November 4th came and went without many surprises or a great deal of excitement. Some interesting statistics as an aside: November 2014 had the lowest voter turnout in 72 years, with less than 37 percent of eligible voters casting their votes at the ballot boxes. By comparison, 61.6 percent voted in the 2008 presidential elections, and 40.9 percent turned out for the Republican wave 2010 midterm elections.
Despite low voter turnout, or perhaps as a result of it, there will be a big change coming to the Senate. After 6 years, the Senate will return to a Republican majority. Just what this means for federal policy is unclear. Traditionally, and unlike the House of Representatives, the minority in the Senate retains a great deal of power over legislation because of the ability to filibuster. Any one member can put a hold on legislation for any reason, requiring the votes of 60 senators to break the impasse. Because Republicans did not gain a 60 vote majority, it is important that they woo Democrats who are likely to reach across the aisle if they hope to gain legislative victories.
Committees with jurisdiction over federal walking and biking programs, too, will see changes. In particular, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) will now be under the leadership of Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), with Senator Boxer (D-CA) shifting to the ranking member position. Because the House and Senate were unable to come to an agreement on a long term transportation bill before the end of the year, it will likely fall to Senator Inhofe to craft our nation’s transportation policies in partnership with Senator Boxer.
The Senate EPW Committee showed a strong commitment to crafting bipartisan legislation in the 114th Congress, and Senator Inhofe is a stalwart supporter of our nation’s surface transportation infrastructure. But it remains to be seen how the Senator will address the immediate need to finance all of our nation’s transportation needs and balance his past prioritization of highway and bridge funding over bicycle and pedestrian projects. We will work to engage the Committee’s support for the Transportation Alternatives Program, which provides important funding for local transportation priorities, including Safe Routes to School, bicycling and walking projects.
In the House, Congressman Shuster will retain his leadership of the Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee. Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV), in his 19th term in the House, and Ranking Member of the T&I Committee since 2010, lost his bid for reelection and will be replaced by Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR). While we are sad to see Congressman Rahall depart his long held position, Congressman DeFazio has been a longtime supporter of walking and bicycling, and in 2012, he gave an impassioned defense of Safe Routes to School during committee consideration of the transportation reauthorization. Congressman DeFazio has shown a strong capability to work across the aisle on legislation and we are excited to see his leadership on the Committee.
New assignments have yet to be announced for the House T&I Committee, but we look forward to working with current and new members in both chambers to support Safe Routes to School as the 115th Congress shapes up. Congress will have to get moving quickly, though, as the current MAP-21 extension expires in May 2015.