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March 13, 2012

Breaking the Traffic Jam: Senate Set to Pass Bipartisan Transportation Bill

CongressIn a Congress that has been plagued by partisan gridlock, the Senate is poised to pass a transportation bill, S. 1813, which could win the votes of more than 70 Senators.

Led by two Senators traditionally at polar opposites of the ideological spectrum, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and James Inhofe (R-OK), the Senate has crafted a bill that would fund our nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems for the next two years.

This process hasn’t been easy. Senators Boxer and Inhofe have worked for years to craft a transportation bill. In the last week alone, the Senate beat back an attempt from Senate Republicans to attach unrelated, anti-environmental amendments to this bipartisan bill, including permitting the dirty and dangerous Keystone XL pipeline and expanding drilling off our coasts and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Today, almost two and a half years after the expiration of the last transportation authorization, the Senate will finally vote on a transportation bill. Although there is certainly room for improvement, the Senate transportation bill takes important steps to reduce our dependence on oil and move our transportation system into the 21st century.

We will closely review amendments considered today, but as it stands, the Senate transportation bill would:
  • Create a set of national transportation objectives and performance measures, which establishes a clear vision for what our transportation system should achieve. Notably, these national transportation goals include reducing energy use in transportation, which is almost completely powered by oil.

  • Ensure that our roads and bridges are in a state of good repair by tying a significant portion of highway funding to repair and maintenance, instead of new capacity. At a time when roughly 50% of our roads are in less than good condition and 25% of our bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, this provision is critical.

  • Speed the approval process for transit projects under the New Starts/Small Starts programs. At a time when transit ridership is booming, these changes would ensure that transit projects are built faster.

  • Extend transit commuter tax benefits for 1 year at the same level as parking commuter tax benefits. This ensures that commuters aren’t penalized for taking transit to work instead of driving.

  • Allow flexibility for large transit systems to use federal funds for operating assistance during economic downturns. There is little use in providing federal funds to buy a bus or railcar if a transit system can’t pay someone to drive them. This bill ensures that transit systems will be able to provide adequate service during economic downturns, when people increasingly use transit.

  • Establish an optional planning process for large metropolitan areas that would engage the public and decisions makers to consider a series of scenarios and consider options for roads, transit, walking and biking and their associated impacts.

  • Ensure the safety of pedestrians and cyclists by require the US Department of Transportation to set safety standards for the accommodation of all road users, not just drivers.

TrafficLess than three weeks remain until the current transportation bill expires. Over the last month Speaker Boehner has tried and failed to pass his signature transportation bill, widely dubbed the “worst transportation bill ever.”

Instead of moving forward, Speaker Boehner has been hell-bent on throwing our transportation system in reverse by eliminating funding for transit, biking and walking and linking construction of new roads to drilling for oil in our wildest places, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is critical that the House of Representatives pass the Senate bill without tacking on changes that would keep our transportation system stuck in the past.

Today the Senate will begin the process of moving our transportation system into the 21st century. Now it is time for the House to get on board, not slam on the brakes.

-- Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Washington Representative for the Sierra Club Green Transportation Campaign

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