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WASHINGTON, Jan. 31 – “America needs serious transportation reform. While the recent Senate transportation bill failed to move the ball forward on needed transportation reform, today’s House bill takes big strides in the wrong direction. And by funding future spending with revenue from increased oil drilling that won’t materialize for several years, it is clear that the House bill is just a political stunt.
“We need a transportation system that uses less oil. You don’t accomplish that by making future transportation investment directly dependent on increased oil drilling. It’s like funding a quit-smoking program by lowering the smoking age to generate more revenue from cigarette taxes. The bill commits America to a worsening addiction to oil.
“While the drill-to-drive provision has attracted most attention, there are other disturbing details in the bill. For instance, the bill would nix the successful and forward thinking TIGER program, eliminate entirely some funding sources for passenger rail, and prevent other pots of funding from being used for public transit. These cuts would impede 21st century transportation projects that reduce traffic, foster economic development, and provide more transportation choices for the public.
“The short-sightedness of this bill is on full display when it comes to changes to the one program that would receive a massive funding increase. The federal program for “innovative” transportation loans (TIFIA) would be expanded more than eight-fold to $1 billion annually, and much like a parallel bill passed by the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, the House would eliminate almost all the selection criteria that currently steer limited funds to the projects that deliver the best bang for the buck. Given the backlog of private toll road projects that have applied for past TIFIA funds, coupled with new provisions in the House bill to add tolls on federal highways, the likely result would be a spate of publicly subsidized private toll roads and few TIFIA funds directed to anything else. The House bill would also eliminate a provision that currently ensures taxpayers get paid back first when private projects face bankruptcy.
“U.S.PIRG has been critical of privatized toll road deals that have failed to protect the public and will likely cost taxpayers more than public financing over the long-term. Too often these private toll road projects saddle the public with unnecessary costs while surrendering public control of our transportation infrastructure to Wall Street investors. These concerns are described in U.S. PIRG’s research report, Private Roads, Public Costs: The Facts About Toll Road Privatization and How to Protect the Public.
“Not everything in the House bill is worse than the status quo. There are some tepid moves to make states set performance goals and track the repair needs of transportation assets. If deficient bridges continue to face neglect for several years, the bill will eventually ensure slightly greater investment in states’ bridge repair programs. The bill would introduce some new performance measures, though unfortunately these are not linked to the planning process or project selection.
“The best and the worst thing about the House bill is that it is not written to ever become law. If the bill had a real funding mechanism, it would be bad transportation policy. Pretending that it will be paid for by increased drilling makes it crude political theater.”
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U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, is a non-profit, non-partisan public interest advocacy organization.
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