One of the most carefully negotiated provisions of the Senate highway bill involves "transportation enhancements," a program that provides government funding to help states "expand transportation choices and enhance the transportation experience," according to the Transportation Department. Transportation enhancements are most closely associated with bike paths or pedestrian facilities, but they can also include outdoor advertising management, archaeological planning, or environmental mitigation like cleaning up water from highway runoffs.
Conservatives dislike this program (OK, they hate it) because the projects do not "improve infrastructure condition or meaningfully reduce congestion," according to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla. By contrast, the transportation enhancement program is important to Democrats like Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who insist that preserving alternative traveling options is a core part of the highway program.
The Senate bill would give states the option to use transportation enhancement money for other activities like saving endangered species or preserving wetlands. Beyond that, the contours of the compromise are so complicated that I frankly can't tell what states would be allowed to do or who came out on top in the negotiations. Suffice it to say that the transportation enhancement funding is still in the bill, but states would be given more options about how to use it if that language remains unchanged in the House/Senate conference committee.
Chances are that this kind of carefully crafted deal won't be unraveled by the negotiators who are trying to hammer out a much larger highway bill before the year runs out. But it isn't law yet, which means everyone who cares about alternative transportation, or about options for states, needs to keep an eye on the talks.
What is the value of the transportation enhancement program, if any? Is it really such a big deal? Are there common misconceptions about it? Is it too simplistic to call it the "bike path" money? Is the Senate compromise on satisfactory? What should we know about it that hasn't already been said? Should the program be eliminated? Should it be strengthened?