Transportation Reauthorization Update: What We Know and What We Need to See

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Capitol Hill has been abuzz with transportation infrastructure bills. As the final policy framework takes shape, Transportation for America wants to remind Congress of key policies that must be incorporated into the final Transportation Reauthorization bill.

Transportation reauthorization has been the main topic on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, with the recently passed House INVEST Act, transit operating support legislation working its way towards the final reauthorization package, and the Senate’s less than mediocre highway title and decent passenger rail and safety title (while the Transit title is still missing, we’re hoping for something soon). Also in the mix is the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework.. As reported by the press on July 8th, the Senate plans to consider the legislative language of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework the week of July 19th, which will include the policy to the top line numbers released by the White House and the bipartisan infrastructure group. To date, the framework is coming into focus with the understanding that the funding amounts sketched out are additional funds to a FAST Act baseline. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework is unlikely to go through the traditional conferencing process where the House and Senate negotiate the bill through Committee conferences. This means Senate and House leaders are likely to negotiate bill text before the bill is introduced and passed in either chamber and then simply bring it to the Senate floor for a vote and then the House floor for a vote.

With the transportation reauthorization process reaching a crescendo in the coming weeks with the debut of the legislative text of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, Transportation for America wants to remind and encourage members of Congress of key policy priorities that MUST be incorporated into the final Transportation Reauthorization bill. Those key policy priorities include:

Accountability to Fix our Roads and Bridges, Not Just Rhetoric!

The administration has claimed that the highway investment dollar amount in the bipartisan proposal is all about maintenance and repair. We need to see more than rhetoric.  There is a huge maintenance backlog on our roads, bridges, and transit infrastructure. Yet there are only so many resources to invest in transportation. Priority needs to be on addressing the maintenance backlog. Additionally, for any new transportation capacity seeking to be built, a maintenance plan needs to be part of the equation before adding more infrastructure into the mix with no vision on how to maintain it. The House transportation committee supported this concept unanimously in 2020.

Highway-Style Commitment to Transit

For every dollar of transportation investment, only twenty cents goes towards transit (and the rest towards highways). There is a huge imbalance between a mode of transportation focused on vehicle movement and speed whereas the other focuses on moving people, providing equitable access to mobility, and connecting communities to opportunities. With the alarming concern of climate change effects plus a reckoning with gross inequities in the United States—of which the current transportation paradigm is a large part— it’s time to focus transportation investment on people and the environment. 

The transportation reauthorization bill should increase transit funding to the level of highways and fund transit operations. Providing operating support for transit agencies that would allow them to increase frequency and expand service to efficiently move more riders will have immediate and lasting impacts on climate change. In fact, allowing people to get around outside of a car (in addition to electrifying the fleet) is an essential component of ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions. It is also a strategy that will give everyone improved access to jobs and services and better health outcomes – especially for low-income households and communities of color. The Stronger Communities through Better Transit Act in the House works to help bridge the transit parity gap with highways.

Address Inequities in our Communities

Transportation is a public good that provides people and goods with mobility and accessibility between and within communities. However, transportation public work projects—especially our national highway system—have historically torn through established communities, specifically targeting marginalized communities. It’s high time to redress those wrongs in the federal transportation program by providing opportunities to remove highway infrastructure that divides communities while mitigating displacement of marginalized communities, providing people with equitable access to jobs and services, and, giving local communities control to guide the process and implementation of a future transportation investment (versus being dictated by their state department of transportation). Specifically, the final Transportation Reauthorization bill needs to include a competitive grant program, akin to the INVEST Act’s $3 Billion Reconnecting Neighborhoods program aimed at not only capital and planning costs for eligible communities to redesign or deconstruct divisive infrastructure, but enables the creation of land trusts to avoid community displacement, empowers local decision making and implementation, and updates the transportation planning process to be cognizant of holistic multimodal transportation impacts for all users. 

Design and Invest in Safety for All Users

You would think reduced driving trends in 2020 due to COVID-19 would have caused a drop in traffic fatalities. Unfortunately the opposite was true. Traffic deaths increased with a disproportionate number of fatalities impacting pedestrians, cyclists, and marginalized populations. The trend is not new, and is only intensifying over time. It reflects an existing transportation design and implementation program that is inherently unsafe and prioritizes a need for vehicle speed over all other users.. The final Transportation Reauthorization bill needs to fundamentally change our design standards to emphasize people movement across all modes. It furthermore needs to mandate states and metropolitan areas to target their investments and document performance on reducing fatalities on their roadways instead of continued lip service and wasted tax dollars only perpetuating more fatalities. Drafters of the final bill should look to the various examples from the INVEST Act that tackle safety and design of the transportation network, from the regulatory framework in reimagining the MUTCD, accountability measures that ensure transportation investments do indeed reduce traffic fatalities for all users, and competitive grant programs for local communities to plan, design and implement Complete Streets and Vision Zero plans. 

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