Heck’s COMMUTE Act could ease JBLM congestion

House Speaker John Boehner has declared the 113th Congress done for the year.

What the Republican leader means is that the U.S. House will not pass any important legislation before representatives head home this summer to begin their November election campaigns.

We might argue the public won’t notice a difference because this Congress has accomplished so little.

But the speaker’s pronouncement won’t stop the energetic 10th District Congressman Denny Heck from trying to find a sponsor for his cleverly titled COMMUTE Act.

COMMUTE stands for Creating Opportunities for Military Members to Use Transportation Efficiently. In other words, Heck wants a new federal program to ease the flow of military funding to improve traffic around installations such as Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Since JBLM soldier and civilian worker populations ballooned in response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, traffic congestion around all base access points has grown increasingly worse. It’s particularly bad along Interstate 5, which bisects the base and carries about 80 percent of JBLM’s daily traffic.

The Department of Defense’s Defense Access Roads program is part of the problem. It’s supposed to provide money for transportation improvements, but eligible projects must compete for funding with other base infrastructure needs, such as barracks, mission facilities and maintenance buildings.

Because those other needs are greater, access road improvements progress slowly.

Heck’s COMMUTE Act would move responsibility for funding military community road improvements to another DOD department, the Office of Economic Adjustment, where it could grant transportation projects exclusively.

The bill allows public entities, such as state and local governments and transit agencies, to apply for funding to construct public transportation infrastructure. Shifting some projects to non-DOD entities, means the variety of improvements might expand to ramps, overpasses and mass transit options.

The bill authorizes the DOD to award $200 million in grants the first year and another $100 million per year for the next four years. It would require local, non-DOD entities to contribute at least a 20 percent share, creating valuable military-civilian partnerships.

So far, the COMMUTE Act exists only on a piece of paper. Heck is seeking a House Republican colleague to co-sponsor the bill, which has a reasonable chance of garnering bipartisan support.

But let’s not get carried away. Even with a Republican co-sponsor, this bill isn’t going anywhere until the 114th Congress convenes next January. Boehner has decreed it so.

Nevertheless, it’s heartening that Heck is trying to find a path toward speedier action on I-5 congestion around JBLM. Heck shows initiative. The COMMUTE Act shows promise.