With one month left in the current extension of SAFETEA-LU, we thought it important to share with you an update regarding the transportation bill conference committee deliberations. It is challenging to determine the current state of play because the conference is not transparent and doesn’t follow a predetermined process, but there are several observations worth noting:
- Timing: Senator Boxer (D-CA) chairs the committee and is pressing very hard for the committee to complete its work. She had hoped that an agreement could be reached by now, but we see no evidence of significant progress on the most divisive issues.
To avoid a shutdown of transportation work at the height of construction season when the current extension runs out at the end of June, Congress will have to pass through both chambers (and President Obama) either a conference report or the 10th extension of SAFETEA-LU. A conference deal is distinctly possible, but increasingly less likely if a deal is not struck very soon.
The Congressional calendar presents a challenge. With the House on recess the week of June 11, a couple Mondays and a Friday, there are at most 12 days left in the current extension in which both chambers will be in session. Notable breakthroughs next week will be key to the prospects for a comprehensive bill.
- Players: Active transportation issues are being handled by a group of conferees focused on federal highway program reform and consolidation. Republicans from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I) on this group are Representatives Mica, Duncan, Lankford, Buschon, Southerland and Hanna. All Democratic T&I conferees can be involved, and some other House committees may be involved in particular issues (e.g., Natural Resources Committee regarding federal lands). The Environment and Public Works Committee is involved from the Senate side. Of particular note is the emergence of Rep. Lankford (R-OK) as a vocal opponent of the Senate’s Transportation Enhancements (TE) compromise that was hammered out by Senator Inhofe (R-OK).
- Issues: Most of the advocacy from our allies has centered on preservation of the Cardin/Cochran amendment that provides greater local access to TE and Safe Routes to School funds under the MAP-21 program reforms. The amendment provided an elegant way to mitigate losses from the addition of expensive new eligibilities that are must-do items from a statewide perspective because of regulations or maintenance needs, but which fail to improve the transportation system as existing TE eligibilities do. RTC organized a sign-on letter for the amendment at the time of Senate consideration in February that many of you joined (thank you!) and is supporting current efforts to retain the provision in conference.
RTC also thinks it is critical that our community continue to speak up for dedicated funding for our three core programs—TE, Safe Routes to School and the Recreational Trails Program. Even with the improvements made by bipartisan amendments from Cardin/Cochran and Klobuchar/Burr /Shaheen/Risch (reinstating a set-aside for the Recreational Trails Program), MAP-21 compromises the integrity of our programs by separating them from a share of formula dollars, reducing funding, creating opportunities for states to transfer dollars away from these activities, and making them compete against expensive new eligibilities, including some road projects. With some members of the conference committee working to further harm our programs, it is important that other members involved in the negotiations realize the counter demand to improve upon compromises made by the Senate.
HR 7 was horrendous for TE and Safe Routes to School, but it was quite good regarding Recreational Trails. Some of the House conferees are aiming to advance HR 7 reforms through conference even though the House was unable to pass that bill. Conferees should be encouraged to take a hard line against negotiating language from HR 7.
What you can do: Please be resourceful in finding opportunities to encourage your representatives and senators to prioritize dedicated funding for TE, Safe Routes to School and the Recreational Trails Program in the conference report. Letters to members, letters to the editor, alerts to your members and direct interactions with members of Congress when they are home are among the tactics to consider. The House is in recess the week of June 11.
Tell them these programs have been resounding successes back home, and that they are critical to building a balanced transportation system. You could indicate that these programs deserve more, not less, funding, and that they are a cost-effective use of Highway Trust Fund dollars that benefit all Americans, create jobs, save money and stimulate the economy.
If your representative or senator is on the conference committee, your effort to reach them is particularly important. If they are not, you still could encourage your elected officials to press conferees on this issue. That effort will most likely pay dividends if your officials are either from the same state as a conferee or on one of the committees that handles transportation issues.
Thank you for your inspiring work!
Vice President of Policy and Trail Development