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February 29, 2012 / Mike Piskur

House Transportation Bill Would Gut Mass Transit, Make Cities Unlivable

This article originally appeared in Progress Illinois on February 22, 2012.

A surface transportation bill written by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives would cut funding for Illinois, calling for drastic reductions in mass transit allocations and the elimination of popular and effective bike and pedestrian safety programs. The House could vote on the five-year, $260 billion bill as early as next week. Current federal transportation policy expires March 31, leaving very few legislative days — 16 to be exact — for Congress to take action.

The bill, H.R 7, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012, would accelerate highway construction, decimate mass transit in the Chicago area, cut Amtrak funding by 25 percent, and clear the way for the privatization of infrastructure. Perhaps most controversially, the bill would gain revenue from domestic oil and gas production rather than from user fees.

The decades-old “user-pays” principle tied highway use to highway investment by taxing fuels on a per-gallon basis. The Highway Trust Fund, which receives money from the federal fuel tax on gasoline and diesel, traditionally funds both highway and mass transit projects. The bill’s Alternative Transportation Fund would dedicate all of this spending to highways and leave mass transit projects dependent on annual appropriations.

The House bill would link transportation investment to energy drilling revenues in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other protected or offshore areas. These highly-speculative projects would, under the best of circumstances, take several years to provide only a small fraction of the funds required to cover the expenditures outlined in the bill.

Putting Rail Projects On Hold?

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-3), who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the bill “significantly reduces funding for rail programs, including cutting Amtrak by $308 million. And it cuts a funding program for projects of national significance such as the CREATE rail modernization program, which is reducing congestion in northeastern Illinois.”

CREATE is the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, a public-private partnership dedicated to eliminating rail congestion that can delay all modes of travel. On Chicago’s South Side, the Englewood Flyover will allow Metra passenger and freight trains to move through the area without conflict. The project, which received $126 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will also accommodate future construction of a 110 mile-per-hour passenger service from Chicago to St. Louis and Detroit. The House bill would imperil the Englewood Flyover and dozens of other similar projects.

Jennifer Henry of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that the bill would mean a loss of $450 million per year in the Chicago region. A loss of federal funds for Regional Transportation Authority capital projects would force cuts to maintenance and expansion budgets and worsen existing slow zones for Metra, PACE, and the CTA. “Making buses and trains run cleaner, modernizing the CTA, extending the Red Line: any of these projects would be hard to get off the ground without federal funds,” said Henry.

Stopping Pedestrians In Their Tracks, Adding To Congestion

The bill also eliminates the Safe Routes to School program that promotes walking and biking opportunities for children, while reducing traffic and air pollution near schools. The Illinois Department of Transportation administers the program for this state, and shows a record of success statewide. The House Transportation Committee voted down an amendment co-sponsored by Lipinksi and Rep. Tim Johnson (R-15) that would have restored funding for Safe Routes for School and other cyclist and pedestrian programs. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-12) voted for and Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-14) voted against the amendment, which was defeated 29-27.

The GOP bill stems from the idea that more and bigger highways will solve traffic congestion problems. Chicago has been ranked the nation’s most congested city in recent years. In 2009, the average driver spent 70 hours stuck in traffic at a cost of $1,738. Traffic congestion, however, would be considerably worse without the region’s network of trains, buses, and bicycle lanes. More road construction and reduced transit service will only lengthen commutes and frustrate commuters.

A federal transportation policy of “drill and drive”, as a chorus of critics call the GOP bill,  undermines the principles of smart growth. Compact, walkable, and bike-friendly communities built around reliable mass transit are the cornerstone of creating sustainable urban and suburban areas.

The Environmental Impact

“The bill,” says Henry, “has very little good from an environmental perspective. It means that more people drive and cannot live without a car, and makes cities unworkable. In the long term, it’s hard to make smart growth communities without transit. You impact land, air, and water as you develop land around the car and as people move farther from the urban center.”

Supporters of the bill claim it will reduce red tape and give the states more control over their infrastructure needs. A key provision would give states the authority to create more tollways, increase private sector investment, and avoid federal environmental impact studies. This “streamlined” environmental review process is meant to eliminate delays that prevent necessary upgrades to the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure. A 2000 study by the Federal Highway Administration, however, found that for 89 long-delayed major projects, just 19 percent resulted from environmental reviews.

Support for the highly partisan bill continues to erode, and at least three Republican representatives from the Chicago area have expressed skepticism or disapproval. Yesterday, a bipartisan group of Illinois legislators voiced their concerns with the House Transportation bill, offering some preferred ideas for the controversial piece of legislation. Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin says House Republicans should abandon their controversial transportation bill and start over, considering the slim likelihood that it will pass with such a lack of support. Even if the House manages to pass this bill, it’s highly unlikely that the Senate will do the same. The Obama Administration supports a bipartisan Senate bill that passed the Finance Committee on February 2 and could go to a full vote next week. Sen. Durbin is also in support of the bipartisan Senate bill.


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