At $260 billion, the bill represents a 9 percent cut from the last transportation spending package, which expired in 2009. Since then, projects have been funded by short-term extensions.
So, what's not to like about a bill that Republican Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has labeled "the most partisan" and "worst transportation bill I've ever seen during 35 years of public service":
“And it also is the most anti-safety bill I have ever seen. It hollows out our No. 1 priority, which is safety, and frankly, it hollows out the guts of the transportation efforts that we’ve been about for the last three years.”What's specifically wrong with this five-year monstrosity? Here are just a few things:
• A 25 percent cut in subsidies for Amtrak, the government-owned National Railroad Passenger Corporation. The GOP has sought to derail Amtrak from the minute it came into existence 41 years ago. It was created in the first place because passenger rail service continues to be needed but private operations couldn't meet that need. Its ridership has constantly grown. Amtrak ought to be expanded and modernized, not cut back.
• End dedicated funding of mass transit with 20 percent of the revenues from the federal gasoline tax, a practice that's been going on since 1982. In 2010, the take amounted to $40 billion, with $32 billion for roads and bridges, and $8 billion for mass transit and other programs. Under HR7, mass transit in the five-year bill would be paid for by a one-time appropriation, funding source unknown. And then ... who knows? It would simply compete with other programs. That means no secure funding source for everything from light rail to bike paths. Programs like "Safe Routes to School" and various efforts to ease congestion and improve air quality could be eliminated in the competition.
• Bar funding for California's proposed high-speed rail system. Although that system has run into a number of other roadblocks and legitimate concern about cost overruns, cutting out additional federal funding for the next five years is more backward thinking.
• Cover the growing annual shortfall in gasoline tax revenue with revenue derived from royalties on wide-open drilling on additional public lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and in most off-shore areas of the Pacific and Atlantic now barred for good reasons from oil and gas exploration. Even if such drilling were allowed, an outrageously stupid idea, the projected shortfall is far more than what could be expected in government revenues.
• Weaken environmental reviews of highway projects by setting arbitrary deadlines for their completion and turning over authority of whether they should even be done to state agencies.
• Allow longer and far heavier trucks.
• Exempt some already underpaid transportation workers from the Fair Labor Standards Act, a 74-year-old law that guarantees basic worker rights. This would allow a few companies to get away without paying overtime to drivers.
The United States needs a far-sighted transportation bill. And it had one in President Obama's six-year plan introduced a year ago, with its emphasis on high-speed rail and an infrastructure bank. A key element of that transportation plan is to get off the roads-only approach favored by the backward-looking Republicans and those Democrats who would rather bring home the bacon than figure out whose pig is being cooked by this relentless myopia.
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For an alternative, see my Think Big: Transportation overhaul would save money, create jobs, cut pollution, burn less oil.