House transportation bill: Traffic is heavy -- against it
A highway and mass transit bill headed to the House this week has drawn opposition from an eclectic array of organizations.
The Episcopal Church has come out against a provision that would open a portion of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration to generate money for road projects.
The American Society of Landscape Architects and other groups oppose a provision that would end a mandate for a portion of transportation funds to go toward bike paths, scenic beautification and other "transportation enhancements."
And a civil rights group and the Teamsters are among the groups opposing a provision that would end the decades-old use of gas tax funds for mass transit.
The strange bedfellows in opposition to provisions of the $260-billion five-year bill underscore the challenge facing Republican leaders in rounding up votes to pass the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act.
The Senate is considering a $109-billion, two-year bill, but it's less controversial than the House measure.
Those pushing to end the requirement that a portion of transportation funds -- about $925 million last year -- go to "transportation enhancements" have said Congress should give states greater flexibility in deciding how to spend funds at a time when gas tax funds have fallen off because of more fuel-efficient vehicles. Critics of the spending also have questioned some of the projects that have received funding, such as $198,000 awarded to the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky for a simulator theater. A museum official previously defended the spending as helping motorists, especially teens, perfect their driving skills and reduce the risk of accidents.
"Over the years, Congress has diluted the intent of the federal transportation program by adding mandates, set-asides and government edicts telling states how to spend gas tax revenues," said Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "Many of these requirements are simply not in the federal interest and are best left to state and local decision makers.''
But supporters of the funding contend that it has paid for important safety projects for bicyclists and pedestrians and improved the quality of life in communities. "From a trails, walking and bicycling perspective, the current House bill is probably the worst piece of legislation. Ever," says the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
"It really will take us back decades to a time when -- instead of funding the balanced transportation system that people want -- the federal role will be restricted to building highways," Kevin Mills, the group’s vice president of policy, added in an interview. The Senate bill would preserve the program but subject projects to greater competition for funds.
A spokeswoman for the American Society of Landscape Architects noted that bicycling and walking make up about 12% of trips in the U.S., yet receive less than 2% of federal transportation funding.
The Episcopal Church, while not taking a position on the overall bill, is encouraging Episcopalians to contact members of Congress to "oppose the use of the transportation reauthorization process as a 'back-door' effort to get around consistent congressional opposition to drilling."
Taxpayers for Common Sense, meanwhile, complained in a letter to lawmakers Monday about the "budget gimmicks'' included in the bill, such as relying on "highly speculative oil and gas revenues'' from drilling in the Arctic refuge and in coastal areas to fund transportation projects.
Heritage Action for America, a conservative group, has expressed concern about the bill's level of spending. It also said the bill "seeks to find additional sources of revenue, most of which have no relationship to road usage, thus breaking the user pays principle." Club for Growth, another conservative group, urged a "no" vote on the House bill. Both groups also oppose the Senate bill.
A wide range of other groups -- including local bus and rail operators -- oppose the provision to end the use of gas tax funds for public transit -- in place since the Reagan administration, warning that it would subject the public transit to annual budget battles for funds at a time when Congress is seeking to reduce deficit spending.
According to the American Public Transportation Assn., the bill, after a one-time appropriation, provides "no guarantee for any public transportation funding beyond FY 2016. This makes it virtually impossible for public transit agencies to develop reliable long-term capital plans, and it could leave the future of the public transit program in peril."
A spokesman for Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee said the change was needed because of the threatened insolvency of the highway trust fund. "The upfront transfer of $40 billion keeps the mass transit account solvent through fiscal year 2016 and provides Congress and stakeholders the opportunity to engage in a serious conversation about how to equitably fund mass transit moving forward,” the spokesman said in a statement.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is planning to seek to amend the bill on the House floor to restore gas tax funding for mass transit.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights also has come out against the measure, saying it would hurt low-income people who rely disproportionately on public transit.
A coalition of federal and postal employees and retirees also is opposing a provision that would increase employee pension contributions and change the way pensions are calculated for new employees in order to fund transportation.
"With payroll costs to the taxpayer approaching $450 billion per year, and pension costs exploding, asking federal workers and Members of Congress to contribute more to their retirement is not a burden too heavy," Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), sponsor of the pension changes, said in a statement.
-- Richard Simon in Washington
Photo: No one likes traffic (this is a scene from the Santa Ana Freeway), and it seems no one much likes a new House transit bill either. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times