Fed Transportation Conference Report: Not a Touchdown. More Like A Field Goal.

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Now that the Transportation Bill conference committee has finally released a report (ongress has all of two days to pass it before the June 30th deadline on the current (ninth) extension. That’s not much time to fully analyze the entire 599-page Conference Report, but fortunately the committee provided a “brief” 91-page Joint Explanatory Statement.

It appears from first glance that the document is in almost every way a lukewarm compromise bill:

  • It covers two years, not six.
  • It lacks the most extreme provisions contemplated over the past months: Keystone pipeline approval, relaxing coal ash regulations, cutting mass transit spending from the Highway Trust Fund.
  • It includes reforms that enjoyed bipartisan support—program streamlining, accelerated environmental review.
  • It maintains current funding, adjusted for inflation, without indexing the gas tax or limiting spending to its revenue.

Spending on biking, walking, and beautification “transportation enhancements” remains, and half of those funds will be sent directly to metropolitan areas. That's a win for supporters. And half will be sent to the states, which are free to spend them on roads instead. That's a win for detractors.

Transportation For America, one of several organizations created around what many expected would be a transformative, next-generation transportation bill in 2009, made note earlier this week that the last major re-authorization had expired more than 1,000-days ago.

In the context of those last several years of gridlock, this conference report, by its mere existence, amounts to something of a breakthrough.

Something of a breakthrough. The conference report makes useful changes but fails to put the nation on the solid footing that transportation advocates of both parties have been yearning for.  For example, it doesn’t replace or significantly augment gas-tax funding. Nor does it create or even allow a visionary level of investment--public or private.

It’s better than another punt, but by no means a touchdown, for anyone. We’ll call it a field goal. A victory for minimal competence. Some conference report highlights:

  • Consolidates the number of highway programs by two-thirds, making more resources available directly to states and metropolitan areas.
  • Allows acceleration of environmental reviews while maintaining environmental protections.
  • Introduces performance measures to better focus spending on measurable outcomes such as reducing congestion, improving road and bridge conditions, and freight movement.
    Expands the TIFIA program to $1 Billion per year.
  • Creates a pilot program for transit-oriented development planning.
  • Increases (modestly) spending on public transportation in Appalachian region and on Indian reservations.

Key proposals that were not included:

  • NO Keystone oil pipeline approval, nor language to weaken restrictions on coal ash, as proposed by House Republicans.
  • NO permission for transit agencies to use federal capital funds for operating expenses during periods of high unemployment, as proposed by Senate Democrats.
  • NO funding reductions for states based on mileage leased to private concessionaires, as proposed by Senate Democrats.

Check back with us soon for more news and analysis.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.