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Posts from the "Federal Transit Administration" Category

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What If There Was No Highway, Transit, or Rail Agency — Just U.S. DOT?

Former UMTA and FTA administrators, from left: Frank Herringer, Bob Patricelli, Ted Lutz, Al DelliBovi, Brian Clymer, Gordon Linton, Jenna Dorn, Jim Simpson, and current administrator Peter Rogoff at the podium. Photo: Tanya Snyder

Former UMTA and FTA administrators, from left: Frank Herringer, Bob Patricelli, Ted Lutz, Al DelliBovi, Brian Clymer, Gordon Linton, Jenna Dorn, Jim Simpson, and current administrator Peter Rogoff at the podium. Photo: Tanya Snyder

“Highway people like highways, transit people like transit, rail people like rail,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said yesterday at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board. “But our transportation system should be greater than the sum of its parts.”

Foxx wasn’t the first to lament the atomization of the various modes at the federal level. Just this morning, in a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff touted the agency’s efforts at “tearing away federal stovepipes” but said “coordination is still a problem at the federal level.”

Rogoff knows better than anyone that to some degree, those stovepipes are necessary — and that if they’re torn away completely, transit has the most to lose.

After all, just yesterday Rogoff moderated a panel at TRB comprised of eight of his predecessors at the FTA (and its precursor, the Urban Mass Transit Administration). And he asked them whether it made sense to consolidate the modal agencies — presumably not just highways, transit and rail but also aviation, pipelines, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and others.

“Is it time to do away with modal silos?” Rogoff asked.

“Every administration kicks around the idea of combining everything into one agency,” admitted Brian Clymer, who presided over the agency from 1989 to 1993.

The Department of Transportation has only been one, unified agency since 1967, when the various pre-existing modal agencies were brought under one roof. Before that, some were housed under separate cabinet departments like Commerce or Agriculture.

Maintaining separate agencies under one department is probably as much unity as is called for, the former administrators agreed. First of all, whenever you have such technical knowledge, “you’re always going to have some degree of specialization,” Clymer said — and there’s nothing wrong with that. The people who know the sweet spot for streetcar headways aren’t necessarily the foremost experts on warm-mix asphalt. But that doesn’t mean they can’t talk to each other — and it certainly doesn’t mean that planning should happen in isolation.

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Will Old Transit Systems Eat Up All the New Starts Grants?

The first Core Capacity grant of the New Starts program will ease overcrowding on Chicago's red and purple lines. Photo: Michael Boyd/##http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/how-to-fix-the-el-cta/Content?oid=3473194##Chicago Reader##

The first Core Capacity grant of the New Starts program will ease overcrowding on Chicago’s red and purple lines. Photo: Michael Boyd/Chicago Reader

One of MAP-21’s many mixed blessings was the New Starts Core Capacity program. It expanded eligibility for New Starts grants — normally reserved as capital assistance for new transit lines — to existing corridors. To qualify, the system just had to show that the improvements would expand the capacity of the line by at least 10 percent.

The double-edged sword is this: The expanded mission didn’t come with any more money. In fact, the Federal Transit Administration saw its funding for New Starts/Small Starts frozen for several years, and then faced a 7 percent cut with the sequester for 2014. Luckily, the budget deal appears to have saved them from that, and though details are still forthcoming, it may mean a more modest 2 percent cut. Less horrific than was feared, perhaps, but still less money for more eligible projects.

That’s led some people to fear that the smaller, newer systems New Starts has traditionally targeted could lose out to legacy systems in major transit markets like New York and Boston. Those concerns came out last week during a Highway and Transit Subcommittee hearing in Congress, focusing on the new program.

“With the expanded eligibilities, one could see a potential situation in which a handful of expensive projects in large urban areas could monopolize the New Starts funding over several years,” said subcommittee chair Tom Petri (R-WI) in his opening remarks. “This could come at the expense of funding opportunities for new public transportation systems in the rest of the country.”

The first New Starts Core Capacity grant to an existing line was put in the project pipeline last month — for Chicago’s red and purple lines, a $4 billion project.

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Shutdown: Congress Prepares to Furlough One-Third of U.S. DOT Staff

Looks like we’re heading for a real, honest-to-goodness government shutdown tomorrow due to a childish Congressional food fight over budgets and health care. Already this year, thousands of government employees faced furloughs due to sequestration, and now they’re looking at an indefinite unpaid leave. It’ll last until Congress can play nice and make a deal on the budget and health care, and who knows when that will be.

Still reeling from a much more constrained sequester-related round of furloughs, federal employees now brace for The Big One. Photo: Office of Sen. Bernie Sanders

But when the government shuts down, not the whole government shuts down. “Essential” personnel will report to work, including those whose jobs are tied to safety functions, like air traffic controllers. And so will employees whose paychecks come from mandatory, not discretionary, spending — like those whose positions are funded from the Highway Trust Fund.

That has every last employee at the Federal Highway Administration breathing a sigh of relief. According to a U.S. DOT document [PDF] outlining furlough procedures in case of a shutdown (issued Friday, by which time they must have been pretty certain such a document would be needed), all 2,914 FHWA employees will report to work tomorrow, since those positions are all funded with contract authority. “All operations continue as normal.”

Same with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. All 1,102 employees will go to work as usual.

Well, bully for FHWA and FMCSA. The pain will be felt on the fourth floor of U.S. DOT — and at transit agencies around the country — when 91 percent of Federal Transit Administration workers go on furlough. The 21 workers assigned to Hurricane Sandy response work are excepted, as are the three working in the Lower Manhattan Recovery Office, which has been helping to rebuild the transit system there since 9/11. Four other unspecified employees have been deemed essential. The rest of the 501 agency workers are out of luck.

No New Starts transit grants will be issued, no cooperative agreements will be signed, no contracts will be honored. Transit agencies won’t be reimbursed for operations and construction projects. “October is typically a month where grantees request substantial reimbursements,” DOT notes. “In October of FY 2013 payments averaged about $200 million per week.”

This affects about 1,300 grantees around the country. Transit projects under development will stall. Safety oversight, a task newly given to FTA under the MAP-21 bill, will be curtailed. Research and technical assistance will grind to a halt.

It’s not for lack of money to pay these grants, DOT notes. It’s for lack of money to pay the people who sign the grant checks.

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Lawmakers Fret About Impact of Budget Cuts on Transit

“In 2014, federal investment in surface transportation — which is currently about $50 billion per year — will drop to $6 billion or $7 billion. In one year.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio says underinvestment in transit is killing people, and it's about to get way worse.

Those were the dire words spoken by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) at the start of this morning’s Transportation & Infrastructure Committee hearing on MAP-21. What he meant was this: At the end of MAP-21, the Highway Trust Fund is expected to have a balance of almost zero and a $7.1 billion shortfall in 2015. Congress would have to radically reduce FY 2015 highway and transit investment levels to ensure that the trust fund remains solvent. According to AASHTO, federal highway investments would have to be cut from approximately $41 billion to $6 billion and transit investment from $11 billion to $3 billion.

“That is pathetic,” DeFazio said. “And we have to do something about it.”

Funding Cuts Force FTA to Break Agreements

T&I Chair Bill Shuster agreed. “That’s our biggest challenge moving forward,” he said. And Ranking Democrat Nick Rahall added that the sequester cuts and Congress’s inability to pass a real budget has compounded the funding crisis.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff warned that the cuts will have a profound impact on transit projects around the country:

Overall, the sequester struck $656 million from FTA’s budget. It reduced program funding for our [New Starts] capital investment grants program by almost $100 million. This will means that few, if any, New Starts construction projects will be fundable in the near term.

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Sequester Would Cut New Starts By $100M, Could Trigger FTA Furloughs

The consequences of the near-certain sequester for aviation have been well publicized by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s recent media blitz, but less well-known are the effects for surface transportation.

New York's Second Avenue Subway is one New Starts-funded transit expansion that could be complicated by the sequestration cuts. Image: MTA

LaHood broke that silence in a memo to department staff earlier this week and released yesterday by Politico, warning that even after taking measures like “instituting hiring freezes, cutting contracts, and taking other administrative reductions,” furloughs may be necessary in the Federal Transit Administration and the Surface Transportation Board.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said last month that he’ll move “heaven and earth” to keep people working in the event of a sequester, but he may not be able to avoid furloughs. The entire FTA staffing budget is subject to the 6 percent sequester cut. (See my story from Monday detailing how the sequester works and what transportation programs will and won’t be affected.)

It could also impede transit construction projects. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign has made a list of crucial projects that could get caught in the sequester’s web, from TIGER-funded intermodal facilities in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut to the New Starts-supported Second Avenue Subway in Manhattan.

“Right now, I can tell you that the sequester would require a 5 percent cut to the New Starts/Small Starts program, which would reduce funding for critical transit projects by approximately $100 million this year, creating unplanned borrowing and financing costs for states and local government,” said FTA spokesperson Brian Farber yesterday. “The cuts would also require FTA to revise its payment schedule for New Starts/Small Starts projects, slowing the payments the federal government previously committed to making.”

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FTA Grapples With Likely Funding Cuts

After fighting to maintain reasonable funding levels in the transportation bill – and for the inclusion of dedicated transit funding in the first place – the Federal Transit Administration now finds itself up against almost certain funding cuts that imperil rail and bus expansion projects, as well as the agency’s own staffing.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff is hoping to keep staffing steady through near-inevitable budget cuts. Photo: U.S. DOT

The fiscal cliff deal hasn’t answered many questions. Spending cuts of about 8 percent (the “sequester”) could hit at the beginning of March. The current interim budget, or “continuing resolution,” expires at the end of March. And on top of all of that, another debt ceiling deadline is looming, and Republicans will certainly try to extract spending cuts again in exchange for raising it.

“None of us knows what’s going to happen,” said Sylvia Garcia, U.S. DOT deputy assistant secretary for management and budget, at the Transportation Research Board’s annual conference Wednesday. “No matter what happens, the message from Congress right now is, ‘You’re going to have less money to do what you need to do.’”

While the Federal Highway Administration’s staff is safe from layoffs from the sequester, since they’re funded out of the Highway Trust Fund, the FTA isn’t so lucky. General-funded FTA programs — including the New Starts program for transit expansion, some research, and all FTA administration — are still vulnerable to cuts. Worse, the “across-the-board” nature of the sequester means the FTA would have to apply the cuts evenly among those three areas.

Administrator Peter Rogoff told the TRB audience yesterday that he’ll move “heaven and earth” to keep people working, especially since the agency is already running on a bare-bones budget, and they’re “one person deep in a lot of critical areas.” He’s desperately trying to avoid furloughs, and he pledges to fill vacancies in important positions.

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FTA Opens the Door For More Transit Expansions to Receive Federal Funding

One of the most important federal transit programs has undergone a makeover, and transit advocates are cheering the results.

Seattle's Sound Transit light rail was funded in part by the New Starts program Photo: T4America

The Federal Transit Administration late last month released new evaluation criteria for transit projects vying for funds from the New Starts and Small Starts programs. These two programs dispensed a total of $2 billion last year, providing roughly half the funding for transit expansions in the U.S.

Previously, the FTA relied heavily on “travel time savings” to judge the merits of a project. The new formula will focus instead on the number of passengers expected to be served. Economic benefits like the impact on development will also be considered.

The new criteria also employ broader measures of the environmental benefits of transit. Instead of using the EPA’s air quality formula as the sole measure of a project’s environmental benefits, the new evaluation process will also incorporate the expected effects on public health (including traffic fatality rates) and energy use.

Advocates say the new rules will streamline the approval process and open the door to federal funding for a wider variety of transit projects.

“This is big news — leading to more fundable projects, with higher community benefits, approved faster at lower cost, for the benefit of an expanded network of qualified applicants,” said David Burwell, director of the energy and climate program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This guidance is a heads up to communities to sharpen their pencils and get to work on their project proposals.”

U.S. DOT also estimates the new application process will save about $500,000 annually in administrative costs. The new rules are the result of a executive order issued by President Obama in January 2011 that called for streamlining federal agencies; they were not required by the new federal transportation law, MAP-21, which preserved the programs, but did not change the requirements.

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In Homage to Daniel Inouye, Feds Commit to Funding Honolulu Transit

Senate titan Daniel Inouye passed away Monday at 88. The Hawaii senator was the longest-serving member in the chamber at the time he died.

Sen. Daniel Inouye toured the site of the Honolulu rail transit project in August. Photo: Office of Daniel Inouye

As a fitting tribute, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday signed a full funding grant agreement with Inouye’s widow at his side, committing the federal government to $1.55 billion in transit assistance. The money will help build, at long last, the rail transit project Inouye had advocated for. Inouye had referred to the $1.55 billion offered by the FTA as “precious.”

Had Honolulu’s local election gone differently, yesterday might not have happened. Mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano wanted to scrap rail plans in favor of bus rapid transit. Sen. Inouye saw through Cayetano’s idea, saying the BRT plan “would force Honolulu to the back of the line, adding years upon years of continued traffic gridlock” since they would have to start from scratch to secure federal funding.

Hawaii’s first-ever rail transit system, already under construction, will include 21 stations along a 20-mile stretch and is expected to relieve traffic on Interstate H-1, “one of the most congested highways in America,” according to LaHood. In the 1960s, some suggestedbuilding a new freeway to relieve congestion on H-1, but the population rebelled. Fifty years later, their much better idea — rail transit — is finally inching closer to fruition.

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said the rail line will save commuters up to 30 minutes each way. More than 60 percent of Oahu’s population and 80 percent of its employment is located in the designated transit corridor, according to civic affairs journalism website Honolulu Civil Beat.

In addition to the $1.55 billion from the New Starts transit capital funding program, Hawaii is getting $209.9 million in federal formula funds and $4 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the project. The rail line is expected to cost just over $5 billion in total.

The signers of the FTA grant agreement left a poignant blank space where Inouye’s signature would have gone.

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GAO: States “Flexing” Fewer Federal Dollars to Transit

States have the ability to spend 29 percent of federal transportation funds on any mode, but they only "flex" 10 percent of that to transit. Image by GAO, using FHWA and FTA data

Supporters of livable streets may hear about the “flexibility” of transportation dollars and cringe – after all, that word often refers to the ability of states to use bike/ped money for road building. But flexibility can work both ways. Between 2007 and 2011, states devoted $5 billion in surface transportation funds — known in some quarters as “highway money” — to transit programs, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO just issued its second report on state flexing of highway dollars for transit. In its first report, the GAO found that states used 13 percent of their flexible highway funds for transit. That share has declined to 10 percent. The GAO did not offer an explanation for the drop.

Since 29 percent of federal transportation dollars are available to states to spend on just about any surface mode, that means about 3 percent of all federal funding is getting “flexed” to transit. Between 2007 and 2011, the GAO found, “four states — California, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia — accounted for the majority of flexible funding transferred to FTA for transit projects.” Each of those four states used more than 25 percent of their flexible funds for transit. Meanwhile, 16 states sent transit less than 2 percent of their flexible funding, with Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Delaware, and Hawaii flexing nothing.

The variability between states highlights a rarely remarked upon aspect of transportation funding: There’s a lot of room for states to spend more on transit under current law, if they choose. In fact, transit dollars go farther when states use these funds, because they only have to pony up the same local match that’s required for highways – usually 20 percent. The local match for transit projects is typically upwards of 50 percent.

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Weathering the Next 108-Year Storm

Deron Lovaas is the Federal Transportation Policy Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. This article is cross-posted from his blog on Switchboard.

This map, developed by the FTA, shows where rainfall and sea changes (color shading) intersect with transit systems (the dots). Image: FTA via NRDC

The Boy Scout motto (“Be prepared”) should guide state transportation departments (DOTs), metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and transit agencies as we recover from the destruction Hurricane Sandy wreaked. This superstorm was deemed historic for transit right off the bat by Chairman Joseph Lhota of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA): “The New York City subway system is 108 years old, but it has never faced a disaster as devastating as what we experienced last night.”

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has already put thousands of “boots on the ground” to assess and address the damage to livelihoods, lives and property. As they do their jobs and FEMA taps into its multibillion-dollar fund for emergencies such as this, it’s worth recalling advice the agency gives regarding prevention: Each dollar invested in hazard mitigation saves four dollars in avoided damage costs.

I learned this advice from a report prepared about a year ago by Tina Hodges when she was at the Federal Transit Administration (she recently moved down the hall to the much bigger Federal Highway Administration): “Flooded Bus Barns and Buckled Rails: Public Transportation and Climate Change Adaptation.” It’s one of several FTA resources that seem downright prescient right now, all available for download and perusal here.

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