After several years of unsuccessful negotiations, federal legislation that would set the stage for transportation funding through fiscal year 2009 is once again gaining some momentum. Whatever the outcome, the results will affect the nation's air, land, and water in many ways. Reporters who look beyond the countless local pork stories in the bill are likely to find local environmental stories in it also.
The legislation, called SAFETEA (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005), would update its predecessor, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which expired Sept. 30, 2003. The sixth extension of TEA-21 will expire at the end of May 2005. Another extension that would continue the old framework, while potentially increasing funding, could be approved if SAFETEA wipes out again.
In the latest legislative efforts, the House overwhelmingly passed its version of a bill, by a vote of 417-9, on March 10, 2005 (search U.S. Congress on the Internet for HR 3). The Senate is expected to continue discussing its latest version (S 732) during the week of May 9. Key senators include James Inhofe (R-OK, release) and James Jeffords (I-VT, release).
There are numerous differences between the House and Senate bills that would need to be resolved. Some of those differences show up on the Dept. of Transportation's Web site. Other basic SAFETEA information is available here; media, 202-366-4570.
As the bills stand now, there are many planning, funding, and implementation policies that could affect the environment. Transportation objectives could take even greater precedence over other considerations, such as natural resources, air quality, environmental justice, recreation, and historical site preservation; the time for citizens to challenge projects could be dramatically shortened, to six months; environmental reviews could be expedited; and funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects could continue to remain miniscule.
As a small plus, the Bush administration is arguing that funding for National Park roads should be increased to the level requested by the president. However, other language in an April 26, 2005, Statement of Administration Policy argues in favor of expedited environmental reviews, limited time frames for legal challenges, and increased priority for transportation considerations.
Overall, Environmental Defense's Michael Replogle (202-572-3321) says it would be better to keep extending TEA-21 than to accept the harmful environmental effects of the current bills: TEA-21 Reauthorization page, release, and Replogle's March 4, 2005, testimony.
The American Public Transportation Association says it probably can live with the bills if the funding is increased by about $11-13 billion, as Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Max Baucus (D-MT) are contemplating, since an adequate amount of that would go toward public transit projects (Virginia Miller, 202-496-4816).
But the Bush administration has indicated it would veto any bill that goes over the $283.9 billion in the administration's proposed budget and in the House and current Senate bills.
See the TipSheet of May 28, 2003, for additional information, including a link to selected federal transportation spending in your state.