MAP-21 Misses The Chance to Meet 21st Century Needs

gandersonby Geoff Anderson, President and CEO of Smart Growth America

During the nearly three years that Congress dithered on updating our national investment plan for transportation, we in the Transportation for America coalition met with and surveyed thousands of Americans, in every region, to hear their needs and desires.  A while back, I summed up what we heard this way:

"If Americans themselves were crafting the transportation bill, we would see a doubling of share for public transportation; an ironclad system of accountability for restoring existing roads and bridges, before simply building more of them; and a strong commitment to making our streets safe enough for kids to bicycle to school, or so seniors can walk to a nearby restaurant or the drug store."

I'm sad to say that Congress has failed and taken a step back on all of these aims in MAP-21, the recently reauthorized Transportation Bill. The frustrating thing is that we were so close until the very last minute.

Transportation for America and our allies had argued successfully for major improvements in a Senate bill that passed overwhelmingly with votes from both parties. The House, on the other hand, had tried and failed to force a more extreme measure through, and its negotiators unable to come to consensus on anything entered conference discussions with nothing more than a three-month extension of current law.

That extension, however, was laced with poison pills - including Canada's Keystone XL pipeline -- that the Senate's negotiators, wanted to shield their colleagues and President Obama from. In a classic case of legislative extortion, the House negotiators succeeded in forcing the Senate to "compromise" - in backroom deals at the last possible minute - by eliminating or mangling many hard-won reforms.

The resulting two-year measure, signed into law July 6, could have been much worse: House leaders had pushed to eliminate federal support for transit and safe walking and biking altogether, but were repulsed thanks in large measure to our campaign's efforts.

The result is a mixed bag that is unlikely to take the nation forward.  MAP-21 keeps overall funding for both highway and transit at current levels.  But it eliminates dedicated funding for repair while failing to hold states accountable for maintaining roads and bridges.  Money for projects that make it safer to walk and bicycle was cut by a third, and states can divert half of that money to other uses - even to build another highway through a once-walkable neighborhood. In addition, in order to build highway projects faster - the law reduces opportunities to raise concerns about environmental and health impacts while pressuring agencies to make snap decisions to meet arbitrary deadlines-even though projects are often in fact delayed by a lack of money.   On the positive side, we succeeded in ensuring that half of this money goes directly to local communities to allocate.

Our base pushed hard to establish some key national objectives for our investment: improved energy security and reduced oil consumption; improving access for all incomes and keeping household transportation costs down; and, ensuring that your existing assets aren't neglected. And we wanted performance measures in order to track progress.  MAP-21 does take some steps forward in measuring the performance of transportation investments. States and regions are required to set performance targets for highway and bridge conditions, freight movement, and safety; some regions are also required to look at air quality and congestion.   It's a good first step toward a truly performance-based system, but it has few teeth and, in our view, a blinkered perspective on what success should look like.

In fact, in this ultra-partisan Congress, in this election year, legislators considered "success" to be any bill that could pass, in any form.  But we don't believe it serves Americans well, or that it can long stand in the face of the facts of modern life: Public transit ridership is at historic highs, as is the demand for the walkable neighborhoods that are the only places holding their value in the long real estate downturn.  We all are driving less, and young people in particular are foregoing car ownership and adopting new travel habits in the urban areas they prefer.  Baby boomers are beginning to retire and leave their commutes behind, as they look to live in places where they can remain independently mobile for many years to come.  We have 24 months to make sure Congress catches up to reality in the next bill - and not a minute to waste!

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