Last night news broke that House leadership is considering a redo of its transportation legislation, H.R. 7. While the details are not yet clear, it’s likely a new proposal will authorize a shorter period and reduce overall funding but restore dedicated transit funding. Republicans from suburban districts with high public transit ridership, like Ill. Reps. Dold and Biggert, took issue with the elimination of dedicated transit funding and shifting that revenue to highways.
While restoring dedicated transit funding would be a victory, there remain serious concerns with H.R. 7. It eliminates funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs, such as Safe Routes to Schools; makes Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality dollars previously reserved for transit available to less beneficial projects to improve air quality, such as highway construction; ends discretionary transit funding such as the highly successful TIGER program; takes away local control of planning and spending resources; and cuts Amtrak by 25 percent.
Further, H.R. 7 is funded in part with tax revenues from expanded oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and the Keystone XL Pipeline. Environmental concerns aside, those taxes will only generate $4.3 billion over 10 years, no where near the $40 billion needed to replace dedicated transit revenues that will instead go to highways. What’s more, these revenues would not materialize for several years because of the time required to build drilling infrastructure and lease ANWR land to energy companies.
Under the current H.R. 7, the Chicago region would lose up to $1.2 billion over the next five years, including major cuts to public transit and the Illinois Dept. of Transportation. Additionally the bill would require the Chicago Transit Authority to separate rail and bus operations or lose eligibility for grants that, over the past two years, have generated $80 million for purchasing new busses and rehabbing bus garages. If funding in this “revamped” bill is reduced even further, it could mean even more cuts for the Chicago region.
The White House has threatened to veto the House proposal while expressing support for a competing $109 billion, MAP-21, two-year transportation bill in the Senate. MAP-21 has been a bi-partisan effort.
Congress has until March 31 to pass a long-term transportation reauthorization or a short-term extension, as it has been doing since the previous bill, Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), expired over two years ago.