By: Stephen Crim and Jackie Dadakis, Transport for NOLA
Last week, Congress finally passed a new transportation bill. For the last three years the United State was operating under extensions of a transportation bill originally passed in 2005 and which expired in 2009.
Unfortunately, unlike the progressive Senate bill proposed early this year, the final transportation bill will not help our region continue its progress in becoming a place that affords residents a variety of transportation options.
The new law reduces the level of funds available for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. New Orleans has benefited from a rapid expansion of bike lanes, and we should be proud of the complete streets ordinance passed by the New Orleans City Council in the fall. However, reductions in federal funding will make it challenging for City and State leaders move this work forward.
Also, the bill does not allow federal dollars to be used for transit operating assistance like the earlier proposed Senate bill did. For the past few decades, federal funds could only be spent on capital projects, like the Loyola Streetcar line, while states and cities have had to come up with the money to pay drivers and cover other costs that keep buses and trains running. When states and cities run short of operating money, as is increasingly the case, they have to scale back their operations cutting bus and train service or leading to fare hikes. Federal operating assistance would have alleviated some of this problem.
In our own region, the RTA will soon confront an operating short fall. At recent RTA board meetings, the staff has reported that multiple bus lines have ridership that justify more frequent service, but that there is not enough money to operate that service.
Also notable is that the new bill offers tax credits that favor automobile drivers over transit riders. Since 2009, both transit riders and drivers could take a $230 monthly tax credit for commuting expenses. Now transit riders can only take $125 while drivers get to keep $240.
Overall, the bill keeps transportation-spending levels roughly the same as they have been for years – even as the federal transportation grant programs (like TIGER) are consistently oversubscribed and our infrastructure continues to deteriorate. This situation underscores the need for states and cities to create their own sources of transportation funding.
One bright spot for the residents of Louisiana is that two of our representatives, Sen. Landrieu and Rep. Richmond, supported the ultimately unsuccessful Senate bill.
In the end, it was a big bill (which also contained provisions unrelated to transportation, such as a measure that will direct 80% of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill fines towards coastal restoration), and everyone is still trying to understand its implications. Also, the bill only lasts till the fall of 2014 (in the past, transportation bills have had a six-year lifespan), so that means negotiations for a new transportation bill will begin soon.