Issues & AdvocacyFederal
Transportation Bill: A Yellow Light for Communities
Three years after the last bill expired and following months of fevered negotiations, Congress approved legislation last week to extend federal transportation programs for two years. President Obama is expected to sign the bill, which also includes provisions keeping student loan interest rates intact, this week.
For design professionals, the bill – known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or MAP-21 - represents a decidedly mixed bag, with some provisions that will foster better design communities and some that represent a step backward. The bill does reflect a number of priorities that the AIA and its allies at the American Planning Association and the American Society of Landscape Architects have presented to Congress, but other recommendations got left on the cutting room floor in the last-minute negotiations.
The AIA is continuing to analyze the bill, but here are some initial observations:
• Overview. The bill reauthorizes federal surface transportation programs, which provide funds to states and localities for roads, transit and other transportation modes, for two years. In the past, Congress has renewed these programs for up to four years at a time, but a lack of long-term funding forced Congress to approve a shorter-term bill. Although this is far more preferable to the short-term extensions that have kept programs running since 2009, two years does not provide a level of certainty that is needed for long range planning.
The bill provides $105 billion for transportation programs over the next two years. This represents roughly the same level of funding per year as in previous bills. Although it is good news that Congress did not reduce funding, it must be noted that the primary source of revenue for these programs, the federal gas tax, is not keeping up with demand. This means that Congress will soon face a difficult choice: raise the gas tax (which hasn't been done since 1993), find new sources of revenue, or scale back funding for transportation.
• Transportation Enhancements. The bill presents a glass half-full/half-empty scenario for design advocates. On one hand, the bill rejected proposals to eliminate funding for so-called enhancements, which help communities provide bike and pedestrian trails, preserve historic structures and perform other streetscape improvements. However the bill also ended the requirement that states devote 10 percent of their federal funding to these programs. MAP-21 renames the Enhancement programs as “Transportation Alternatives” and consolidates the current 12 eligible activities into six categories, including funding for continue bike/pedestrian facilities, “Complete Streets,” and a Community Improvement category that encompasses the preservation and rehabilitation of historic transportation facilities, among other activities. Overall, the Transportation Alternatives program would receive 35% less funding than Transportation Enhancements received under the previous bill; and since the account includes numerous other eligible activities, the reduction in funding could be even greater.
• Transit-Oriented Development. On a more positive note, the bill includes a provision, first advanced in the Senate, that would create a pilot program to assist communities planning development around new transit hubs in order to “enhance economic development. . .facilitate multimodal connectivity and accessibility. . .increase access to transit hubs for pedestrian and bicycle traffic. . . [and] enable mixed-use development.” This program reflects findings in the AIA’s 2008 study Moving Communities Forward, which found that development around transit helps to promote economic activity and foster more sustainable growth.
• Transportation Financing. Another bright spot is the bill’s expansion of the Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act (TIFIA) program. TIFIA provides federal assistance for transportation infrastructure projects, such as intermodal transit facilities, through direct loans, loan guarantees and lines of credit. MAP-21 increases the amount of funding available for TIFIA assistance from the current $122 million per year to $750 million in 2013 and $1 billion in 2014.
• The Bottom Line. Although a two-year program is far preferable than a short-term extension, MAP-21 misses some important opportunities to help communities plan transportation systems that promote not just access and mobility, but economic vitality and livability as well. Because the bill lumps design-related activities into accounts with a host of other allowable activities, it will be more important than ever for the AIA to advocate to state and local governments that they invest some of their federal dollars in livable community enhancements.
Of course, since this bill expires in 2014, any or all of its provisions could have a short shelf life. Discussions on the next transportation bill will likely start as soon as the dust settles from the November election. At that point, a second Obama administration or a first Romney one will need to confront the challenges of maintaining America’s infrastructure and strengthening its communities in a time of limited funding.
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