Congress Takes a First Step Towards Reshaping Transportation Policy; Senate Bill Steers Away From the Car

May 16, 2009 at 10:04 pm

As stimulus spending on highways and bridges ramps up, Senate Democrats submitted legislation Thursday that suggests the nation’s transportation policy is headed for a major overhaul, with a strong emphasis on reducing automobile use and carbon emissions and boosting public transit, inter-city rail and rail freight service.

 Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced legislation that they say lays out the guidelines of what they expect the next five-year federal transportation spending plan to accomplish. Their goal is to influence the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is responsible for drafting the spending plan. The House plan is expected in early June, and the bill is due for reauthorization this fall.  The Rockefeller-Lautenberg marker, which got some early love from the Washington Post, states that the next federal transportation bill should accomplish the following:

  • Reduce national per-capita motor vehicle miles traveled on an annual basis;
  • Cut national motor vehicle-related fatalities in half by 2030;
  • Cut national surface transportation-generated carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030;
  • Reduce surface transportation delays per capita on an annual basis; 
  • Get 20 percent more critical surface-transportation assets into a state of good repair by 2030;
  • Increase the total usage of public transit, intercity passenger rail and non-motorized transport on an annual basis.

The focus for those trying to ascertain the administration’s transportation agenda has since turned to the five-year bill, which is expected to cost at least $400 billion. One big question is how the government plans to fund transportation spending, with revenue from the gas tax increasingly falling short. The new Senate bill does not address that problem.

Another big question is how much the bill will provide for public transportation. As it now stands, 80 percent of federal transportation money goes to highways. But David Goldberg, an official with the advocacy group Transportation for America, said Congress and the White House are sending signs that the new plan could represent a major break. The White House has already said it hopes to spend $1 billion per year on high-speed rail.

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