“On March 31, if we don’t act on this transportation bill, everything will come to a screeching halt,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer
(D-Calif.). “We are very close to the day when everything will stop.”
The Senate bill boils down the number of federal transportation programs from about 90 to fewer than 30, gives states money for projects that ease congestion and air pollution, increases highway safety funding, cuts red tape that delays projects, and expands a federal program that provides loans and loan guarantees to encourage private investment.
It also mandates for the first time that federal safety standards be set for transit systems, regulation that has been pressed for by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) since the 2009 Metrorail crash in which nine people died.
“We have federal safety standards for planes, trains and automobiles. We need them for transit systems like Washington’s Metro,” Mikulski said. “I will keep pushing forward on reforming Metro until it’s safe for the people who work on it and the people who ride on it.”
Maryland’s other senator, Benjamin L. Cardin (D), played a central role in protecting funding for popular bike and pedestrian programs. Joining with Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Cardin crafted a successful amendment that created a competitive grant program for those projects, with the winners to be selected on the city and local level.
Although the massive bill reshapes federal transportation programs and priorities, it does not resolve the most pressing federal transportation issue: how to meet the financial demands of replacing systems nationwide that are reaching the end of their life spans.
The $109 billion Senate bill bridges a funding gap by raising almost $10 billion with several moves that critics have denounced as gimmicks. One would transfer $3.7 billion from a trust fund established to pay for damage caused by leaking underground storage tanks. An additional almost $2.8 billion would be raised by ending a tax credit for paper manufacturers, and hundreds of millions more are projected to roll in by pursuing delinquent taxpayers.
“Recent declines in gas tax collections, and Congress’s desire to spend more than what will be collected, has led them to poach additional sources of revenue,” said Ryan Alexander, president of the nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense. “The Senate bill uses budget gimmicks.”