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House Bill Would Give Cities and Towns More Say Over Transpo Spending

U.S. Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL) introduced the legislation alongside Chris Koos, mayor of Normal, Illinois, introduced the new bill last month. Photo: Transportation for America

U.S. Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL) introduced the legislation alongside Chris Koos, mayor of Normal, Illinois, last month. Photo: Transportation for America

A bill to give local governments greater access to transportation funds has bipartisan sponsors in the House of Representatives.

The Innovation in Surface Transportation Act, introduced late last month, would let local communities access a much more significant share of federal transportation funds. The legislation would set aside a share of various federal programs that flow to state departments of transportation, which would be distributed to cities and towns through a competitive grant process. The amount of funding reserved for local governments would add up to $5.6 billion per year.

Normal, Illinois' up-and-coming Uptown area will receive a boost, thanks to $33 million in federal funding that will help move the Amtrak station to this central location. Photo: Transportation for America

The bustling Uptown area in Normal, Illinois, will receive a boost thanks to $33 million in federal funding that will help move the Amtrak station to this central location. Photo: Transportation for America

The grants would be awarded by a committee of state and local officials, based on nine criteria, including potential to attract private investment and to promote “multimodal connectivity.” (Full text here [PDF].)

Currently, less than 15 percent of federal transportation funds are allocated to localities, according to Transportation for America.

The legislation is sponsored by Congressman Rodney Davis (R-Illinois) and Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-Nevada). Sponsors say the bill will help ensure that increasingly scarce transportation funds are directed toward the highest-priority projects.

“This bill recognizes our nation’s fiscal realities by giving preference to projects that strengthen the return on investment, encouraging public-private partnerships and increasing transparency so that every federal dollar spent goes a little bit further,” said Davis.

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Mayor Chris Koos of Normal, Illinois: Gutting TIGER Hurts Small Towns

Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed its transportation bill. The bill is a blueprint for spending $265 billion on surface transportation over six years. It doesn’t include transit or rail provisions yet, and no funding source has been found for it. Streetsblog wanted to hear from a local official about how this bill would affect their community, so we spoke to Mayor Chris Koos of Normal, Illinois. Koos, who owns a bike shop in town, has served 11 years as mayor and is a member of Transportation for America’s advisory board.

Mayor Chris Koos of Normal, Illinois, says some measures in the EPW transportation bill will negatively impact small communities like his. Photo: ##http://www.wjbc.com/common/page.php?pt=Mayor+Koos+to+speak+on+transportation+before+US+House+panel&id=117984&is_corp=0##B. Corbin/WJBC##

Mayor Chris Koos of Normal, Illinois, says some measures in the EPW transportation bill will hurt small towns like his. Photo: B. Corbin/WJBC

As mayor, Koos has presided over big changes in Normal, including a revitalization plan that made Uptown Normal more walkable and anchored it around an Amtrak station.

I saw your panel here in DC in February, where you talked about the Uptown Normal Revitalization plan. And you said it couldn’t have been done without a strong federal partner. When you look at the bill that just passed the EPW committee, does that give you the strong federal partner you’re looking for?

I think it adds some things. We’re a community that’s too small to really take advantage of any TIFIA programs. And I don’t think it was in the bill, but anything that would give greater local input and control in terms of transportation dollars would be great.

In terms of TIFIA or in general?

In general.

You said Normal isn’t big enough to take advantage of TIFIA, but you have taken good advantage of TIGER. TIGER turns into Projects of National and Regional Significance in this bill, but the projects have to be $350 million or more. Remind me: How much was your revitalization project?

Well, the federal dollars we got — we got $22 million in a TIGER I grant, and we got about $7 million more in annual approps.

But what was the full project cost?

For Uptown Station? About $42 million.

Is there anything you can even imagine in your community that would meet the $350 million threshold?

No. The only thing I could see is a regional project. You know, when you get to dollars like that you’re pointing at highway or fixed-rail systems. I don’t even see that kind of money going to airports unless you’re O’Hare or LaGuardia or something like that.

Would that be a big loss, to see TIGER turned into something that had that such a high threshold?

Yes, I absolutely think so. If you look at the projects that have been funded over the past — what are we in, TIGER V now?

VI!

If you look at those projects, none of those projects would have qualified on that threshold as far as I can see. Most of the projects were smaller. The projects I’m aware of in Illinois and Michigan had to do with multimodal stations and rail upgrades — nothing anywhere near that threshold. A lot of smaller communities would not be able to benefit.

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Is Your Rep a Member of the New Public Transportation Caucus Yet?

The answer to that question is: Probably not. Reps. Daniel Lipinski, a Democrat from Chicago, and Michael Grimm, a Republican representing Staten Island and a little slice of Brooklyn, announced their new transit-focused Congressional caucus just last week, and this week the House has been in recess.

Rep. Lipinski, pictured here between Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Illinois DOT Secretary Gary Hannig on a Metra train, has formed a Public Transportation Caucus in the House. Photo: CREATE

But according to Lipinski spokesperson Guy Tridgell, there has been interest from other lawmakers, and Lipinski and Grimm will be reaching out to colleagues in the coming weeks to recruit more membership.

Rep. Lipinski is well-known for his support for transit and complete streets. He fought hard against the GOP effort to strip transit out of the Highway Trust Fund in 2012 and has been pushing hard to get more frequent service on the Metra commuter line that runs through his district. Lipinski is also a big believer in federal support for bike and pedestrian projects like Safe Routes to School.

Lipinski is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee but doesn’t serve on the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, serving instead on both Railroads and Aviation.

Congressional caucuses don’t have any formal duties, but Tridgell said the Public Transportation Caucus will be an active one. Aside from engaging on any issue that arises in the House, Tridgell said it will focus on state of good repair for transit systems. Though caucuses don’t hold hearings like committees do, Tridgell said the Public Transportation Caucus would gather input from stakeholders, including riders, employers, transit operators, business community.

Rep. Grimm is one of a small handful of Republicans to publicly support transit. He represents the only borough of New York not connected to the city’s subway system. By New York standards, Staten Island is fairly car-dependent, but by the standards of most of the country’s Republican districts, it’s a transit paradise.

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Midwest Rail Lives! Work Underway in Four States

Intercity rail dreams in the Midwest have certainly seen their share of  setbacks — with federal funds being returned in Ohio, Wisconsin and, more recently, Michigan. But all is far from lost.

Plans for intercity rail that will travel as fast as 110 miles per hour are well underway between Chicago and St. Louis. Photo: Illinois Department of Transportation

Yesterday, U.S. DOT announced a $186 million grant to Illinois DOT to upgrade the line between Chicago and Joilet — about 40 miles southwest of Chicago — one of the final segments to be built in the 284-mile Chicago to St. Louis line.

The project will allow trains to travel up to 110 miles per hour and, when completed, will save travelers about an hour, U.S. DOT reports. That’s good news for the about 35 million people travel the corridor annually. According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, about 90 percent of those trips end at either terminal: St. Louis or Chicago.

Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana are all in the midst of upgrading intercity rail lines as well, although it might not be accurate to describe many of these projects as true high-speed rail. (True HSR runs at an average speed of 110 miles per hour, as opposed to a maximum of 110.)

Michigan has funds for line upgrades between Kalamazoo and Dearborn — just outside Detroit. Meanwhile, Amtrak will be completing the remainder of the Detroit-Chicago link west of Kalamazoo to Chicago. The line will top out at 110 mph, said Richard Harnish, Executive Director of Midwest High Speed Rail Alliance.

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NRDC Names 15 Smarter Cities

How long do you have to wait for a bus in your city? How much does it cost? Does every family on your block have two cars? And tell us about your bikeshare program…

Mayor Thomas Menino: “The car is no longer the king in Boston.” Photo courtesy of the City of Boston

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has been asking questions like these to determine their list of 15 Smarter Cities – places with shorter, cheaper, and more efficient commutes.

They split the list into big, medium and small cities. Have a look:

Eight percent of Chicago is green space and they're planning 500 miles of bike paths. Photo: Chicago Tourism Bureau

2011 Smarter Cities for Transportation

Large (population > 1 million)

Boston, MA/NH
Chicago, IL
New York, NY
Portland, OR
Philadelphia, PA/NJ
San Francisco, CA
Washington, DC/MD/VA/WV

Medium (pop. between 250,000 – 1 million)

Boulder-Longmont, CO
Honolulu, HI
Jersey City, NJ
New Haven, CT

Small (pop. < 250,000)

Bremerton, WA
Champaign-Urbana, IL
Lincoln, NE
Yolo, CA

Philly got bonus points for its transit initiative to connect people to fresh food. Boulder scored high for its brand-new Transportation Master Plan, which incorporated the public in the planning process and indicates “a serious commitment to responsible travel within the county.” And Yolo, California boasts a higher degree of transit access – 91 percent of households – than any other similarly sized metro region.

It’s innovations like these that are going to light the way to a future of cleaner air, financially stable households, and healthier cities.