The Good, the Bad and the Questionable of the Federal Transportation Bill

On Monday, June 22, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, introduced a bill that would reauthorize federal surface transportation funding to the tune of $450 billion and reform how the federal government invests in transportation infrastructure. Illinois transportation advocates commend Rep. Oberstar for his leadership on renewing federal surface transportation funding, which expires within a matter of weeks. They are working actively in coalition with Transportation for America (T4America) to help shape the bill so that it goes even further to ensure federal transportation investments help the U.S. and Illinois meet broader economic, energy, climate and health goals.

Today, Illinois and national transportation experts, including CNT’s Vice President for Policy, Jacky Grimshaw hosted a media telebriefing to discuss how the bill would affect Illinois and regional planning, and what specific reforms local advocates are pushing for to ensure Illinois and metropolitan Chicago have the transportation options necessary to remain economically competitive, environmentally sustainable, and socially equitable.

“Chairman Oberstar and his committee members have done us all a great service in launching the discussion of updating our nation’s transportation program for the 21st century,” said James Corless, T4 America’s Director. “This year’s bill represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set America on a new course and it is essential that we get it right.”

Rep. Oberstar’s bill is a good start toward federal transportation investment reform but needs more work. The positive features of the bill include: money dedicated to repairing aging roads and bridges, streamlined programs, greater local control for metropolitan areas, a stronger rural voice, transit new starts program, and intermodal planning.

The experts voiced their concerns about portions of the bill that were unclear or needed improvement. The advocates applauded the strong overarching language on livable communities and health but felt that livability can’t just be an office in the federal government—it needs to be part of how localities qualify for money. The Office itself needs more money and authority. Health needs to be elevated as a goal, performance measure and criterion throughout the legislation. While the bill increased the percent of total share of funding for public transportation to 22 percent, there is concerned that the increase would be a ceiling rather than a floor. The advocates would like to broaden the flexibility to use dollars for operating expenses. The metro mobility and access program is a very positive step that supplies more financial resources to metropolitan planning agencies to tackle critical transportation issues. The advocates stated that there needs to be an equal emphasis on smarter approaches to managing travel demand including system operations and efficiency and transit-oriented development and better planning for linking where people live and access to the jobs and other destinations they need to travel to. The bill language gives a nod to having transportation do its part on climate protection, but there are no real teeth or accountability provisions. Programs for low-income, disabled and aging Americans are consolidated within the broader public transportation programs, but it’s unclear yet how high a priority these programs will be and how they will effectively coordinated.

At today’s media briefing, the transportation experts expressed their concerns about the critical missing elements in the bill which included 1) goals, performance targets and accountability 2) cleaning up freight and ports, 3) smarter land use and stronger communities 4) equity/affordability, 5) blueprint planning and 6) workforce development.

CNT’s Vice president for Policy, Jacky Grimshaw, expressed the need to have a transportation bill that recognizes that “for working families, those households earning $20,000 to $50,000 annually, transportation costs can equal or exceed housing costs. This limits their ability to find truly affordable housing in all parts of the region because transportation options are not universally available. The lack of transportation options disproportionately burdens the poor and moderate income families. The bill could have stronger overarching objectives and project level criteria to ensure benefits for low-income communities.”

Others speaking on the telebriefing were Kevin Brubaker, Deputy Director, of Environmental Law & Policy Center; Brian Imus, State Director for Illinois PIRG, and Peter Skosey, Vice President of Metropolitan Planning Council.

Read the full Media Release here.

Read Transportation for America’s official statement on Rep. Oberstar’s bill and stay up-to-date on the activity.