Dear Fellow Advocate,
In an unusual development, the U.S. House of Representatives just passed a transportation bill extension (293-127) without a looming deadline. This message provides our current read on what happened, why, and what might happen next that is of relevance to active transportation (walking and bicycling) policy.
H.R. 4348 includes yet another three-month extension of the current transportation bill SAFETEA-LU, through September 30, 2012. This bill provides a means of enabling the House to go to conference with the Senate to negotiate a transportation bill by the expiration of the current extension on June 30.
For some time, House Republicans have been split over H.R. 7 and could not move forward with a comprehensive long-term bill. This past weekend, rumors emerged that the House planned to pass a clean (no new policy) extension to SAFETEA-LU with the notable exception of the Keystone Pipeline provisions that the House previously passed. At some point, the RESTORE Act was added to establish a trust fund to receive penalties resulting from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Each of these measures was seen as a sweetener to gain additional support for the bill (H.R. 4348). In an effort to create bargaining chips for conference and expand Republican support, a rule adopted yesterday approved consideration of three amendments to H.R. 4348: 1) to constrain the timing, number and extensiveness of environmental reviews (Rep. Reid Ribble, Wis.), 2) to boost funds for harbor maintenance (Rep. Charles Boustany, La.) and 3) to loosen regulation of toxic coal residuals (Rep. David McKinley, W.V.).
Although we understand that there were efforts to include an amendment undercutting Transportation Enhancements (TE), ultimately no such amendments advanced. Our intelligence suggests that this is because strong support for TE within the Republican caucus from leaders like Reps. Tom Petri (Wis.), Tim Johnson (Ill.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.) and Steven LaTourette (Ohio) threatened to derail the unity that House leaders sought for the strategy. Since this bill moved incredibly quickly, our prior collective efforts to cultivate these and other Republican members of Congress proved crucial to the outcome.
What happens next is an exercise in speculation. It appears that the Senate may hold the upper hand in a negotiation about a broad swath of transportation policy issues because their bill (MAP-21, S. 1813) specifically created many new policies while the House bill defaults to status quo (SAFETEA-LU) for most policies due to a lack of sufficient support for any particular reforms. House Republicans are likely to bargain hard for the Keystone Pipeline and "environmental streamlining." But it is far from given that there will be serious conference negotiations or that such negotiations would result in a bill that both chambers and the President will support. President Obama has issued a veto threat over the Keystone Pipeline issue and that issue previously failed in the Senate, so this might simply be prelude to a political fight about jobs and energy development. However, all sides recognize the need to somehow further extend the current transportation law by the time it expires on June 30th.
Core active transportation programs should be well positioned given status quo treatment in the House bill and a Senate bill that mitigated its worst features by incorporating amendments to ensure local access to TE and Safe Routes to School funds and restoring the Recreational Trails Program (RTP). However, new threats could emerge in conference so we will need to be vigilant with an effective conference strategy, but our vulnerabilities should be less than if H.R. 7 had advanced without dedicated funding for TE and without eligibility for Safe Routes to School and several critical TE categories. RTP is especially well-positioned given its inclusion in both bills, H.R. 7 and S. 1813.
Vice President of Policy and Trail Development