Federal Policy’s Big Moment

Even for transportation nerds, keeping track of the federal infrastructure/transportation/reconciliation showdown between Biden, the House and the Senate is difficult to follow.

Let me take a shot at breaking down the big picture — because this is a potentially era-shifting moment in U.S. transportation policy. The stakes for sustainability, safety, public health and all the things we care about are huge.

There are two major issues – how much money is proposed, and what is it used for. Unfortunately, the media focus is much more on the “how big” and “who has the votes” rather than on “what are we actually doing with that money?” For us, the second question is equally important.

Complicating the whole discussion are the multiple pieces of relevant legislation. So we will start with that process and this post will attempt to explain where things stand and how you can get involved.

This year Congress returns to the transportation bill. Happening every five years or so, it sets the federal surface transportation budget and the rules for how states can spend federal transportation funds. And the status quo is awful. The vast majority of the money goes to states with only modest controls, and far too much is used to expand highways, or turn modest roads into highway-style arterials. The bill typically has insufficient money for transit, and some well meaning programs and guidelines that are insufficient to stop the harm of car-centric policies. Yes, an oversimplification, but take a look at the place you’re living if you want confirmation.

Transportation reform advocates were justly encouraged about early proposals from the Biden Administration to completely reform such spending this year, including a promise that every cent would be good for climate.

But then the Senate weighed in.  

The Senate’s Transportation Reauthorization Bill had a few good changes (we like new programs and money for trails and active transportation). But to win bipartisan support it substantially kept the same old damaging framework that finances highway expansion with insufficient regard for maintenance, safety and climate. A continuation of the status quo was the political path of least resistance.

In contrast, the House of Representatives passed a bill, the INVEST Act, that genuinely took on the big issues. It passed the House on mostly party lines. This is the kind of bill transportation sustainability advocates have been dreaming about for years because it focused on big structural reforms on how states could spend federal dollars by setting enforceable standards on safety, maintenance and climate.

Normally, a conference committee would work out a compromise between House and Senate bills, and those policies would govern transportation spending for the next five years. But this is not a normal year. The Biden Administration has an ambitious American Jobs Plan that calls for deep investments across a wide range of goals. That has now been broken into two bills – the Infrastructure Bill and Reconciliation.  Both bills contain federal spending over and above regular spending.

Biden recently made a deal with a bipartisan Senate coalition for a “Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework.” It first answered the “how much” question without fully answering the “how will the money be spent” question. There are big buckets of dollars identified for transit, rail, safety and other transportation categories, but the biggest bucket is for “roads, bridges and major projects” at $109 billion. The framework did not then indicate whether that money was strictly for maintenance of existing infrastructure, or whether it would continue to fuel a road and highway expansion binge. Right now a bipartisan group of Senators are negotiating more detailed provisions of the Infrastructure Bill, and it looks like that they will combine it with their Transportation Bill, and send it to the House as a package.  Transportation advocates are concerned that the political pressure to “get a win” on a bipartisan Infrastructure Bill means that the progressive provisions in the House INVEST Act won’t survive. Even worse, the Senate looks like it will cut the percentage of spending that will go to transit over the next five years. 

The politics of this are yet more complicated. Progressives are demanding that the Infrastructure Bill must be accompanied by a robust Reconciliation Bill that includes spending on non-infrastructure priorities, for example, increases in childcare spending. Green New Deal supporters are putting down their own marker – No Climate, No Deal. They want meaningful policy changes that will address the looming climate crisis. With a 50-50 Senate vs. a more progressive Democratic House Caucus, it is anyone’s bet what will happen as the Transportation Bill, Infrastructure Bill and Reconciliation head to a Congressional showdown. 

That’s the big picture, but we’re watching some specific things as well.  

Congress is also getting into the fight over the rewrite of the Manual of Traffic Control Devices. The Senate Transportation Reauthorization contains a provision that may be construed as ordering USDOT to incorporate recommendations that we oppose. On the other hand, the House Transportation Reauthorization orders USDOT to consult a wide variety of stakeholders, prioritize vulnerable users, prioritize safety over traffic flow or speed, promote cycling, walking and transit, and eliminate the 85th percentile rule that sets speed limits too high.

There is also a provision passed by the House to require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to issue a rule to establish standards for the hood and bumper areas of vehicles in order to reduce injuries and deaths. The House also has provisions to put more of a focus on the role of racial profiling in traffic stops.

So what’s an active transportation advocate to do? If you want to make a phone call to offices of the 21 Senators negotiating the Infrastructure Bill, you can find directions from our ally Transportation for America here.  If you want to send an email to your Senator or Congressman, we have set up a form message that you can customize and send here.  

Remember, every proposed gain we see in policy proposals now is happening because people have raised their voices to change a dangerous status quo for a more inspiring vision of what our communities can be. Your voice matters.