Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad House Transportation Bill? (UPDATED)

The US House recently unveiled their proposed Transportation Bill. And it’s horrible in pretty much every way: It gives the shaft to pretty much any mode of transport that doesn’t have an exhaust pipe; and proposes to pay for it all with a big heavy dose of drill baby, drill. It’s been roundly criticized by lots of folks–here’s Congressman Blumenauer’s take. Here’s another attack against the bill. Reams of apocalyptic articles have been written about the thing.

The criticisms of this bill are all on-point, except for one thing. It’s not going to pass. Oh, it will likely pass the House. But it’s not likely to become law.

Like much coming out of the US House this past Congress, its not designed to pass. It’s a political statement by Tea Party conservatives, hoping to run on an anti-environmental platform. It’s campaign fodder. If you like, it’s part of the extended temper tantrum we’ve seen from the House in the past year.

But what it isn’t–is a serious proposal. The Senate isn’t going to pass such a transparently partisan bill. President Obama would likely veto it in a heartbeat should it reach his desk.

What transportation bill is going to pass? Likely, none. Instead the existing transpo bill, which expires on March 31, may be re-extended, meaning infrastructure development will limp along. (That’s assuming the House doesn’t try and take the straightforward extension hostage, a tactic which wouldn’t surprise me).

There is a proposed amendment to the bill that makes it less terrible, and may get some support from the majority party in the House (Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler from SW Washington might get involved); but whether or not this amendment will succeed (and if it does, make the bill acceptable to Democrats) is another question.

Portland Transport, as a non-profit entity, can’t make recommendations on races for elected office. And as a practical matter, other Congresswoman Beutler, the congressional delegation from the Portland metro area is not behind this bill. But we are able to raise issues like this one, and remind readers that if you want support for good quality active transportation, you need to demand it from your elected officials. And for those officials who refuse, you all know what to do.


The amendment in question, which would restore funding to the Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes programs, has failed in committee, 27-29. Congresswoman Beutler voted against.

20 responses to “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad House Transportation Bill? (UPDATED)”

  1. Were this bill to pass, which it won’t, it wouldn’t be good for any mode of transport other than cars and trucks.

    And I’m decidedly not of the opinion that what is bad news for bus is good news for light rail–I consider them to be complementary parts of a transit system, not competing modes in some zero-sum game for funding. In a healthy transport network both rapid transit and local service are needed. Bus, rail, I’m not too particular; though given the amount of ridership MAX gets (and the nature of its right-of-way), rail was probably a good choice. (Which is not to say that BRT might not be a better choice elsewhere).

    I don’t think there’s anyone here at Portland Transport who is “anti-bus”, other than the occasional right-wing commenter who is anti-transit altogether.

  2. Well I wasn’t implying that anybody here was ‘anti bus’, I was just stating that cuts in bus service is actually good for rail.

    I know a lot of people that had to move on to rail lines after their bus service got cut.

    It was meant to be sarcastic not literal Scott!

  3. FUTHERMORE, the federal government has shown over and over that it cares not for transit riding public, and that was evident BEFORE the whacko party took over the house of representatives.

    I do believe that DEMOCRATS had both the senate and the house, as well as the office of the PRESIDENT, and what came out of that?

    Nothing that I can remember.

    Oh yea, Obama care, which sent insurance industry stocks to 52 week highs. (you know its bad for people when its good for the stock price)

  4. I don’t consider cuts to bus service to be “good for rail”. Even if one were to assume that every dollar removed from bus service went to fund rail, naively doing that would damage the overall value of the network. You need local busses to reach the neighborhoods where more significant capital investment is inefficient, you need mass transit to efficiently move the large volumes of people that a quality transit system will attract.

    If your goal is just to provide basic transit service for the poor, then you probably don’t need rapid transit. If your goal is to provide service to a broader segment of the population, then rapid transit becomes a need.

    Apparently, the House bill now has language which takes additional whacks at transit:


    Also, the article shouldn’t be construed as a whole-hearted endorsement of the Democratic party, who (as you note) spend a lot of time pandering to the same interests that the GOP likes to pander to. (One reason that there hasn’t been a new transportation bill, even during the prior Congress, was lack of support among conservative Dems, plus use of the filibuster). OTOH, the current bill is best understood as a giant raised middle finger to the nation’s cities.

  5. Interestingly, the staunchly-conservative blog RedState is opposing the House transportation bill as well (or at least RedState contributor Daniel Horowitz is opposed). Not because he likes (or doesn’t like) the mix of spending priorities, but because he wants to see Uncle Sam out of the transportation business: Horowitz’s proposal is to end the federal excise tax on gasoline (which funds the Highway Trust Fund), and likewise wind down federal funding of local transportation projects–permitting states and local governments to raise their own money for their own infrastructure.

    Such a proposal might be beneficial to active transportation in Oregon, if one of two things happened:

    1) State excise taxes on fuel were raised to compensate for the elimination of the federal tax, and the current law requiring the excise tax on fuel to only be used for road projects were relaxed; or

    2) Some other tax, not encumbered by state law, were raised instead.

    Of course, the argument for devolving decisions on transport infrastructure from Uncle Sam to the states, could be extended to local government as well–with ODOT limited to building regional transportation links such as highways, and cities, counties, and MPOs having powers to build whatever local infrastructure suits them.

  6. Jeez, touchy touchy Scott, I agree, the whole thing sucks, but the facts are clear:

    Most Americans drive, they don’t use transit!

    Which of course is not good for pro transit activists, of which I consider myself one.

    So if you look at it from the point of view of ordinary every day Americans, they want roads!

    And that is what the house is giving them.

    Hell I want roads too! I am sick and tired of sitting in traffic jams for what seems like hours.

    They opened up the third lane of HWY 26 and boy does that make a difference.

    So I am just saying, it depends on your point of view.

  7. Most Americans drive, they don’t use transit!

    A statement which is far less true of the younger generation, than it is of us old farts. :)

    And I don’t think anybody’s suggesting a bill that would eliminate funding for roads, and only build transit, bike, or pedestrian infrastructure. Even if SOV traffic were greatly reduced, we still need to have a way for trucks, busses, emergency vehicles, carpools, and other motorized tire-on-pavement vehicles to get around.

    But adding highway capacity generally doesn’t improve congestion much. Eliminating bottlenecks can help quite a bit–the widening of US26 between Sylvan and 185th (and the improvement of connecting ramps, particularly to OR217 and Canyon Road) has helped, but two things conspire against you the wider you make the roads:

    1) Beyond 6-8 lanes of freeway, diminishing returns takes effect, as the chances of an incident-caused traffic jam increase with the additional traffic, and at wider footprints, lane navigation becomes a bigger and bigger problem. (One thing I like about Portland’s freeways is they DON’T have the massive networks of collector/distributor ramps typically found in other cities).

    2) Induced demand comes and smacks you on the bottom: More capacity attracts more cars.

    Of course, #2 works for transit as well–provide more and better transit, and more people will consider using it. Provide one slow bus and hour, and the only people who will use it will be those with no other choice.

  8. I mean really, why is anybody surprised that the government is dysfunctional?

    It’s been that way for a long long time.

    The money that was in the transit pot wasn’t helping people get to work was it?

    Billions of dollars were being (and still are) handed out to transit districts for everything except preserving transit!

    So in a sense, who cares, nothing the federal government puts its hands on is helpful to the population as a whole anyway.

    Who cares what dumb thing the FED’s come up with, I’m sure the money will go down the drain no matter what.


    Cars are going to be a way of life in America until the day there is no more gas available for them.

    The only place in America were more than half of commutes take transit is NYC!

    The rest of the country COULDN’T CARE LESS!

  10. Meanwhile, the US Senate is working on a reasonable transportation bill that has widespread bipartisan support. Of particular interest, the Senate bill changes the longstanding federal policy that Uncle Sam’s money can only be spent on capital costs, not operations. Operating grants, especially during recessions (which reduce revenues from local sources), seem like a no-brainer to me.

    Of course, the Senate bill is likely dead in the House, as the lower chamber seems to be more interested in waging cultural war against hippies, libruls, and the fake Americans who infest the nations cities, than they are in governing the country, but c’est la vie.

    (My use of French there is intentional.)

  11. “”””Meanwhile, the US Senate is working on a reasonable transportation bill that has widespread bipartisan support. Of particular interest, the Senate bill changes the longstanding federal policy that Uncle Sam’s money can only be spent on capital costs, not operations. Operating grants, especially during recessions (which reduce revenues from local sources), seem like a no-brainer to me.””””

    Too little too late Scott, they missed the boat, as usual.

    I know I know I am chirping like some sort of wild eyed conservative BUT THERE IS TRUTH TO THE CONSERVATIVE ARGUMENT.

    Y’all know it’s true, I look at the state of Transit in the USA right now and can say unequivocally that THE GOVERNMENT(S) HAS FAILED THE PEOPLE THAT NEED TRANSIT THE MOST!

    Now try to read this article with an open mind and don’t just freak out because it is from a place that sends chills up the spine.

    I do NOT agree with various points in this article, but there are many truths within it also:

    Transportation Program: Reauthorization Another Big Spending Problem

  12. Al,

    It almost sounds like you would prefer no federal funding for transit at all, as that would prevent transit agencies from building things like light rail. If that’s the case, be careful what you wish for…

    At any rate, both houses are probably playing a little bit of political theater. The Senate GOP probably would be not be supporting the reasonable bill (especially by wide margins) if it stood a chance of passing in the House. Two years ago it was the Senate which was the primary impediment to legislation, with Republicans (and some Democrats) tossing the occasional spanner into the works. But even if too late, assistance with operating grants would be helpful.

    As to the merit of conservative arguments regarding the failure of government–if you think government has failed, it’s a good practice to ask why. I can assure you that you won’t like the answer you’ll get from conservatives (who will doubtless blame you and your comrades for insisting on a decent wage; and ignore the starve-the-beast politics that have been going on for a generation). Many failures of government are because it’s been set up to fail, by folks who want it to fail–either because they don’t like paying for services which benefit someone else, or else because they want a piece of the action.

  13. Scott, I prefer transit funding for actual transit that people need!

    And we are not getting that right now, as I said some of the points are worthy of thought.

    The main point I like in the article is the stuff that has been getting funded, how can you argue with that?

    Washington is a stinking mess, and that is not news!

    What I do like about the crazy conservatives, is that they are throwing the whole thing out of whack, its not business as usual.

    And if they want to “privatize” so what, as long as they start from the top down.

    See, “privatization” means only the working stiffs like me.

    All the government hot dogs get to keep their lucrative fat cat jobs with fat cat pensions.

    I sent a public records request to Trimet asking for the pension amounts for Fred Hansen et al, still waiting for a response.

    I do not consider myself a “conservative” in the sense of the tea party, but I am a “free market thinker” in the sense of Stefan Molynuex and the Daily Bell.

    We have no free market in this country right now.

    This bickering over the federal dollars is bickering over fat contracts and who will be reaping the pork.

    I can assure you whichever way it goes the transit dependent passenger will get diddly squat.

  14. Have you been paying attention at all Scott, Look in our own backyard, TRIMET.

    They are talking cutting service and raising fares,
    yet the executives are being added by the dozens

    They say “that’s all funded by the Federal government”


  15. EngineerScotty –
    I think some perspective gets lost here when it comes to federal funding. Many member of congress support local transit projects because it helps get them reelected. They have a physical project to point to when asked what they have done in Washington. But that behavior is exactly what leads to trillion-plus dollar deficits. I know people will bring up the war and other stupid things the government does but endless spending on “bring home the bacon” projects is also a major cause of deficit spending.

    Congress acts like they are spending “other people’s money”. They’re not. They are spending my money. What would happen if the feds stopped funding local projects and instead lowered taxes? Local governments could then make a decision on what projects are important, raise taxes as needed, etc… Wouldn’t this be a better system? If more light rail lines are important for Portland, then we can pay for it. If we don’t think we need it, then in exchange we get lower taxes.

    The time has come for us to stop looking at the feds as a never ending source of cash. It’s not just a Portland issue, all of the country should be looking at it like this. If we want to fix this economy, the behavior in washington needs to change and this starts all of us not looking to Washington as an endless bank account.

  16. I think the major problem here is that no one wants to discuss the elephant in the room: gas tax increases. We haven’t increased the Federal gas tax in roughly two decades, not even for inflation. The trust fund is going bankrupt. The Democrat’s solution is more deficit spending, the Republican’s solution is the elimination of programs they don’t need, but many people rely on.

    Right now, we are funding our infrastructure at 3rd world levels. The problem is not spending, the problem is revenue. These programs should stay in place, and we should continue to build infrastructure, but we can’t do it with deficit spending.

  17. Also, I tend to agree with Dave. The Republicans have become too much of a barrier to real progress in this country. We’re going to have to give up on modernizing and greening the conservative states. Conservative states generally take more in Federal funding than they give back, so most liberal states would be better of if they funded their own infrastructure. If ODOT needs $4 billion for the CRC, they can raise the gas tax and start saving.

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