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Transportation Reauthorization Advances in Congress—Transit Advocates Aren't Happy

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted this week to advance the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021, Congress's five-year reauthorization of the federal surface transportation bill.
May 27, 2021, 9am PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Julie Clopper

The Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021 was introduced on May 22, and on May 26 passed out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The transportation reauthorization has traditionally enacted a five-year transportation spending plan for the federal government, though through much of the past decade-plus, shorter, compromise bills have frequently been all Congress could manage to put forward. The previous version of the bill, the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015, was granted an extension after expiring in 2020, for example.

This time around, the transportation reauthorization bill emerges into a political context made tenuous by the lasting influence of the previous administration as well as the ambitious reforms in infrastructure spending proposed by the current administration in the form of the American Jobs Plan.

Advocates hoping for a new approach to highway spending would curtail the car-centric status quo and aim to reduce car trips instead of inducing them are sorely disappointed. Transportation for America released a statement after the committee's approval of the bill, calling it "another highway bill that cements the broken status quo in place for decades."

"This bill attempts to solve the problems with the transportation system with small, underfunded new programs while spending way more to continue to churn out those same problems." The press release also criticizes the reauthorization for failing to embody the reforms proposed in the American Jobs Plan.

An article by Devon Lovaas, writing for the Natural Resources Defense Council, describes the reauthorization bill as failing to meet the moment. Both Lovaas and another, previous, statement by Transportation for America find good news in the reauthorization, such as, among other features, a mandate to regularly update the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), a requirement that state spend active transportation dollars on active transportation, and an increase in spending on the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP).

As for the details of the reauthorization the two resources criticize, the list starts with $220 billion allotted for traditional highway programs, specifically the National Highway Performance Program and the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program (STBG). The bill also fails to tighten safety performance measures, does not commit to a "fix-it-first" approach to capital investment, does not require resilience measures in infrastructure projects, and exempts states from measuring and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

For details on what the reauthorization would spend on rail projects, an article by Marybeth Luczak for Railway Age has the breakdown for that mode. That article calls attention to the ongoing funding of the Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Program as well as the increased spending for TAP as a component of the STBG.

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Published on Wednesday, May 26, 2021 in Transportation for America
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