CHN: Transportation Reauthorization Bill Moves in Senate

SAFETEA Includes Important Provisions for Low-Income People
A massive transportation bill that includes important provisions for low-income people is moving through Congress this spring. On February 12, the Senate approved S. 1072, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA) by a 76-21 vote. Several provisions in the bill will help low-income and other vulnerable populations and should be included in the final version:

* The Job Access & Reverse Commute (JARC) program, which is designed to transport low-income individuals to and from jobs and to develop transportation services for residents of urban centers and rural areas to suburban employment opportunities, must have its funding maintained if not increased.
* There must be public involvement in the transportation planning process to guarantee that the environmental guidelines are not compromised in the name of efficiency, and that there is no rescinding of environmental regulations already in place.
* Civil rights laws, such as the American with Disabilities Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, must be protected and strengthened.
* Federally funded highway projects should give states and communities the right to offer direct training and job opportunities for low-income, local residents.

The House Transportation Infrastructure Committee – the committee with jurisdiction – is expected to vote on the House version of SAFETEA (H.R. 3550) as soon as final revisions are made by Bill Thomas (R-CA), Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Thomas wants to include provisions that allow the trust fund to preserve interest on its balances, and a few other amendments that are already in the Senate version of the bill.

The current House bill includes several provisions that will help maintain and improve our public transit system. Public transportation is critical for low-income and other vulnerable populations who rely on it to get to work. The bill would:

* Retain the overall 80-20 funding ratio between roads and public transportation
* Retain the statutory federal share for New Starts projects at no more than 80 percent
* Grow programs designed to meet the needs of public transit-dependent populations, including the Job Access and Reverse Commute program and the Formula Grant Program for Elderly Individuals and Individuals with Disabilities and
§ Establish the New Freedoms Initiative, which creates incentives and requirements for greater coordination among transit programs.

Advocates say the bill still needs several improvements, including strengthening compliance with federal civil rights laws, preventing new initiatives from undermining current public transportation systems, and promoting more public involvement during the planning process.

However, key provisions that help low-income and vulnerable populations will be caught up in the larger politics. Members are divided over the size of the bill and whether it should include an increase in the gasoline tax to offset the cost. The $318 billion Senate bill passed two weeks ago drew a veto threat from the President, whose FY 05 budget proposed a smaller $256 billion. The $370 billion House bill is pitting members who want to limit all non-defense spending against those who say we need more transportation spending. The Committee may have a difficult time finding the support they need to pass the bill with its current price tag.

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