Archeology, Wildlife Research Could Feel Dent From New Highway Bill

Big bill. Legislation passed by the Senate would authorize $109 billion for highways and other transit projects over the next 2 years.

U.S. Department of Transportation

Less money, more competition. That's what archeologists, wildlife biologists, and wetlands scientists who have gotten funding from a little-known transportation program will face with shrinking federal support if a massive highway bill approved by the U.S. Senate becomes law. But the bill also includes potentially hefty funding for mainstream transportation researchers.

By a 74 to 22 vote, the Senate yesterday approved the $109 billion measure, which reauthorizes government spending on major highway and transit projects for 2 years. It authorizes the government to spend up to $400 million per year on transportation research and education activities, including $70 million per year on university research centers. But the bill also reorganizes and reduces funds for a "transportation enhancements" program which has pumped more than $50 million into archeology and environmental research projects since 1992.

Last year, a number of Republican senators had proposed eliminating or scaling back the Transportation Enhancements Program (TEP), which requires states to spend 10% of certain federal transport funds on enhancement projects. Those can include 12 types of activities, including building sidewalks and bike trails, beautifying roadways, and saving historic sites or building transportation museums. States can also fund "archaeological planning & research," and "environmental mitigation," including efforts to prevent traffic from killing wildlife and to preserve wetlands.

In practice, about 2% of overall transport budgets have gone to enhancements, an amount that has totaled some $12 billion since 1992. About 75% of those funds were spent on walking and biking trails, with environmental and archaeology projects getting less than 1% each. Still, TEP money has been important to those sparsely funded fields. It has helped fund about 200 archeology projects, for example, and several hundred wildlife-related projects, including the construction of tunnels that allow animals to safely cross busy roads.

TEP critics had argued that the government could no longer afford those projects in tough economic times, but a majority of the Senate disagreed. Lawmakers did significantly restructure and shrink the program in the new Senate legislation, however, which is officially known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21).

MAP-21 calls for consolidating TEP with several other programs into an "additional activities" account, and giving states and localities a greater say in spending. It sets overall funding for the new account at $833 million, which is about $313 million less than 2010 levels. MAP-21 eliminates several categories of TEP funding—including museums—but expands the eligibility of certain types of wetlands projects. In practice, the changes mean that more candidate projects could be competing for a smaller pool of funds.

The action now moves to the House of Representatives, which has so far failed to agree on its version of the bill. One option, which some Senators are pushing, is for the House to take up the Senate bill, easing the path to final passage and signing by the president. House lawmakers are facing increasing pressure to act soon, since the current highway bill expires at the end of March.