The Federal Transportation Bill and New York

A cyclist cruises down a New York City bike lane. Both houses of Congress passed a new transportation bill on Friday, which, according to the organization America Bikes, could reduce bike and pedestrian funding by 60 to 70 percent. Flickr/CarlosPache

On Friday afternoon, just one day before the federal transportation funding was set to run out, both houses of Congress passed a new bill that will maintain $127 billion in transportation funding for the next 27 months.

The final the bill does not contain the most controversial elements that were originally included in the version presented by the House — Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood called that bill “the worst” he’d seen in 35 years — and will protect some 2.9 million jobs in the short-term.

“Though the bill lacks significant reforms, it does avoid the extreme cuts supported by some in the House. Thanks in large part to members of New York’s delegation, Congress successfully defeated proposals to cut all dedicated funding for public transportation, walking and cycling projects. We thank them for their hard work,” said Steven Higashide of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Opinions on the bill generally seem to be on a sliding scale somewhere between the New York Times‘ “no one pretends that the new bill will provide solid long-term footing for the transportation system” and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy‘s “a step backwards for America’s transportation system.” In New York State, where the bill provides funding for major transportation infrastructure projects, but also reduces funding for urban pedestrian projects and cycling, the bill has received a particularly strong mixture of reactions.

For the next two years at least, the bill provides stability for major public infrastructure projects and public transit, like the Tappan Zee Bridge and Second Avenue subway line.

Construction on the Second Avenue Subway line. Although the original House version of the bill would have threatened funding for long-term transit infrastructure like the Second Ave. project, the final version restored funding at least for the next two years. Photo courtesy of the MTA

Funding for transit, which was seriously threatened under the House bill, will stay level. Although a plan to give transit systems more autonomy in how they use capital funds was abandoned, the bill introduced a new pilot program, “New Starts,” that might quicken the process of funding new projects. But to the dismay of many a subway commuter, the bill does not beef up the commuter tax benefit. Currently, drivers are able to deduct $240 a month in taxes for parking, while transit riders can only deduct $125.

“It’s a bitter disappointment that the commuter benefit won’t be restored. While New York does avoid cuts, funding isn’t keeping pace with ridership increases. Washington’s provided some help for transit riders, but the city and state will need to step up,” said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney and spokesperson for NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign.

A spokesperson for the MTA deferred a request for comment to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

In a press release, Cuomo focused on the bill’s enhancement of the TIFIA loan program from $122 million to $1 billion. TIFIA loans come out of a large pool of public funds used to finance large infrastructure projects, like the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

“New York is in a group of projects that received strong ratings on their applications for TIFIA funding, which was dramatically increased in this legislation. Businesses and communities around the state need long-term stable infrastructure investment to sustain jobs and support economic recovery,” said Cuomo.

But that long-term part is what many critics of the bill are concerned about.

“This is a step backwards,” said James Corless, director of Transportation for America.

Many transportation advocates like Corless believe the United States is in serious need of sweeping transportation reforms, the likes of which has not been seen since President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. A major problem, the reformers maintain, is that gasoline taxes have traditionally funded the vast majority of highway construction and repairs. But the federal taxes haven’t increased since 1993, and in recent years a growing number of Americans have begun driving fuel efficient cars or given up driving altogether. The result is that gasoline taxes can no longer cover the cost of highway projects, so more federal transportation funds must be spent on highways instead of being spent on other purposes.

Other reformers, like James Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation, a transportation think tank, lambasted the bill for failing to restructure funding distribution in a way that rewards states that create innovative solutions to transportation issues.

“If Congress doesn’t have earmarks, they sure as hell aren’t going to give the president the chance to have discretionary grant authority,” Shank told Streetsblog.

Hundreds of New Yorkers are killed and thousands injured while walking and cycling each year — and this bill won’t send much help. New York City must continue to lead, and the state must continue to provide this needed safety funding.

While opinions are mixed, most public transportation, infrastructure and highway stakeholders are breathing a sigh of relief. The same can’t be said for pedestrian and cycling advocates, who have come out most strongly against the legislation. The bill cut the “Transportation Enhancements” program, used to support the many of the pedestrian and cycling projects that have cropped up in cities in recent years, including New York City’s bicycle lanes.

Instead, the bill created a “Transportation Alternatives” program, which the organization Bike America says might cut funding for these projects by 60 to 70 percent. While local communities will receive half of the federal funds to use on pedestrian and cycling improvements, the other half will go to states, who won’t be required to use the funds toward those same ends.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan), who came down hard against the original House bill, lamented the cuts in a press release.

“Despite the bipartisan support for transportation enhancements, the conference report lowers the overall amount of funding for these projects by several hundred million, and expands the ability for states to use this funding for other purposes, including for projects already eligible under other highway programs,” wrote Nadler.

Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives [the New York-based advocacy organization, not the federal program], called on the city and state to make up for the federal cuts.

“Hundreds of New Yorkers are killed and thousands injured while walking and cycling each year — and this bill won’t send much help. New York City must continue to lead, and the state must continue to provide this needed safety funding.”

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