A postmortem on the new federal transportation bill, MAP-21

Joshua Stark Headshot

MAP-21 Aftermath: Storm Front and Silver Linings

Now that some times has passed since the whirlwind passage of a new federal transportation bill, it’s time to assess the damage and figure out where we stand.

Compared to the forward-looking, bipartisan bill that the Senate passed in April, the new MAP-21 that emerged from conference committee felt a little bit like a tornado had hit.  Many of the best pieces of the Senate’s bill were ripped out by Congressional leaders rushing to beat the June 30 deadline.  It’s safe to say that the final deal marks a step backwards for California and the nation (and we did just that in our press statement here).

But we’re not declaring a state of emergency just yet.  This bill will last only twenty-seven months – and our best hope is ourselves.  We need to pull on our boots and start working on the successor to MAP-21 even as we conduct damage control now.  To that end, what follows is not only an overview of what’s wrong with MAP-21, but also what we can do to make it right in the short- and long-term.

Let’s start with the worst, and work our way towards the more positive aspects of the new bill.  For a more comprehensive overview and continued updates on federal transportation policy, please visit t4america.org.

What’s Worse Than SAFETEA-LU

Some of the policies in the final bill are significantly worse than the last bill, even though the original Senate bill contained improvements on some of these issues.

  • Cuts to funding for repair and maintenance of our aging infrastructure.  Under SAFETEA-LU, approximately 32% of highway funds are dedicated for repair of highways and bridges.  The conference deal requires less than 3% of highway funding to be used for bridge repair – at a time when 13% of California’s bridges, and 12% of all bridges nationally, have been marked as structurally deficient.  This is particularly frustrating as the original Senate bill contained a very strong repair program.  Since Caltrans usually devotes extra resources to repairing bridges, we anticipate that this policy change won’t significantly slow our progress on fixing the backlog of needed repairs, but there sure aren’t any incentives from Congress to do so.
  • Cuts to funding for safe walking and biking, including Safe Routes to School programs.  The conference deal cuts dedicated funding for walking and biking by one-third (from $1.1 billion to $750 million), and allows states to flex 50% of this funding to other uses for any reason, or 100% of this funding in cases of emergency.  As pedestrians alone account for 12% of all traffic fatalities, cutting funding from 1.5% to 1.0% of federal transportation spending makes no sense.  We’ve heard from Caltrans that the flexible 50% will remain committed to biking and walking, but we’ll have to stay vigilant to ensure this happens as there’s no requirement from Congress.

What Might Have Been Better Than SAFETEA-LU, and One Thing That Might Have Been Worse

There were several strong policies in the original Senate bill that were stripped by the conference committee, and one horrible policy that the House wanted but didn’t get. 

  • Elimination of policies that would have made streets safer for people who walk, bike, and take transit.  The original Senate bill included a “safer streets” policy that would have improved public health by requiring safety considerations of all road users be taken into account in road construction and repair.  Unfortunately this provision was removed by the conference committee.  Caltrans, MTC, and many local jurisdictions in the Bay Area as well as some other areas throughout CA already have “Complete Streets” policies, but a federal version would have bolstered our local policies by adding an analysis component and ensuring that it applies to all federally-funded roads.
  • Fails to provide emergency flexibility for larger public transportation agencies to support operations.  Under the final bill, agencies with 100 or more buses running during rush hour are not allowed to flex any funds from capital to operations to cope with adverse economic conditions.The original Senate bill expanded funding flexibility to transit agencies serving areas of population greater than 200,000.
  • Fails to achieve equity for commuters who take public transportation.  The Senate bill would have put all commuters on the same level, by increasing the public transit pre-tax commuter allowance to match the parking allowance.  The conference deal left this provision out, so the current law will prevail – providing commuters who drive with nearly double the tax benefit available to commuters who take transit
  • Does not establish a National Freight Program.  The original Senate bill included a national freight program to coordinate multi-modal freight transport and provided funding to improve freight corridors – including up to 10% for rail and maritime corridors.  The conference committee removed the National Freight Program and omitted flexibility to use freight funding for rail and maritime improvements.  It still includes freight performance measures and planning, but no requirement that states actually improve freight performance.
  • Preserves percentage of funding dedicated to public transportation.  Earlier this year, House leaders proposed a bill that would have slashed or eliminated dedicated funding for public transportation.  This attack on transit could have resurfaced in the conference committee – but thanks to a loud roar of opposition from advocates like TransForm, the final bill maintains current funding levels for public transportation.

What’s Better Than SAFETEA-LU

Don’t despair!  There are some silver linings with the potential to deliver significant improvements – and we in California should be proud of our role in ensuring these policies were included in MAP-21.

  • Includes performance measures and targets that will be incorporated into regional and state transportation planning.  The final bill preserves the performance measures that passed the Senate, including highway safety, air quality, transit safety, and transit state of good repair.  States and regions must establish targets and show improvement on these measures.  For highways, the U.S. Department of Transportation is directed to establish minimum condition standards; if states do not meet the minimum conditions within a certain amount of time, they must spend additional money on repair.  While these new policies are not as strong as in the original Senate bill, they still represent a significant step towards more strategic use of transportation funds – and they wouldn’t be there without our advocacy over the past three years.
  • Creates a Pilot Program for Transit-Oriented Development.  The final bill allocates $10 million for grants to communities who have received New Starts transit funding to do station area planning.  San Francisco (Central Subway and Van Ness BRT), San Jose (Berryessa Extension), and Oakland (East Bay BRT) are all eligible to apply for this funding to support the public transportation corridors receiving federal New Starts funding.  This is a great precedent that we’ll work to expand in the next bill.
  • Establishes competitive grant program in place of previous earmarks.   MAP-21 converts the program that used to be filled with earmarks into a competitive, multimodal grant program with $1 billion in funding for FY 2013.  The downside is that local governments and regions cannot apply; but if the TIGER program is any indication of the types of projects this Administration will choose, we are hopeful that the grants will go to states for worthy endeavors.
  • Modifies TIFIA loan program to enable more transit providers to access these funds.  The final law contains a change to financing language that would allow transit providers with dedicated revenues to access these funds.  This program is also expanded from $122 million annually, to $1 billion in FY 2014, which will mean more projects – and hopefully more transit projects – are able to get loans, loan guarantees, or lines of credit through the TIFIA program.

Looking Ahead

One of the key strategies for fixing the new transportation bill will be continuing to work together.  The large and growing Transportation For America coalition that we helped to build over the past three years has not only made an impact on policy, we’ve begun to change the debate entirely.  As Wade Henderson, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, wrote on DC Streetsblog:

The work that led up to the bill’s passage proved to be a small but significant step for our movement and one that establishes a pathway toward achieving greater transportation equity when the bill is reauthorized in 2014.

Nowhere is that more true than in California, where we’re building a statewide movement for world-class public transportation and walkable communities at every level.  We’ll have plenty of opportunity to continue strengthening our coalition and building power as we focus on implementation of MAP-21 as well as the ongoing work to win more funding for transit at the state level.  With our partners, we’ll also ensure that our regions establish smart land use and transportation plans to guide our communities towards a future with safer, cleaner, smarter transportation options that work for us all.

You can tap into this movement online by signing up as an individual or an organization with our Invest In Transit campaign, or share your questions and ideas in the comments below.

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About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.