House T&I Approves Bill Repealing MPO Consolidation Rule

House T&I Approves Bill Repealing MPO Consolidation Rule

March 29, 2017  | Jeff Davis

March 29, 2017

This morning, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a bill (H.R. 1346) repealing the Obama Administration’s December 2016 rule requiring metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to consolidate across state lines. The panel also approved several other measures, including bills to recodify Coast Guard statutes and to require Congress be notified of ongoing railroad safety audits.

(ETW has covered the MPO consolidation extensively – see our original coverage of the proposed rule, not just one but two rounds of dueling pro- and con- op-eds, and our write-up of the final rule and reaction to it.)

Both T&I chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) and Highway and Transit Subcommittee chairman Sam Graves (R-MO) stated that the MPO rule exceeded what was required by law and was contrary to Congressional intent. Graves said, “Repealing this rule ensures local transportation investment decisions remain in hands of local authorities.”

T&I ranking minority member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) quoted from the final rulemaking document which said that the overwhelming majority of commenters during the public comment period on the draft rule “supported the stated purpose of the rulemaking” but “did not support the specific requirements and procedures articulated in the proposed rule because the commenters believe the rule will not strengthen coordination efforts beyond current practices.”

DeFazio then asked, “Well, why do it then?”

He also said (as did other Democrats) that he was glad the committee was repealing the rule through regular legislation instead of under the Congressional Review Act (CRA) because going the legislative route leaves DOT free to issue a “future, sensible rule” addressing MPO jurisdictional and coordination concerns.

The bill’s original sponsor, Dan Lipinski (D-IL), said that forcing Chicago’s MPO (CMAP) to comply with the rule would merge it with Indiana and Wisconsin planning organizations, creating a MPO bigger than Massachusetts and containing 11 million people. He and Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) both noted the possibility of a monster East Coast MPO stretching from Boston to down past Philadelphia. Lipinski also added that all of the organizations representing MPOs and their employees oppose the rule.

The bill was approved by the committee by voice vote and now will move to the House floor. With strong Democratic support (because of the vehement opposition to the rule by big-city MPOs as well as pretty much everyone else in the planning community) and near-unanimous Republican support (because of the specifics of the rule and general opposition to federal regulations and the general crusade against last-minute Obama Administration “midnight rules”) the bill appears certain to get the necessary two-thirds margin on the House floor under the expedited “suspension of the rules” procedure as early as next week.

However, it will be crucial for House leaders to bring to the floor the identical Senate-passed version of the bill (S. 496), which the Senate passed by unanimous consent on March 8 – not the H.R. 1346 bill approved by the committee today. If the House passes S. 496, it goes directly to President Trump’s desk for signature. If the House passes H.R. 1346, it has to go to the Senate and be passed again – and just because the Senate got the unanimous consent of all 100 Senators to pass the bill once does not mean that they will be able to get all 100 together a second time (Senators take unrelated bills hostage all the time, for all sorts of reasons).

There are plenty of precedents for a House committee to approve an original H.R. bill but then pass an identical Senate version instead on the floor to save time.

The T&I Committee also passed H.R. 1726, a bill to reorganize the Coast Guard’s authorizing laws that are currently codified in title 14, United States Code. Apparently, title 14 is a haphazard mess that has not been reorganized since the Truman Administration, and Coast Guard subcommittee chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and ranking minority member John Garamendi (D-CA) both described this bill as being primarily to reduce the frustration level of staff who have to try to find specific provisions of Coast Guard law.

The only substantive changes in the bill, according to Hunter, are a reorganization of various advisory committees, as well as an amendment to the statement of Coast Guard primary duties relating to defense readiness (sec. 202 of the bill). Hunter asked members to save any amendments for the real Coast Guard authorization bill, which will be unveiled in the coming weeks. No amendments were offered and the bill passed by voice.

The panel also approved H.R. 1093, a bill sponsored by Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) to require the Federal Railroad Administration to notify Congress (both the committees of jurisdiction, and the individual members from the affected area) whenever the FRA commences a safety audit of a commuter railroad.

Sires represents Hoboken, site of the September 2016 Jersey Transit crash that killed one person and injured over 100 more. Sires said that Jersey Transit had been repeatedly fined and forced into a long-running comprehensive audit because of safety concerns months prior to the crash, but Congress had not been told. He said that after the crash, “I was asked, ‘did you know,’ and I had no idea. I don’t think any member of Congress should be put in that position.”

Denham offered a manager’s amendment replacing the original text of the entire bill with new text worked out with FRA that clarifies several things – that the bill only applies to “comprehensive safety assessments” (the big audits ordered when there have already been other ongoing individual safety concerns) within FRA (not Federal Transit Administration) jurisdiction, and that the bill is not intended to force FRA to spend manpower producing new reports for Congress (only notification of ongoing audits and copies of reports already produced).

H.R. 1093, as amended, was approved by the committee by voice vote.

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