We’ll be honest: We were truly disheartened by the way the Senate’s solid transportation bill was mangled in the late-hour, backroom negotiations with the House late last month, and our early commentary showed it. Now that the President has signed MAP-21 into law, we are able to take a more comprehensive look not only at what was lost, but was preserved and, in some cases, gained.
After digesting the 600-plus pages of the law, here are 10 key things to know about our new, two-year national transportation program. (We present them in short form first, with a fuller explanation after the jump.) The question to keep in the back of your mind as you read is this: After two years and more than $100 billion dollars, will we have made real progress on repairing our roads and bridges, making streets safer for all, and giving more people more options to get around quickly and affordably?
- Incentivizing costly new construction, making repair optional. Under most circumstances, the required local match for building Interstate lanes drops from 20 percent to 5 percent. Meanwhile, dedicated funding for bridge repair disappears altogether.
- Steps toward accountability for performance, but few teeth. In a positive step, MAP-21 does begin to set performance targets for goals such as highway and bridge conditions and safety. It’s a good start, but there needs to be a broader set of goals and meaningful incentives for success as well as consequences for failure.
- A false promise of “flexibility”. Flexibility to spend federal transportation dollars on freight rail, local roads or expanding the frequency of buses and trains was dropped from the final bill. Many local governments will find their ability to meet needs as they see fit has been reduced.
- Less money, but more local control, to make streets safer for all users. The bill eliminates the popular Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School, and Recreational Trails programs and creates a new set-aside called Transportation Alternatives, at a third less funding. Larger metros will get the money directly, but smaller and more rural communities may see little to none of it, depending on their state DOT.
- Continued funding of transit “New Starts” projects. In a victory for public transportation riders, MAP-21 will continue to fund new rail and rapid-bus projects at current levels, and with simplified approvals. The bad news is that the fund is wildly oversubscribed.
- More capacity to borrow, but less to innovate. The bill expands the ability to borrow at low cost through programs like TIFIA, but it eliminates the TIGER program, which allowed local entities and others to apply for grants for innovative projects.
- Transit stays in the trust fund, with more accountability for repair and safety. Fortunately, House leaders failed in their bid to remove federal dedicated funding for public transportation. New requirements will help to ensure that transit systems stay in good repair and are safe.
- Multiple changes to environmental and citizen review, with unpredictable impact. One of the biggest and noisiest fights was over what House negotiators termed “streamlining”, a euphemism for removing environmental and citizen protection around transportation projects. While wholesale elimination was averted, myriad changes to the rules will have impacts that only time will reveal.
- For rural communities, a seat at the table and a focus on the most dangerous roads. The bill authorizes the creation of new rural planning entities that will represent smaller communities in state transportation planning. It also should make it easier to fix rural highways with high crash rates.
- Tolling for new interstate lanes and HOV sleight-of-hand, and an emphasis on public-private partnerships. The short version: Restricting the ability to toll interstates to new lanes only misses a major opportunity to both manage traffic and generate revenue from thousands of miles of clogged urban interstates. U.S. DOT also is required to develop best practices for public-private partnerships, including ways to protect public and state and local government interests.