Congressional Listening Tour Draws to an End in the Philadelphia Suburbs

Cross-posted with permission from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) wrapped up his nationwide tour of more than a dozen congressional districts Friday in King of Prussia, PA by listening to selected speakers from around the Greater Philadelphia region. Mica was joined by host Congressman Pat Meehan (PA-07) and Bill Shuster (PA-09) on the panel.

Reps. Mica, Meehan and Shuster at the final listening session of the T&I tour. Photo courtesy of Sarah Stuart.

Mica, who started the week in Afghanistan and Europe and the day in Scranton, PA, opened the session by stating that he wants to the next federal transportation bill to make proper choices about building infrastructure and the nation’s economy. He also said that he was done with extensions and was going to start drafting a bill in April. That bill, he said, will add in a rail component and identify where red tape could be cut.

The theme of the session was “how to do more with less.” That phrase was uttered over a dozen times throughout the two hours by members of Congress and the speakers. Mica stated unequivocally that the gas tax was not going to get raised, explaining, “It’s not just my position; it’s just not going to happen in the reality in which I live.” He stated that the goal was to find ways to raise revenue without raising taxes. But, to start, he asked the speakers directly, “What do you want changed?”

P3s, or public-private partnerships, were a hot topic. State Senator John Rafferty (44th District), who chairs the Pennsylvania Senate Transportation Committee, spoke about his legislation to create more of these partnerships to raise revenue for transportation projects. Rafferty said states need more flexibility from the feds to toll. He was quick to say that the state needed $20-60 billion to maintain the existing transportation system but that P3s could help supplement.

Cecile Charlton of the Delaware County Transportation Management Association and Rob Henry of the Greater Valley Forge TMA said they already do more with less and work hard to promote all modes of transportation, especially SEPTA, the region’s transit agency. Given the growth of jobs and housing in the counties, having a strong transit system is critical, and Ms. Charlton urged the committee to include public transit as an important piece of the new bill.

The Bicycle Coalition handed out bike pins, which more than a dozen audience members -- and Rep. Meehan -- wore throughout the session. Photo courtesy of Sarah Stuart.

Henry was asked how P3s would work on a smaller scale. He answered that it’s done already through Business Improvement Districts, shuttle systems, and rail extensions to the far reaches of the Philadelphia suburbs.

Henry also echoed Ms. Charlton’s words, saying they strive to be multi-modal, to promote cycling and to encourage employers be more involved and integrated in the transportation discussion. Charlton and Henry deserve a shout-out for being the most multi-modal-oriented in their remarks among all of the speakers.

Barry Seymour of Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission reminded committee members that that not only was Valley Forge the first home of the nation, it was home to the country’s first traffic jam. Seymour made three points: that 1) regional planning works, 2) the biggest constraint is funding; only 2/3 is available to meet basic needs and 3) state and localities need more ways to raise funds to supplement federal funding. “Our challenge is to maintain what we have.”

Bob Latham of the Keystone Transportation Funding Coalition asked Chairman Mica to set a national vision for transportation in the context of no gas tax. He said that there is a need to marry transportation policy with the nation’s energy policy of becoming less dependent on foreign oil.

Other speakers spoke about how technology could help improve best practices and reduce project delivery times; that more metrics are needed and how P3s would work, but that government funding is still needed.

Rep. Meehan asked the speakers about what exactly governors and mayors need to make public private partnerships work. Sen. Rafferty asked for more flexibility to toll; for the feds “to loosen the leash.”

Sen. Rafferty then expounded on his support for decking the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) and said that many would pay a $5 toll to get “quickly” into Center City Philadelphia. Mica responded that he had a problem with tolling existing roadways: “Then we no longer have free highways.” He supports tolling only for new expansions.

Chairman Mica took public comments for a few minutes before closing the session, providing an opportunity for Breen Goodwin and myself of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia to explain that bicycling and walking funding needed to be part of the federal transportation discussion, that it accounts for only 1.2% of the federal transportation budget and shouldn’t be cut, and that federal transportation spending on biking and walking is cost effective and leverages other state and private dollars. (Go to the @bcgp Twitter feed to see the tweets made by John Boyle during the session. #T&Isession)

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia organized supporters to attend the session and supplied them with bike and ped pins. Rep. Meehan gladly accepted a bike pin at the beginning and wore it throughout the session. He recalled that Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) wears one regularly. Meehan and his office have met three times with the Bicycle Coalition in the past several weeks to discuss Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School — two primary funding pots for bike and pedestrian projects — and about the potential for a multi-use trail through his district that would link up Valley Forge Historic Park to the John Heinz Refuge. His willingness to listen and talk about the importance of trails to link together local communities is encouraging and we welcome his support as the transportation bill takes form.

The record for this meeting will stay open for 10 days. Both Chairman Mica and Reps. Meehan and Shuster invited submissions of written ideas for what should be included in the transportation bill. Seems like an opportunity not to be wasted.