Two House committees voted on Thursday and Friday to eliminate federal funding for a program that creates bicycle and pedestrian paths for children going to school and to cut off mass transit from its major source of federal funding, the gas tax.
The House's actions, propelled by GOP leadership, could politicize the previously staid issue of infrastructure investment and put Congress' chances of passing a new surface transportation bill this year in jeopardy. House Republican leadership has touted its transportation bill as an important step in job creation.
"The leadership of the House is looking to support highways. It seems that they're not wanting to support bicycle, pedestrian or transit use," said Deb Hubsmith, director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. The decision was particularly disappointing, she said, because "one of the biggest problems facing America right now is childhood obesity."
The Safe Routes to School program cost about $202 million in its most recent year -- a drop in the bucket compared to the roughly $40 billion a year the federal government spent on highways.
It has strong supporters even in House Transportation Chair John Mica's home district in northwest Florida. Pat Northey, a Democrat on the Volusia County Council, said it recently helped build a sidewalk to a middle school in her area. Volusia has passed a resolution in support of the program.
"It is a mistake to dismantle a successful program, to uncouple it from the federal bill," Northey said. Mica has suggested that areas truly invested in building bike paths and sidewalks will take it upon themselves, but Northey said that "neither the locals or the state have the resources to add new programming to their budgets."
Hubsmith said the program, which on her website features smiling children walking down sidewalks and bicycling, has now seemingly become "an ideological issue."
The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure shot down on Thursday an amendment offered by two Republican congressmen, Tom Petri (R-Wis.) and Tim Johnson (R-Ill.), who broke ranks with their leadership and tried to restore funding for the program, along with another that supports sidewalks, rail trails and bike paths.
Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for the Transportation Committee, said the House's decision to end dedicated federal funding for such "transportation enhancements" would simply grant states more flexibility on spending highway dollars. "If a State chooses to continue to fund bike and pedestrian paths at the same level as before, localities will see little or no difference," he said in an email.
On Friday, the House Committee on Ways and Means also killed an amendment offered by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) to block another controversial move by GOP leadership to stop dedicating gas tax revenues to mass transit. The amendment failed on a 22-15 party line vote. Two Republicans later voted against the bill as a whole, but it passed the committee.
The House bill eliminates an estimated $25 billion set aside from gas tax funds over the next five years, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
Blumenauer told HuffPost that the last 24 hours were "sort of an out of body experience" for him and broke with his nearly 15 years of experience in Congress on transportation issues.
"For the last 30 years, there's been an accord, a partnership that was brokered with President Reagan and the Democrats in Congress," he said. "There wasn't going to be an annual food fight between roads and bridges and transit."
The bill's financial provisions, which would send money that would have otherwise gone to mass transit to highways and fill the gap for the former with revenue sources like offshore drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, are "fantasy land," he said. He predicted that the House bill has "no chance of passing" this year.
"I see something like this and I think, what a wasted opportunity," he said.
It wasn't just Democrats who were disappointed with the vote over mass transit. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), whose members build interstates but also oversee transit systems, expressed its opposition, as did the Amalgamated Transit Union, the AFL-CIO, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"Think about it in the major metropolitan areas," said Jack Basso, AASHTO's chief operating officer. "The highway system in many of those areas doesn't have a potential for much expansion, so the alternative is to make sure we have a vigorous transportation system that helps to mitigate that congestion."
The House's move seems designed in part to cover highway funding without raising gas tax revenues. Because of more fuel efficient cars, the Congressional Budget Office predicts the Highway Trust Fund, now running on empty, will sputter to an end by 2014.
"The House, in fairness to them," Basso said, "is faced with the same problem we are: The money is very, very tight, and they're faced with some very difficult decisions."
On the Senate side, Democrats and Republicans have avoided acrimony and difficult decisions by writing a much shorter transportation bill that would only cover the next two years. The federal surface transportation bill is set to expire March 31. If the House and Senate cannot agree on a bill, an extension of the current legislation would likely be passed instead.