Paving the Future of Transportation Policy: What Congress Smoothed Over, and Where the Potholes Remain

By Catherine Singley, Senior Policy Analyst, Economic and Employment Policy Project

Like all Americans, Latino voters place jobs and the economy at the top of their list of concerns this year. The transportation sector alone directly employs more than one million Latinos. That’s why NCLR was pleased that Congress reauthorized comprehensive surface transportation policy on June 30, just hours before the current extension of transportation policy was set to expire. The legislation, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, was signed by President Obama on July 6 and will be active until September 2014.
While the effect of the reauthorization on the economy will be positive, it will likely be a bumpy road for the next two years. Here’s why.

NCLR identified four policy priorities for Latinos in transportation reauthorization:

  • Improve job opportunities for Latinos in the transportation sector
  • Ensure authentic community involvement in local transportation planning and decision-making
  • Defend public transportation as a vital lifeline
  • Promote safety for pedestrians and bikers.

By these measures, the final legislation is bittersweet. While preserving some of the positives from the carefully-crafted Senate bill passed in bipartisan fashion in March, the law still contains “potholes” that could imperil Latinos and other communities of color.

First, the final bill includes funding for bike and pedestrian projects, but lawmakers left the decision about how to spend these funds up to the states. In other words, states and local areas could divert money from the construction of a desperately-needed pedestrian bridge to construct a new highway onramp.

A second NCLR priority, transportation enhancements, or Safe Routes to School, was cut completely in the compromise. This is disappointing, since we know that minority and low-income communities rely the most heavily on safe biking and walking routes, and account for the majority of pedestrian deaths.

Finally, NCLR is concerned that the new law could undermine public participation in the transportation planning process, which all too often excludes voices from the populations most directly affected by transportation decisions: minorities, low-income communities, and people with disabilities. Policymakers adjusted the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, to speed up some aspects of transportation planning, at the risk of bypassing vulnerable communities altogether. While not as extreme as some of the environmental “steamrolling” proposals that cropped up earlier in the debate, the language in the final bill sets a negative precedent for democratic participation in local decision-making.

Two years is welcome for a sluggish economy but a blink of an eye for policymaking. NCLR is committed to monitoring implementation of transportation reauthorization and helping to pave the way for strong legislation in 2014.

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