauthorization bill, something the country has lacked for decades.
  • States’ budgets will not be able to match the funding ratios required to be awarded projects.

Read on for deeper explanations of obstacles that add friction to passing a transportation bill.

Jim Oberstar

Jim Oberstar’s (D-Minnesota, the fifth most bicycle friendly state) unflinching demand to let the authorization expire may come back to harm his position as chairman. He may fail to find support for his position and other Democratic or Republican congresspersons can fight his demands and ideas tooth and nail.

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Congressperson Oberstar on a 4-day bicycle ride across Oregon.

Healthcare

Congresspersons are debating how to fix, change, or overhaul the American health insurance system. It seems that they’re so busy working on that issue that there’s isn’t much time for other issues. “Chairman Oberstar would like to see the long-term bill move and be on the House floor by Christmas, but we are still in a holding pattern to due health care,” said [Congressperson] Berard.

Revenue

The next surface transportation authorization bill cannot rely on motor fuel tax. More fuel efficient cars are more common and the economy and higher gas prices has changed Americans’ driving habits. We’re not purchasing enough taxable gas or diesel  to support the bill’s funding obligations. Many different funding schemes have been proposed, including a taxing on miles traveled.

Deficit

The economic recovery programs (Troubled Asset Relief Program for the banks, auto company bailouts+cash for clunkers, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) have increased the country’s deficit. The worldwide economic market might not be able to support additional debt from the United States. Or it might not be safe to do so. The reauthorization bill should be completely funded by its own tax revenue and not further increase the country’s borrowing.

President

President Obama has asked that Congress work first to fix healthcare (really, health insurance and how healthcare is paid for) before spending time on the other important matters. To this effect, he asked that Congress simply extend SAFETEA-LU for 18 months. I pointed out the extensions at the beginning.

High-Speed Rail

The addition of high-speed rail (HSR) to the surface transportation funding mix is sure to complicate the debate about extension or reauthorization. President Obama has said he is making HSR for America a priority and showed this by asking for exclusive funding for HSR in ARRA (however, many others have pointed out how $8 billion isn’t enough to “go around” when the citizens of California have voted to issue $10 billion in bonds for the proposed $33 billion high-speed line from Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento).

This might be a contentious issue because finding the balance between roads and transit is very difficult (transit has less supporters than roads), and I predict finding a funding balance amongst roads, transit and HSR will be more difficult.

Conflicting Priorities

This leads to a broader topic that is always prevalent: conflicting priorities. Many congresspersons will argue for less Transportation Enhancements funding, saying that bicycles or safe walking is not a transportation priority and that bicycling is a for recreation only. I’m glad to hear about Jim Oberstar’s unwavering support to rebalance the funding mix: “We have to make bicycling a mode of transport by law” and “level decision-making factors between highway and transit choices/projects.”

State Budgets

Many states are having their own budget crisis and may be cutting funding for transportation projects. Less state and local funding means they have less money to use as a match for incoming federal grants. This could change how the surface transportation bill is programmed around local match dollars. Some states may argue that certain classes of projects should require less local match dollars because their state may not have the local match dollars to contribute.

Built into SAFETEA-LU upon its creation, language in the law allowed Congress to rescind $8.7 billion from states.

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About Steven Vance

Enthusiast for urbanism, bicycling as transportation, and open data. Building a bicycle culture in Chicago.