The Federal Transportation Bill (TAP) recently passed through the legislative maze of politics as usual in Washington, DC.
But before that, I received an email from Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks, a national transportation advocacy organization. The email urged me to contact my elected officials to voice my support for the Transportation Alternatives Program, a minor player (fiscally speaking) in the six-year transportation funding budget that was then under review on Capitol Hill. The email stated, among other things, that a senator from Utah (Mike Lee) had introduced an amendment to eliminate TAP funding altogether. I donned my investigative reporter hat and tried to figure it all out.
While the TAP program represents a meager 1.5 percent of the overall transportation budget, its impact is huge for transportation funding in the areas of pedestrian and bicycle safety initiatives and provides substantive support for many of the grassroots advocacy groups that work to safeguard our rights to share the road with automobiles. So I was quite simply perplexed when I learned that the junior senator from Utah wanted to nix the program. Ultimately, Lee’s efforts were unsuccessful, but this is no longer the point. The point now is all about me. I spent several hours trying to find, absorb, understand and disseminate the information to my readers. That is the story I want to tell.
I am reminded of the little cartoon “Bill” from the Saturday morning cartoons (back when Saturday morning was the only time one could watch cartoons). Well, it’s not that simple. It’s more like “The Matrix,” or your thesis adviser on a meth bender!
The Mobius loop of bills and laws and amendments that I waded through to get to the then all-important question of why the junior senator hated pedestrians and cyclists began, of course, with his seven-word amendment, SA 2280, which was itself an amendment to an amendment, SA 2266, which was an amendment to HR 22, the underlying vehicle of the transportation bill. HR 22, naturally, has to do with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Veterans, and the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 — makes perfect sense, right?
The portion of HR 22 that has to do with transportation refers back to Section 213 of Title 23 of the United States Code (or, the law of the land, as near as I can figure). Section 11014 of that section of that title is the little bit that refers directly to TAP. Only slightly daunted, I pushed on.
In my research I also found a bill, HR 2609, submitted by Republican Sen. Sam Johnson of Texas that also sought to repeal TAP. His bill was euphemistically titled the “Right of Way for American Drivers Act of 2015,” the implication apparently being that pedestrians and cyclists have impeded on drivers’ right of way by tapping into 1.5 percent of the overall transportation budget to help ensure their right to share the road.
I briefly mused over the possible connections between the junior senator from Utah and the seasoned Texan, but had to lay that line of reasoning aside, along with the unanswered question of what any of this has to do with veterans’ medical benefits and the IRS. The title of SA 2266 was no less muse worthy: “Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act,” or the DRIVE act. This offering from the senior Republican senator from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, was my undoing.
I tried to copy and paste the entire document from the congressional record into a searchable word document. It turned out to be 900 pages, give or take. If you’ve ever tried to copy and paste a 900-page document, you will understand my Matrix reference. I felt a bit like Cypher, watching the code run incessantly up the screen. Instead of blonds and redheads, I saw semi-colons and the word “strike” along with various transportation terms. The exercise left me with more questions than answers and a budding case of carpal tunnel syndrome.
What did become clear is that the word “strike” is synonymous with “delete,” and, if left unchecked, leads to whole programs just disappearing. And that is exactly why we need grassroots advocacy programs like America Walks watching for the glitches in the Matrix of government spending.
In the end, I received a copy of an email from Wendy Alfsen, executive director of California Walks, which made it all make sense. The email was from Kevin Mills, the senior vice president of policy for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. According to Mills’ email, the senate passed HR 22 with TAP funding essentially intact. The email also stated that quick action from advocacy networks led to constituency pressure to preserve TAP.
“Many congressional offices indicated that calls were pouring in pressuring senators to preserve funding for TAP,” Mills wrote. “Senate leadership did not entertain Sen. Lee’s amendments, and the TAP program was preserved.”
A follow-up phone call from Heidi Simon at America Walks led me to understand that the Senate passage is only part of the process, which brings us back full circle to “Bill, who lives on Capitol Hill.” This time, the Transportation Alternatives Program funding was preserved, but I learned that our convoluted legislative process is not nearly as simple as the Saturday morning cartoon “Bill” suggests.