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Why Transit Agencies Expand Even When They Struggle to Provide Service

This map shows transit routes in New Orleans that run less frequently than once every 30 miles at peak hour in red. Routes that run at 15-minute frequencies or less. Image: Ride New Orleans via Transport Politic

Frequent transit in New Orleans is scarce: The transit routes in red run less frequently than once every 30 minutes at peak hour, while only the routes in green run at least every 15 minutes. Image: Ride New Orleans via Transport Politic

New Orleans transit is in bad shape, as we reported recently. The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority has never recovered from Hurricane Katrina and service is at about 36 percent of pre-storm levels despite the region’s population rebound.

New Orleans’ frequent service lines have been slashed dramatically. Even newly built streetcar lines are running infrequently.

So why is New Orleans planning a major expansion that would dramatically expand the streetcar system, as well as add light rail and bus rapid transit? As Yonah Freemark recently pointed out at the Transport Politic, despite its inability to deliver frequent along its existing routes, NORTA plans to pour $3.5 billion into construction.

This case, Freemark explains, illustrates problematic incentives embedded in federal policy. Namely, the federal government makes money available for expansion projects but not for day-to-day service:

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Congress Hits the Snooze Button on Transpo Funding Until May

Someone had to cave and last night, it was the Senate.

Closed for the summer. Photo: ##http://www.capitol.gov/html/EVT_2010061578974.html##Capitol.gov##

Closed for the summer. Photo: Politic365

The upper chamber had fought as long as it could to adjust the House transportation bill so it wouldn’t expire when the GOP controls both chambers of Congress. But senators were never willing to actually let the Highway Trust Fund go broke. U.S. DOT would have started cutting back on reimbursements to state DOTs as of today in the absence of an agreement.

After the House rejected the Senate’s amendment yesterday, hours before representatives were due to return to their home districts for the five-week August recess, it seemed the Senate had no choice. Then, news broke that the House was going to stick around a little longer to keep fighting about the border crisis.

Could the Senate have taken advantage of the House’s presence to toss the football back to them, on the assumption that the last team holding it will get blamed for the fumble? Maybe. Maybe the House would have been the one to cave, then. Maybe they would have sent the transportation industry into a tailspin. In a recent poll, 85 percent of transit agencies said they would implement service cuts if that happened.

At least we were spared that. But perhaps not for long. Former U.S. DOT official Beth Osborne, now at Transportation for America, noted that each extension seems to be getting harder. “The easy ways to pay for the program are gone,” she said. “It’s going to get harder doing this with bubble gum and band-aids.”

Who cares?

Last night on Twitter, Cap’n Transit paid me the backhanded compliment of my life by saying:

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Time’s Up: 6 Things to Know About Today’s Transpo Showdown (UPDATED)

UPDATE 2:40 p.m.: The House has rejected the Senate amendment, as expected.

Today is the House of Representatives’ last day in session before departing for an August recess full of photo ops and electioneering in their districts. The Senate will stick around DC for one more day before going home. Before that happens, the two houses have to come together on a plan to keep the Highway Trust Fund going. If not, U.S. DOT will have to take drastic measures.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker disagrees with the House GOP on when the bill should expire and how to pay for a new one.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker disagrees with the House GOP on when the bill should expire and how to pay for a new one.

Both the House and the Senate have voted on not entirely dissimilar plans to keep the fund going. But the differences between them have set up a high-stakes showdown that has to be resolved by tomorrow.

Here are the key points:

    1. The timing: The House is expected to vote on the Senate bill today at about 3:00 p.m. and is expected to refuse to budge. Then they’ll leave town, meaning the Senate can either cave or be blamed as the Highway Trust Fund goes dry before August recess ends and transportation works grind to a halt. Meanwhile, Sec. Anthony Foxx has warned state DOTs that federal payments will slow down August 1 — that’s tomorrow — if Congress doesn’t take action to keep the Fund from going insolvent.
    2. The numbers: The House is gloating that the Senate’s bill contains a $2 billion technical error — which is true; it comes up with just $6.2 billion of the $8.1 billion needed — but Senate Democrats say it can be easily fixed.
    3. The urgency: Since summer is the high season for construction, the real pressure on the Highway Trust Fund is between now and the end of the year, when states will need to get reimbursed for the work that’s going on now. That’s why there’s not a huge monetary difference between the House proposal that lasts till May and the Senate proposal that ends in December. There’s just not a lot of cash going out the door at U.S. DOT between January and May.
    4. The conflict: The House and Senate disagree on what budget gimmicks to use to “pay for” the transfer into the trust fund, but more fundamentally they disagree about how long the patch should be. As we’ve reported before, Boxer prefers a December deadline, saying it’s unfair for this Congress to fail to fix a problem that occurred on its watch and instead kick it to the next Congress. What she means is that she wants her six-year bill to pass and that won’t happen after the end of this year if the GOP wins a majority in the Senate and she loses the chairmanship of the EPW Committee. That’s precisely why the House is gunning for a May deadline.
    5. The breakdown: The Senate Republicans aren’t as enthusiastic as the House about having to take this up when they’re in charge. Thirteen Rs joined the Ds in pushing for a December sunset, including Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who wants to raise the gas tax and be done already. “Wouldn’t it be great to finish 2014 actually solving one issue; taking one issue off the plate next year?” he said yesterday at a WSJ press breakfast. Only one Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, voted no on Boxer’s date-change amendment. Notably, David Vitter, the ranking member on the EPW Committee, who has shown great bipartisan unity with Boxer, broke with her on this and voted to essentially flush their six-year-bill down the toilet. His predecessor, James Inhofe, voted in favor of Boxer’s December 19 deadline.
    6. The fallout: If the GOP does win the Senate in 2014, the conventional wisdom says they’ll lose it again in 2016. Will the Republicans really want to take on a tax increase of any kind during the only two years when they’ll get the lion’s share of the blame? Of course not. The prognosis is that if there’s no long-term bill this term, it’ll be another three years. Three more years of patchwork funding gimmicks is nothing to look forward to.
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FHWA to Engineers: Go Ahead and Use City-Friendly Street Designs

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NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide includes engineering guidance for transit boulevards. Image: NACTO

The heavyweights of American transportation engineering continue to warm up to design guides that prioritize walking, biking, and transit on city streets. On Friday, the Federal Highway Administration made clear that it endorses the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide, which features street treatments like protected bike lanes that you won’t find in the old engineering “bibles.”

FHWA “supports the use of the Urban Street Design Guide in conjunction with” standard engineering manuals such as AASHTO’s Green Book and the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), the agency said in statement released on Friday. FHWA had already endorsed NACTO’s bikeway design guide last August. The new statement extends its approval to the more comprehensive Urban Street Design Guide, which also covers measures to improve pedestrian space and transit operations.

Federal approval of what were until recently considered “experimental” street designs means that more engineers and planners will feel comfortable implementing them without fear of liability.

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Republican Senators Threaten to Slow Extension With Backward Amendments

Just as it seemed like a transportation extension was on the fast track to passage, a Tea Party senator from Utah is gumming up the works — and the top Republican on the EPW Committee might have a plan to help him.

How many crappy amendments are you trying to force down the Senate's throat, Mike Lee? That's right: two. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/7998337795/##Gage Skidmore/Flickr##

How many crappy amendments is Mike Lee trying to force on the Senate? That’s right: two. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

CQ Roll Call reports that Sen. Mike Lee is threatening to block progress on the extension in the Senate unless Harry Reid agrees to allow votes on two right-wing amendments.

The first is a classic “devolutionist” maneuver, a measure to gradually reduce the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents to 3.7 cents per gallon and shift the responsibility for transportation spending to the states.

Rep. Peter DeFazio loves invoking the Amos Schweitzer example to illustrate what a bad idea devolution is. In 1956, Kansas and Oklahoma were going to build a highway linking cities in the two states, but Oklahoma didn’t get the money together, so the road dead-ended at the border. “For three years cars crashed through the barrier at the end of this [road] and landed in Amos Schweitzer’s farm field,” DeFazio said on the floor of the House two days ago. ”That’s devolution!”

President Eisenhower’s interstate campaign, the creation of a federal Department of Transportation, and the implementation of a federal gas tax allowed for a national transportation vision to replace a fragmented state-by-state strategy. Federalization is especially important for freight, since states simply can’t be solely responsible for the ports, roads, and railways that are crucial for moving goods all around the country.

Lee’s second bad idea, which he insists the entire Senate get the chance to consider, is the repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act, a landmark labor law that requires developers to pay workers no less than the locally prevailing wage for their work. Conservatives are forever introducing measures to repeal or weaken this law.

Voting on these amendments would slow the process of approving the extension, but probably not as much as not voting on the amendments. If Reid refuses Lee’s ultimatum, Lee says he’ll refuse to allow a quick vote on the extension bill. Any senator can block “unanimous consent,” which is necessary for a bill to find a quick route to a floor vote.

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Dems Grudgingly Approve House Transpo Extension’s Disastrous Timeline

Yesterday, during the one-hour debate period over the House proposal to extend transportation funding through May 31, lawmaker after lawmaker stood up to condemn the bill. America needs a long-term transportation bill, they said. A short-term stopgap only creates more uncertainty.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer was one of just 10 Democrats to reject the House extension.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer was one of just 10 Democrats to reject the House extension.

And then they voted for it.

More Democrats than Republicans voted for it, in fact, despite standing up and declaring that “a short term solution is not enough” or that it’s “just another kick-the-can-down-the-road approach” or that it’s just “a little shuffling around of money so we can pretend… we’re not creating more debt.” But in the end, the Highway and Transportation Funding Act passed easily, with only 10 Democrats and 45 Republicans voting against it.

Peter Welch of Vermont was one of those no-voting Democrats. During the floor debate, he called the bill an “abdication of our responsibility.”

“Some folks are saying we need time to put together a long term bill,” he said. “We’ve had time. What we need is a decision.”

Earl Blumenauer is in favor of an extension, but only through the lame duck period after the election. He voted no as well, criticizing Republicans for failing to have a “deliberate, thoughtful process.”

“We have not had a single hearing on transportation finance in the Ways and Means Committee all year,” he said. “We didn’t have one the year before that. We haven’t had a hearing in the 43 months that the Republicans have been in charge.”

So here’s where things stand: The Senate Finance Committee has passed a largely similar bill, with the same amount of money coming out of slightly different funding sources.

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House, Senate Take Different Paths to Prop Up Transportation Funding

This morning, the House Ways and Means Committee passed its plan to prop up the Highway Trust Fund — which pays for transit and bike/ped infrastructure in addition to roads — until May 2015. A few hours later, the Senate Finance Committee approved a plan of its own, with no deadline attached.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the two top dogs on the Finance Committee, agreed on a bill that matches the dollar amount in the House bill — $10.8 billion. Wyden’s original proposal had the bill expiring December 31, but the final bill didn’t have any deadline in it at all. The fact that the Senate matched the House bill dollar for dollar, however, indicates that they’re leaving the door open to extend it all the way to May 31, like the House.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said she was grateful to the Finance Committee for agreeing on a “shorter-term patch” and still hoped to pass a long-term bill by December, though it’s unclear that’s what the Finance bill does.   

As I said yesterday, an extension through May would be a huge blow to Democrats, who would prefer to see the extension expire by the end of this year in hopes of forcing action on a long-term bill while Democrats still control the Senate.

The Senate bill adds in some of the House’s pay-fors too, including $2.7 billion raised from “pension smoothing,” which is generally viewed as a gimmick that doesn’t raise any actual money long term. The House plan takes $6.4 billion from pension smoothing, but Wyden wanted to reserve some of that money — fictitious though it may be — for other purposes. You can read the Senate’s full list of pay-fors here [PDF].

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House Proposes 8-Month Transpo Bill In Hopes for a Republican Senate in 2015

While a six-year Senate transportation bill languishes in partisan purgatory, the House Ways and Means Committee has proposed an eight-month patch that would backfill the Highway Trust Fund until May 31, 2015. That would punt the transportation bill debate until a new Congress takes over — one that’s expected to have Republican majorities in both chambers.

Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp wants to let the next Congress deal with transportation funding. Photo: ##http://camp.house.gov/photos/##Office of Dave Camp##

Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp wants to let the next Congress deal with transportation funding. Photo: Office of Dave Camp

Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp earlier proposed “business tax reform” to fund transportation — as did President Obama — but even those powerful champions on both sides of the aisle weren’t enough to get traction on that idea.

The new Ways and Means proposal abandons both that idea and the Republican scheme to use post office cuts to offset losses to the Highway Trust Fund (which also funds transit and active transportation infrastructure, by the way). Instead, it opts for a smattering of fiscal gimmicks and fees unrelated to transportation with a previous record of success in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is trying to get the full chamber to consider his extension bill, the PATH Act — that stands for Preserving America’s Transit and Highways — which has its own complex web of pay-fors.

While the Senate bill has been larded up with amendments that are unlikely to go anywhere, neither bill, at its core, includes any policy changes. Both are just stopgap funding fixes, and substantially similar ones at that.

The only substantive difference between the House and Senate proposals is the length. Wyden’s bill would require further action after the elections (as lawmakers agree is necessary) but before the new Congress is seated. Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp explained in a statement why he opposes that plan:
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Why the Federal Funding Emergency Matters for Transportation Reform

Why does it matter if state departments of transportation get less money?

In light of last week’s news that the U.S. DOT might have to ration its payments to states in the absence of new revenue for the federal transportation program, we posed that question to David Goldberg, communications director at Transportation for America. After all, a lot of states are pursuing wasteful boondoggles, like Kentucky’s Ohio River Bridges Project and the Illiana Expressway.

Several states have said they will hold off on planning new projects until they have some certainty that they will be reimbursed with federal funds. And if Washington can’t deliver those funds, good projects will be shelved as well as bad, Goldberg said.

Transit agencies will also feel the pain if Congress can’t come up with a funding solution. The Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund, which provides money to the nation’s transit agencies, is running low and on track to go into the red by October. ”Transit agencies are starting to say, ‘We better not let contracts because we don’t know where the money’s coming from,’” he said

Losing any portion of federal funding for transit agencies would be “devastating,” said Goldberg, as many of them are already stretched very thin.

Furthermore, Goldberg said that if Washington can’t find a solution to the transportation funding problem, it will bode poorly for attempts to solve other problems — like enacting federal policies that make transportation safer, greener, and more efficient.

“This is an opportunity for people in Congress, for Americans in general, to consider what the point of these programs are,” he said. “If we can’t take it seriously, we can’t ask for those progressive things.”

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With No Transport Funding Fix, USDOT to Cut Payments to States Next Month

Click to enlarge. Next month, the Highway Trust Fund -- the funding mechanism for the nation's transportation system -- will become insolvent next month without Congressional action. Chart: FHWA

Click to enlarge. Next month, the Highway Trust Fund — the funding mechanism for the nation’s transportation system — will become insolvent unless Congress acts. Chart: FHWA

State transportation departments could see the federal funding they receive pared back as early as a few weeks from now if Congress doesn’t come up with a transportation funding solution.

A “cash management plan” to deal with the impending shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund — which actually pays for transit, biking, and walking projects in addition to roads — was outlined in a letter from U.S. DOT to state transportation officials yesterday [PDF]. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote that “as we approach insolvency, the Department will be forced to limit payments to manage the reduced levels of cash.”

Federal transportation revenues have been faltering for a long time, primarily because inflation has eaten away at the gas tax, which hasn’t increased in more than 20 years. Congress and the White House have floated many possible solutions of varying merit — a gas tax increase, an excise tax on oil, “business tax reform,” even canceling Saturday mail service. Lacking an agreed-upon revenue source, the Highway Trust Fund has been propped up with general revenues over the last few years. It is unclear whether Congress will extend that stopgap before funding starts to run dry in the next few months.

In his letter, Foxx indicated that if the issue isn’t resolved by August 1, around the time when revenues are expected to dip below current spending levels, U.S. DOT will dole out the available money based on existing funding formulas. In other words, the funding cuts will be shared among all the states, based on population and other factors.

In a speech yesterday in Washington, President Obama urged Congressional action to ward off funding problems, saying inaction would put 700,000 jobs at risk — or about as many people as live in Denver or Boston. He blamed Congressional Republicans for failing to act to resolve the issue.