Transportation bill wins 6-month extension


Philip Langdon

New Urban Network

“Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has relented on his push to strip Transportation Enhancement funding from the six-month surface transportation extension, clearing the way for Senate passage last night and a White House signature today,” Streetsblog reported today.

Resistance by Congressional Republicans to extending federal transportation legislation had risked laying off an estimated 80,000 workers at least temporarily. In the face of that potential blow to employment, Republican Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe helped broker a deal with Coburn to allow funding to continue for four months for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and six months for the Federal Highway Administration, the Tulsa World reported.

An extension of the transportation authorization passed the Senate 92-6, and today was headed for signature by President Oama, averting a partial shutdown of the FAA, according to the Tulsa paper.

Precisely what was agreed to by Coburn was in dispute. According to the newspaper, Sen. Inhofe said that as a condition for allowing the extension, the next transportation bill will contain a provision allowing states to avoid spending federal money on “enhancement projects” such as bike paths. “Instead, he said, states could use that money on environmental mitigation.”

Inhofe was reported to have worked out the compromise with Coburn and Senator Barbara Boxer, D-California. According to CQ Today, “Coburn said, ‘We’ve got an agreement that the next bill will be an opt-out for people on enhancements.’”

As the news circulated through Washington, however, Boxer soon suggested that the agreement was not exactly as Inhofe and Coburn had described it. As recounted by Streetsblog, Boxer said: “There’s not an opt-out. You’ll see what we did. But no, there’s no opt-out. . . . There’s still dedicated funding. It gives more flexibility to the states as to how they will use that funding… It’s flexibility for the states within the transportation enhancements program.”

Streetsblog continued:

Sen. Coburn’s staff, meanwhile, is alarmed by Boxer’s comments. With the Senate out of session for the week, Coburn is back in Oklahoma and his aides are conferring with him. “Senator Boxer made an agreement with him to include the opt-out provision,” one staffer told Streetsblog. “The fact that she went on the record saying something that is in opposition to their agreement is concerning.”

Whatever the fate of bike paths and other enhancements, some smart growth groups expressed relief. In New York State Vision Long Island issued a statement saying in part:

Strong opponents finally caved and the bill was passed with 92 “yes” votes. President Obama is expected to sign the bill later today.

Though transportation advocates are still hoping for a long-term reauthorization, the 6-month extension is a welcome announcement. The small Transportation Enhancements fund, which covers many bike and pedestrian safety projects, remains intact. This is especially encouraging in light of the 2011 House budget which made major cuts to TIGER grants, New Starts and other Smart Growth-friendly programs.

Vision Long Island went on to say:

Meanwhile, President Obama delivered his infrastructure-heavy American Jobs Act to Congress on Monday and though administration officials are optimistic, the proposal has already fallen into some messy politicization. Fortunately, the bill includes things like funding for high speed rail, Amtrak and TIGER grants, which had been cut in the 2011 House budget. $9 billion will be set aside for the Federal Transit Administration. The bill also allows some flexibility for local transit agencies to use capital funds for operating assistance, a major point that advocates have been pushing for as systems across the country struggle to stay afloat. These allocations make a big statement on the administration’s transportation priorities.