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Rolling Along or Just Spinning

2012-05-01, Department, by Dave Tyahla

This year’s National Legislative Forum in March coincided with the extraordinary debate over federal transportation policy on Capitol Hill.  Both the House and Senate made passage of a new surface transportation bill a priority.  But was all this activity a sign of real momentum, or is it another example of Congress simply spinning its wheels? 

Additionally, the issue of funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is now tied to the ongoing Congressional debate on surface transportation.  More on that in a moment, but first an update on where things stand with regard to getting a new transportation bill, and continued federal support for walking and biking, through the Congress this year.      

Extension Number 9 

On March 29, and after nearly a month of political posturing on all sides, the House of Representatives and Senate approved the ninth extension of the Highway Trust Fund and surface transportation programs, which were set to expire on March 31. The 90-day extension will extend the authority to collect the federal gas tax and the programs funded by it through June 30, 2012—including Transportation Enhancements (TE), the Recreational Trails Program (RTP), and Safe Routes to School.  These programs invest approximately $500 million each year in connecting communities, making streets safer, and promoting healthy modes of transportation such as biking and walking.  

Had the current extension been allowed to expire, thousands of employees at the Department of Transportation would have been furloughed and all reimbursement payments to state departments of transportation would have come to an immediate halt.

Historically, transportation policy has been viewed as a “nonpartisan” issue on Capitol Hill, enjoying strong support and participation in the process from both Republicans and Democrats.  However, the current political climate in Washington has turned the debate over federal policy on everything from bridges to bike paths into, like many other debates in this charged election year, a highly politicized issue.  If nothing else, recent action provides some clarity to the major differences of opinion between the House and Senate on the future role of the federal government in transportation spending and priorities. 

On March 14, the Senate overwhelmingly passed MAP-21, its bipartisan, two-year transportation bill.  With the help of park and recreation advocates from across the country, MAP-21 was successfully amended to include improved provisions for bicycling and walking.  The Senate-passed bill would maintain current spending levels for RTP, and reinstate support for TE activities and Safe Routes to Schools.  Although originally targeted for cuts by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the programs received very strong, organized public support and were added by amendment back to the bill when it reached the Senate floor. 

However, to have any legislation (including surface transportation reauthorization) signed into law, both chambers of Congress must act.  The House has tried several times to bring up its five-year transportation bill (HR 7), and each time has been unable to muster enough votes to pass it.  The House bill would eliminate Safe Routes to School and remove annual guaranteed funding for TE, thus forcing these active transportation options to compete with other programs for limited money.

NRPA hosted our 2012 National Legislative Forum in Washington, DC, from March 27th through the 29th.  Armed with legislative background and the anecdotes and data explaining how these programs benefit their local communities, over 300 NRPA members took full advantage of the opportune timing of their Capitol Hill visits to thank senators for improving and passing MAP-21, and to urge their representatives to restore dedicated funding for bicycling and walking whenever the House takes up the surface transportation bill.

House and Senate Democrats pushed House Republicans to simply take up and pass MAP-21 and bring an end to the more than two years of delay in reauthorizing federal transportation law.  House leadership resisted but, faced with federal transportation funding stopping on April 1—along with existing infrastructure projects and the hundreds of thousands of jobs directly tied to them—and after several delays and false starts, approved the latest 90-day extension.  The Senate ultimately acquiesced on their demands for the House to vote, up or down, on MAP-21 prior to the end of March and agreed to this latest extension. 

The House is expected to decide prior to May 1 whether to bring its 5-year, $260 billion bill to the floor (which, again, eliminates TE and Safe Routes to School) or pare it down to be more in line with the Senate-passed 2-year, $109 billion bill (MAP-21).   Or, Congress may elect to take a pass on getting new legislation completed this year and further extend existing law until sometime after the November elections. 

The latter further undermines national transportation programs by not only adding to the uncertainty over continued funding many states and localities currently experience when planning transportation projects, but also, by the fact that, based upon our nation’s reduced consumption of gasoline and the revenues it generates through the federal gas tax, the Highway Trust Fund is expected to be completely exhausted sometime in 2013.    

Potential Impact for LWCF   

Through a series of unrelated but (frankly) extraordinary events, the future of the LWCF may be impacted by whatever Congress ultimately decides to do on transportation.   The House and Senate bills, fittingly, take very different views on issues related to funding for the LWCF. 

The Senate-passed bill (MAP-21) would provide $700 million each year in FY 2013 and FY 2014 to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).  The bill also would reauthorize the LWCF program from FY 2015 through FY 2022, but that funding would be subject to annual appropriations. There is no similar provision in the current House bill (HR 7).  In fact, the House approved a major increase in federal energy exploration and development with the “revenues” generated from such activities as the primary source of funding for their five-year bill.  These dollars are currently the “dedicated” source of funding for the LWCF as well as other programs intended to promote conservation.  This major change in policy to one directly attaching energy production to infrastructure (now referred to by many as “Drill to Drive”) puts future funding for critical programs like LWCF at risk. 

Further, the Senate LWCF provision is likely to draw opposition in the House.  Western Republicans view LWCF as primarily a federal land acquisition program and have recommended limiting new projects until existing maintenance backlogs are cleared.  However, the LWCF State Assistance Program is the only dedicated funding available for state and local parks to provide outdoor recreation.

The Road Ahead 

So, what happens next?   Congress has bought itself until July to break their impasse and pass a new transportation bill.  Democrats will push the House to pass MAP-21.   And House leadership will keep working to secure the votes needed to bring HR 7 (or something similar) to the floor. 

We urge you to use this time to influence how your representative votes as well.  Along with our walking and biking advocacy partners, NRPA will continue meeting with House offices to demonstrate why dedicated funding for walking and biking (including TE, RTP, and Safe Routes to School) is important and to urge them to either pass MAP-21 or to amend their bill to include support for these critical programs.  

Dave Tyahlais NRPA Senior Government Affairs Manager. 



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