Dear Campaign Partner,
June 27, 7 a.m.: The past week has been a whirlwind for those of us embroiled in federal transportation policy. I am writing to update you on the status of the conference committee charged with negotiating a federal transportation bill that could be signed into law by this Saturday. Information is scarce because the small group of senators and representatives involved in the closed door talks have focused intently on preventing leaks. Any analysis of the situation necessarily involves use of credible rumors.
Nevertheless, we can piece together a variety of intelligence sources to provide a sense of the process and possible outcomes. U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Representative John Mica (R-Fla.) have been negotiating over the past week. Transportation Enhancements (TE) has been a top point of contention, with the House demanding that states be able to shift the money to roads and bridges instead of dedicating it to trails, bicycling, walking and other TE eligibilities. From our perspective, this is the central debate point in the conference. The relative silence regarding Safe Routes to School and the Recreational Trails Program also concerns us. Our assumption, based on previous House positioning, is that the former is endangered and the latter is safe.
Persistent rumors in Washington and Rep. Mica’s district office staff both indicate that the House has prevailed, to our detriment, on the issue of dedicating TE funds despite the fact that the House was not able to pass their bill that reflected this view (H.R. 7). Unsubstantiated intelligence suggests that the mechanisms to achieve this undermining of the integrity of TE may be to make it very easy for state DOTs to opt out of the program completely, transfer more money away from TE, and include expensive new eligibilities that are out of step with its purpose. Some of these same tactics were used in the Senate committee bill to maim TE, but the current negotiations may go even further.
The Cardin/Cochran local access amendment mitigated the damage of the Senate bill before final passage by limiting opportunities for states to siphon TE dollars dedicated to improving the transportation system into “must do” activities (from a state perspective) like routine maintenance and regulatory compliance. However, we face three problems in the current context: (1) allowing states to opt out of TE undercuts Cardin/Cochran by enabling states to prevent dollars from getting to local governments, (2) requiring that funds be sub-allocated to larger communities could prompt some states to opt out of TE more often, and (3) rumors indicate that negotiators may have watered down the terms of the local access amendment.
Current talk of “roadside enhancements” also raises suspicions that current TE eligibilities that occur outside of the right-of-way of highways would not be eligible. H.R. 7 took this approach, eliminating rail-trails, railroad depots, historic preservation and other important TE categories.
How did we come to this point? These outcomes are vastly worse than current law as well as MAP-21, the bipartisan Senate bill that contained the only real transportation reforms coming into the conference negotiations. Senate leaders and the White House have been primarily focused on moving transportation as a “jobs bill.” Further, the White House issued a veto threat if the bill presented included the Keystone pipeline, a key plank in the House extension bill that set up the conference committee. Senator Boxer came to the negotiations with the jobs frame, marching orders to keep out Keystone and a personal priority to grow a program that provides credit assistance for big projects (“TIFIA”). In exchange, she may have made concessions on key points of contention like TE and environmental reviews.
Over this past weekend, we made progress in engaging Senate leaders, the Administration and others in this debate. We aim to ensure that the conference report reflects that dedicated TE funds are critical to a 21st century vision of transportation for America.
As of last night, financing was reportedly the last hurdle in the negotiations. They hope to file a conference report today to set up floor votes later in the week. Other conferees were briefed on the agreement yesterday, as most have not been allowed in the room or even kept in the loop. A conference report will be filed today if they succeed in securing majority support from the conferees of each chamber.
Where do we stand? If they file and the policies are as bad as feared, RTC and many allies will oppose the bill. It will be very difficult to defeat a “jobs bill," even if the case for job creation is weak when one compares an extension of current law at current levels to a new bill at roughly equivalent levels. Our view is that the marginal, if not dubious, benefits of the bill are greatly outweighed by a rollback of decades of progress in promoting balanced transportation choices. It is equally possible that negotiators could fail to get agreement in time for floor votes, in which case there could be a short term extension (14-30 days) to allow for completion of the process, or a six-month extension to defer the issue until after the November elections.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy will continue to monitor developments and notify you of significant decisions. If a harmful conference report is filed, expect to see an alert asking you to deploy your members and supporters.
Thank you for your hard work and commitment to the cause,
Vice President of Policy and Trail Development