Update from Washington: Advocates for transit, bicycling, and walking on red alert

Since the 1980s, the U.S. Congress has written multi-year transportation laws to guide public investments in roadway construction, congestion relief, and public transportation. The last law (SAFETEA-LU) dates from 2005. It expired in 2009, but has been granted several extensions. The latest extension expires on March 31, 2012.

Much-anticipated new bills from the House and Senate moved through committees last week. While these bills have some desirable provisions, two measures recently introduced in the House have advocates of transit, bicycling and walking on red alert.

HR 7, the House transportation bill, consolidates several related programs and reduces some steps in the permitting process to bring projects to completion sooner and with less red tape. Alarmingly, this bill also includes language to strip all dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian improvements, including the Safe Routes to School program.While bike/ped improvements are still allowed, the decision to fund these improvements would rest solely with the each state’s department of transportation (DOT).

Winter2The bill would eliminate the Transportation Enhancement program, which amounts to about 2-3% of each state’s federal transportation funding. In Minnesota, these funds have helped build pedestrian crossings and bike trails across the state including the well-traveled Midtown Greenway. Transportation Enhancements have been the only stable source of bike/ped funding at the federal level.

A companion bill (HR 3864), proposes to eliminate the dedicated revenue source that supports public transit throughout the country. Since 1982– the Reagan Administration– public transit has received a small portion of the federal gas tax to maintain convenient and affordable travel options that reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. The proposed bill would instead fund public transit through Congress’s annual appropriation process. This subjects transit agencies to a great deal of uncertainty and is a step backward for bus and train users in Minnesota and throughout the U.S.

Lindbergh from escOpposition has been swift and widespread. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has called the House bill the “worst transportation bill ever.” More than 600 organizations and leaders– including the US Chamber of Commerce, governors, and mayors– signed a letter opposing the House financing bill, saying “it will make it impossible for public transit systems across the country to plan for the future.”

TLC works with a national coalition, Transportation for America, to raise the voice of transit supporters and bicycling/pedestrian advocates in Minnesota. Thanks to each of you who contacted your U.S. Representatives last week to urge them to continue dedicated funding for modes other than private cars!

We are very grateful for Minnesota representatives– U.S. Representatives Tim Walz (1st District) and Erik Paulsen (3rd District)– for supporting amendments that would continue dedicated funding for public transit, bicycling and walking. These amendments failed and the House bills are moving forward to a full floor vote later this month. We hope that our Minnesota Congressional Representatives and Senators will continue to work in a bipartisan fashion to shape a new transportation law that includes transit, bicycling, and walking among our nation’s transportation choices!