Stuck In Reverse: Our Thoughts On the Federal Transportation Bill

On Friday, June 29, Congress approved a 27-month transportation bill, known as a reauthorization. This complex bill, which President Obama is expected to sign today, will have major impacts on safety, job creation, land use, and transportation options across the country.

As a member of the Transportation for America coalition, 1000 Friends of Oregon advocates in Washington DC for transportation policies that support Oregon’s land use goals and provide transportation options for every Oregonian.  We sought a transportation reauthorization bill that would prioritize performance measures, fix existing infrastructure, and invest in choices that reduce Americans’ need to drive for every trip.

However, that is not the bill that passed. 

We’d like to thank the Oregon Congressional delegation. They fought hard for a bill that would benefit all Oregonians by fixing roads and bridges and funding transportation options.

Unfortunately, the reauthorization that passed is a significant step backward for many of the transportation policies that 1000 Friends supports. Our country can do better, and Oregon demands better. 1000 Friends will continue to work to ensure that Oregon’s priorities are better reflected in the next federal transportation bill, to be considered in just over two years. Here are our thoughts on the legislation that just passed and its implications.

Changing Commitments: Funding Levels and Programs

The reauthorization bill  cuts funding by 45% to three key programs that currently provide safe and affordable options to driving, including for those too young to drive: the Safe Routes to Schools, Transportation Enhancements, and Recreational Trails programs. The bill lumps these programs together as “Alternative Transportation.”

In addition, states can now opt out of using up to 50% of even this reduced amount on transportation alternatives, with the option to instead redesignate it for more traditional projects. States may also re-allocate all the Alternative Transportation funding to replace infrastructure damaged by natural disasters. While we agree it is important to have a secure funding source to help cover disaster costs, we oppose using increasingly scarce alternative transportation funds to do so.

Fixing existing infrastructure, before expansion, is a better way to provide good jobs, improve safety, and save public money in the long term. However, other than a small allocation for local bridges, there is no dedicated funding for repair in the bill. Lastly, the bill prohibits dedicated transit funding from being allocated to operations. Many transit agencies have depended on this dedicated source to keep buses and trains running.    

Missed Opportunities: Performance Measures and Strategic Planning

1000 Friends has advocated for better performance measures to ensure that federal funding for state and regional transportation projects is a good investment.

Examples of performance measures include evaluating whether the funding reduces pollution, supports transportation choices, reduces congestion, or saves money in the long term.

The Oregon delegation and many of our partners worked hard to include performance measures in the Senate’s version of the bill. Many of these provisions remain in the final bill, but funding is not contingent on a state’s ability to meet these measures. Thus, the performance measures are largely symbolic. In addition, while the bill allows strategic planning, it is not funded.

What's Next

The compromises made in this bill demonstrate that more work must be done to educate our nation’s leaders about what’s actually happening to Americans’ travel behavior. Americans are driving less than ever before, especially younger Americans and seniors. Gas prices continue to increase and demand for transportation choices and walkable neighborhoods is growing all across the country. But the bill passed by Congress hardly reflects these changes, instead legislating through an outdated freeway mentality that will waste billions of dollars and do little to bring our nation’s transportation system up to speed.

We won’t give up, though. 1000 Friends will continue to work as a member of Transportation for America and Smart Growth America to advocate for livable communities and for investing in a truly balanced transportation system, in Oregon and across the nation.

Take Action

Visit the Transportation for America website to learn more about how you can get involved on a national level.

Visit our Take Action page to sign up to help us advocate for a better transportation system for Oregon.

Support our work for better transportation options for Oregonians, by joining, renewing, or making a special contribution on our support page. Thank you.