The incoming Congress still has plenty of transportation work to do

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As the sun sets on the 117th Congress with the bipartisan infrastructure law under their belts, it is up to the 118th Congress to deliver meaningful oversight and leadership on implementing those funds and guide the future of America’s transportation system.

Legislators like Rep. Peter DeFazio (in focus) retired in 2023, turning leadership over to other members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Image Source Flickr/Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Democrats

What did the 117th Congress accomplish?

When it comes to transportation policy, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) collectively authorize nearly $700 billion in programs that directly touch America’s transportation industry or play a supporting role. 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, known as the IIJA or 2021 infrastructure law, provides around $643 billion in new federal funding for a wide range of surface transportation infrastructure projects. (Get everything you need to know on this law here.) Congressional appropriators now decide (each year) how much of the law’s annual funding is allocated to its programs. While parts of the funding are virtually guaranteed by statutory formulas, legislators have some discretion and congressional appropriators are already maintaining the status quo at the expense of needed change.

For example, while the highway formula program received nearly all of its funding commitment (97 percent of the funds promised by the IIJA), other vital programs did not. The Active Transportation Infrastructure investment program would fund pedestrian sidewalks and cycling infrastructure, providing more choices in transportation, but it received $0 of the $200 million committed in the IIJA in fiscal year 2022 (FY22) and only $45 million funded in fiscal year 2023 (FY23). The Amtrak Northeast Corridor also received only 80 percent of what IIJA committed, while the national passenger rail network received only 66 percent of its expected funds.

While it’s good news that transit formula funds were at nearly 100 percent of the IIJA funding commitment, overall transit funding is still too low to keep up with the extensive transit repair backlog or the operational cost needed to fund America’s transit system. 

The Inflation Reduction Act

The IRA’s primary focus is on economic investment and innovation in reducing America’s carbon emissions, focusing on electric vehicles, buses, and other freight trucks. Electrifying our many different vehicle fleets is necessary, but this is not a sufficient step to curb our emissions without other investments in transit and changes to the transportation network overall. (Don’t miss the new report on that very topic from the CHARGE Coalition, of which T4America is a core member.) In this regard, the 117th Congress has failed to ensure a secure and efficient future for American transportation. The IRA’s goals for electrification will only be attainable if other policies are tapped to produce fewer and shorter vehicle trips, and fewer cars on the roads overall due to improved alternative modes of transportation. 

However, the IRA also codified the $3 billion Neighborhood Access and Equity Program, which can be used to cover highways or convert them into boulevards, add bike lanes or sound barriers, provide better connections to transit, build green stormwater infrastructure, and make roadway safety improvements. These programs build on the momentum of past projects that have reconnected communities, like this one in Milwaukee.

Click here to learn more about the IRA.

Transportation work is not over for Congress — far from it

While we now have a long-term authorization in place that shapes the broad contours of funding and policy, the members of the 118th Congress do not have the luxury of checking out on transportation. They have ample opportunities to build upon the previous Congress’s successes—and even improve upon their work and make up for past mistakes. Here’s where they can start:

Even in a divided and polarized House, there could still be opportunities to work together

The 118th Congress was sworn in on January, 3rd, 2023, though House Republicans struggled to cooperate to elect a new speaker of the house. However, in the compromise to elect Speaker McCarthy, a new House rule was adopted that will allow representatives to debate bills on the House floor before being called to a vote.

Given the realities of the slim majority Republicans possess in the House (eight seats, five of which are held by far-right representatives) analysts believe this rule could provide opportunities for moderate Republicans to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats on key transportation legislation and IIJA appropriations, which will continue to be debated year after year during the IIJA’s five-year lifespan. What gets 100 percent of the funding spelled out in the IIJA, and what gets a reduced share? Congress will decide.

Set better goals, measure progress

Congressional oversight is one of their most important responsibilities. To pass bipartisan legislation, Congress should strive for goal-oriented oversight. For example, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has an important role as a watchdog, and should be regularly asking whether or not this historic infusion of infrastructure funding is actually producing what was promised by their predecessors when it comes to the state of good repair, improving access and mobility, and other goals. Legislators (and the president) made hefty promises what this funding would accomplish, and this Congress should be asking hard questions about where the money is going.

They should also clearly define the transportation problems facing Americans, clearly restate the implementation goals of the federal transportation program, and investigate solutions supported by the programs in the IIJA and IRA. One smart way for Congress to accomplish this is through fact-finding oversight hearings. Fact-finding hearings feature one or more panels of witnesses who are selected for their expertise or their representation of a particular group. Developing goal-oriented policy in this manner could cultivate a collaborative atmosphere in Congress as they pass appropriations during these next two years of the IIJA’s funding lifespan. 

Take advantage of new opportunities

A proposal from Congressman Hank Johnson focuses on allocating funds to the operational budgets of transit systems to improve services and boost ridership. $20 billion provided annually over four years would provide more frequent service on bus and rail lines and prioritize improving service in areas where it is currently subpar, in disadvantaged communities, and in areas of persistent poverty. Funding under this bill would make “substantial improvements to transit service” working towards a more equitable America. 

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding is set to expire in FY23 and should be low-hanging fruit for bipartisan action. While T4America focuses specifically on surface transportation, FAA authorization does present opportunities to integrate America’s airports with their surrounding urban transit, active transportation, and intercity passenger rail systems and leverage other funding provided through the IIJA.   

The bottom line

The next two years of this new Congress will help determine whether or not the historic funds in the IIJA and the IRA result in changes to our deeply embedded car-centric transportation network. 

The ability to capitalize on this moment of inflection depends on the House and Senate’s ability to collaborate and pass bipartisan legislation to meet the needs of the American people. Over the next two years, Congress should work together to increase funding for projects that advance mobility choice (i.e. rail, transit, and active transportation) while also addressing important issues of safety, equity, and reducing emissions. 

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