Recently, Congress passed and the president signed into law the extension of the payroll tax cut. The legislation’s passage stopped a tax increase on 160 million Americans and, while not a perfect bill by any stretch, it was also notable for something else it averted —another lastminute, down-to-the-wire partisan food fight over an issue we really should be able to agree on.
It would be nice if Congress could follow up on this welcome surprise and come together on another traditionally bipartisan subject — the federal transportation bill. It shouldn’t be that hard, given that transportation has long been a pretty nonpartisan issue, even in Washington. Historically, the public interest has trumped ideology in our unified effort to maintain and improve our nation’s highways and bridges, rails, and transit systems. That sense of unity and shared purpose has built our nationwide transportation system, growing our economy and creating millions of jobs along the way.
And this year’s bill does contain some examples of bipartisan progress. For example, I worked with California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa to ensure the bill guarantees critical evacuation routes in our community are constantly modernized and safe. This is critically important in an area like the Central Coast, which constantly faces earthquakes, wildfires and other natural disasters, as well as being home to a large nuclear power plant.
And Republican Don Young of Alaska and I were able to get guarantees in the bill that local transportation decisions be made by people in our community, through entities like the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, and not dictated by state or federal officials.
Unfortunately, the Republican leadership in the House larded up the rest of the bill with all kinds of extraneous provisions that do not belong in transportation legislation and are seriously threatening to derail the entire measure. For example, the legislation mandates new oil and gas drilling in the waters off the Central Coast, despite our well known, bipartisan opposition to it. And it calls for new drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a perennial hot-button issue that does little other than inject needless controversy into the bill.
It’s just not these provisions that should give us pause. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says this bill would bankrupt the Highway Trust Fund by 2016, jeopardizing critical transportation projects and American jobs. For example, the bill would cut investment in California highways by $725 million. That means it will be much harder to construct new interchanges on Highway 101 or to widen Highway 46 and Price Canyon Road in the future.
The bill would also end dedicated funding for mass transit — just as higher gasoline prices are forcing commuters to use public transportation — and end dedicated funding for other alternative transportation projects, like bike paths and sidewalks, that are helping transform cities up and down the Central Coast. I’m also disappointed that the bill needlessly undermines key environmental and safety reviews for transportation projects.
Finally, and incredibly, the bill would slash support for highway and rail system safety, including eliminating the successful Safe Routes to School program, all against the wishes of law enforcement and school parents across the country.
All these provisions have generated enormous controversy and opposition, even from some longtime transportation policy experts. None other than U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a straight shooting former Republican congressman who has been a leader in his party on transportation issues, called it “the worst transportation bill during my 35 years of public service.”
Failure to pass this transportation bill, especially if it falls victim to yet another partisan food fight, would be a real lost opportunity to put people back to work in a time of economic uncertainty.
Building roads, making our communities safe and ensuring we have a modern transportation system that gets us safely and efficiently to and from home and work should be issues that bring us together, not pull us apart.
I’m hoping that cooler heads prevail when the House returns to work, that the leadership of the House puts aside the partisanship and puts the needs of our communities first.
The Central Coast, and the entire country, deserves nothing less.
Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, represents the 24th Congressional District.