Transportation is intimately linked to air and water quality, land-use, and quality of life. This year, Congress will reauthorize the federal transportation spending bill. This bill, authorized every six years, determines how federal transportation money can be spent. In 1991, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and renewed it in 1998 through the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). TEA-3, as the new bill is being called, should build on the progress made in the first two.
The TEA-3 bill will be anywhere from $250 - $375 Billion. This large amount of money and how it is spent will be instrumental in determining whether our nation focuses on smart growth or continues to sprawl full speed ahead.
TEA-21 and ISTEA – Good laws that promote smart growth
The current law TEA-21 law is a good law that has moved transportation reform in the right direction like its predecessor bill ISTEA. ISTEA and TEA-21 have diversified the way America invests in transportation infrastructure. They have created and maintained a separate fund for public transportation projects and started a number of innovative programs that support and promote air quality protection, inter-modal systems, and bike and pedestrian facilities. These laws have also opened up the decision-making process to involve the public in transportation planning, and they have given more power to local decision-makers. Ideally the good principles of TEA-21 will be upheld in TEA-3.
Possible Wrong Turns in TEA-3
Unfortunately, some in Congress want to use TEA-3 to undo much of the essential reform of the last decade. They want to use TEA-3 to roll back the environmental protections of the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) by “streamlining” and limiting the steps for environmental reviews on transportation projects. They are inaccurately scapegoating the environmental review process for delays in project delivery, when, in fact, almost all of these delays are due to funding shortfalls and other problems.
Along the same lines, there are proposals to weaken the air conformity requirements that have been put in place to make sure transportation projects and plans meet the standards set by the Clean Air Act. Reducing the frequency of air quality “check-ups” and shortening the horizon for which these analyses must account are some of the attacks.
Additionally, there is talk of turning back the progress made on the highway/transit funding ratio which is currently 4:1. This means that for every $4 spent on highways, only $1 is spent on public transportation. Instead of moving toward more balance, there are proposals to make the bias toward roads even more dramatic. Other proposals aim to reduce federal funding support for transit projects to 50% while maintaining it at 80% for highway projects. This means a community that wants to build a transit project has to come up with more of the money than if it chose to build a road project.
Finally, the new Baccus-Grassley proposal aims to restructure the financing scheme for transportation projects. In a mad grab for more highway money, it would significantly reduce transit’s share of the gas tax in order to increase the share for road projects. The resulting gap in transit’s dedicated funding stream would be replaced by using bonds to supply annual funding for future public transportation investments. This change would cripple our nation’s public transportation systems, and could lead to the eventual phase out of the federal public transportation program.
Timeline for TEA-3
The current TEA-21 bill expires on September 30, 2003. Congress will either have the new bill ready to go or they will vote to extend the TEA-21 law until they finish TEA-3. As it stands now, several of the leaders working on TEA-3 continue to insistthat the September deadline will be met. However, given the size of the bill and the pace of progress, many others believe a new bill will not be a possibility this year. Everyone on Capitol Hill and all stakeholders are operating under the assumption that it will be re-authorized in September 2003 until proven otherwise.
Refer to the Sierra Club Transportation Reform Policy Guide for more details.
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