Surface Transportation Bill Finally Passes. So, What's In It?

July 2, 2012

After a long, grueling slog through both houses of Congress, the highly anticipated, two-year surface transportation bill has finally passed. But now that it's been hacked to shreds by the House and the Senate, then stitched back together in joint committee, what, exactly, is in it?

Hard to say, really. The original bills were hundreds of pages long and pretty convoluted. In fact, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the House version "the worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service".

Late last week, the joint committee released a summary of the final bill -- now dubbed the "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century" bill, which is only marginally catchier than its original name, the "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users" bill. The explanatory statement clocks in at 91 pages (PDF), and the bill itself is just under 600 (PDF).

Translation: there's a lot in there. Here are the high points, as we see them.

WHAT SURVIVED

Highway funding: Though there don't appear to be any huge increases for highway improvements, interstates will continue to be repaired and maintained for the next two years. Since the previous surface transportation bill expired in 2009 -- extended for a few months here and there by temporary measures -- this is a major gain, allowing departments to plan for at least 24 months of continued activity. 

Higher fines for slow recalls: Automakers may now be subject to fines of up to $35 million if they fail to recall vehicles in a timely manner.

Focus on new technology (and distracted driving): Among other things, the bill creates a "Council for Vehicle Electronics, Vehicle Software, and Emerging Technologies" -- an industry group that will incorporate "NHTSA’s expertise in passenger motor vehicle electronics and other new and emerging technologies". (NB: This should sound familiar.)

Research on impaired driving: A portion of the research and development money allocated to the Department of Transportation is to be focused on finding new ways to end impaired driving. 

Graduated licenses for young drivers: While it appears that graduated licencing has cut the number of teens on the road, some have argued that this only delays accidents among inexperienced drivers. However, the surface transportation bill provides money to encourage states to adopt graduated licensing systems. 

Improved public transportation: The final transportation bill creates incentives for corporations, nonprofits, and others to find ways to make public transportation safer and more efficient. 

Gulf coast restoration: Spurred by the BP oil spill of 2010, the bill creates the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund, where 80% of BP's fines will be funneled to cleaning and rebuilding natural habitats destroyed by the disaster.

WHAT DIDN'T MAKE THE CUT

An increase in the gas tax: Since 1993, the federal tax on gasoline has rested comfortably at 18.4 cents per gallon -- and it'll stay there for another two years (at least). That tax alone isn't enough to pay for transportation needs, and as we continue to travel less and drive more fuel-efficient cars, the revenue generated by the tax may actually decrease.

Brake overrides and black box recorders: Though both were initially mandated in the Senate version of the transportation bill, it appears that the conference committee cut them.

Alternative transportation: While the final version of the surface transportation bill didn't eliminate funds for biking and other forms of alternative transport, those programs did take fairly serious cuts.

UNKNOWN

Rental car repair: We don't know the fate of the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2011, which was included in the Senate version of the surface transportation bill and was a key element for Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The Act would've required rental companies to repair recalled vehicles immediately before renting or selling them -- something that chafed outfits like Enterprise and Avis. There's no mention of the Houck Act in the final transportation bill, but it may live on elsewhere. 

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