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Why Recovery Aid Is Getting to Roads Faster Than Transit

As we reported yesterday, MAP-21 went into effect just in time for Hurricane Sandy, allowing the Federal Transit Administration similar emergency grant-making authority as FHWA. But Adam Snider at Politico reminded us this morning that the change is easier said than done.

New York's MTA can get donations from other transit agencies, but the FTA's power to release emergency grants is hindered by Congressional budgeting processes. Photo: r/sandy @Imgur

While U.S. DOT released $13 million yesterday to New York and Rhode Island for road repairs, the agency says FTA experts will join FEMA to assess damages and “help direct transit agencies to available federal assistance programs.” Staff and equipment will also be donated by transit agencies that weren’t affected by the storm. But those emergency grants that FTA has the newly-minted power to make? Not coming yet.

Politico’s Snider explains why:

MAP-21 created a new “public transportation emergency relief program” that would let FTA make grants for operations, repairs, equipment and more after a natural disaster. But the [continuing resolution] passed by Congress in September extended funds from the previous DOT appropriations bill — which didn’t include the FTA emergency program because it didn’t exist yet. The bottom line: FTA can’t make emergency grants to the affected agencies along the East Coast, though several transit experts expected FEMA to help out (“…but that’s a long process,” one source wrote). Congress could always address the issue in a Sandy-related emergency appropriations package when members return in mid-November.

Mid-November is a long way away for cities and transit agencies struggling to restore mobility in the immediate aftermath of the storm. What good is emergency grant-making authority if you can’t use it in the event of an emergency?

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How State DOTs Got Congress to Grant Their Wish List

Bike and pedestrian funding got slashed. Federal assistance for transit operations was rejected. Even the performance measures – arguably the high point of the recently passed federal transportation bill – are too weak to be very meaningful. For Americans who want federal policy to support safe streets, sustainable transportation, and livable neighborhoods, there were few bright spots in the transportation bill Congress passed last month.

AASHTO Director John Horsley is thrilled with the new transportation bill, which gave state DOTs just about everything they wanted. Photo: International Transport Forum

But state transportation departments are celebrating. They scored victory after victory, getting a bigger share of federal funding with fewer rules and regulations attached.

In the Senate, advocates were able to work some reforms into the bill and mobilize grassroots support for amendments like the Cardin-Cochran provision, which put funds for street safety projects in the hands of local governments, not state DOTs. But the House never managed to pass a bill of its own, and the opaque conference committee process was an exercise in horse-trading that advocates found difficult to penetrate.

The final product, which included measures like raising the federal contribution for certain highway expansions, seemed finely tailored to benefit DOTs in several ways. “This is a bill written by and for the benefit of state DOTs at the expense of both federal oversight and regional and community outcomes,” wrote David Burwell, director of the climate change program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an email shortly after the bill passed. He said the policy changes “are too elegantly crafted and specific in their effect to have been written, or even conceived, by members of Congress or their staff.”

For state DOTs, access to lawmakers is a given. “We worked very closely with the House and Senate to craft those measures,” AASHTO Director John Horsley confirmed to Streetsblog in an interview yesterday. He said that while AASHTO offered recommendations, no text written by AASHTO made it into the bill verbatim, as far as he knows.

According to Horsley’s account, AASHTO followed a pretty standard script when it came to advocating for their interests on the Hill. Every stakeholder and special interest under the sun had its lobbyists knocking on lawmakers’ doors, offering their two cents – everyone from gravel producers to equipment manufacturers to environmentalists to free market fundamentalists. It’s just that the state DOTs seemed to get everything on their wish list.

Horsley said AASHTO had been laying the groundwork for many, many months before conference started, working with Republican House Transportation Committee staffers as well as aides of both parties in the Senate. (He didn’t mention working with House Democrats, who were shut out of the process from day one.)

The House is where the magic happened for AASHTO. “We’ve been very pleased with where the Senate bill started,” Horsley said. “And we were even more pleased when the House and the Senate in conference agreed to incorporate a lot of the House provisions that were even better for states.”

What were those House provisions? Horsley went through the list:

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Cliff’s Notes on the Transit Changes in MAP-21

The FTA has put out a helpful guide [PDF] to the changes to public transit policy in MAP-21, the new transportation bill that takes effect October 1. Three cheers to the agency for making the changes easy to see with their tracked-changes format.

What will the new transportation bill mean for transit? Photo: Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia

While there are a lot of adjustments within the transit section, overall this bill does not make major changes to national transit policy compared to its 2005 predecessor, known as SAFETEA-LU. Transit maintains its 20 percent share of funding, and the volume of funding remains the same. Transit will get about $10.6 billion per year.

Within the overall pot of transit funding, millions have been shuffled around in this bill, and we covered some of those bigger changes last week. This post will delve into some of the finer-grain changes that the FTA has helped to highlight with this document.

Consistent with other changes to the bill that put distance between transportation policy and any attempt to discern what would be good policy, the authors made some cosmetic changes that strike some pro-transit language from the law of the land.

The bill removes a whole section of SAFETEA-LU that stated the case for transit and made important points about the urbanization of the country, the potential damage to urban areas of unchecked congestion, the need to keep transit accessible to lower income individuals, the urgency of federal assistance to transit, and the fact that transit helps the country achieve the national goals of “improved air quality, energy conservation, international competitiveness, and mobility for elderly individuals, individuals with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged individuals in urban and rural areas of the United States.”

Here are a few other changes worth noting:
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FRA Chief: America Is Driving Less and Congress Needs to Catch Up

Speaking to reporters earlier today, Federal Railroad Administration chief Joe Szabo said that people are driving less and using transit more — and that those changes are permanent. “America’s travel habits are undergoing rapid change,” he said. It’s a fact, he said (“not opinion — statistically proven”), calling on Congress to show that it understands these changes by moving in a new direction.

FRA Chief Joe Szabo says Congress needs to recognize that Americans are driving less and using transit more. Photo: AllGov

Szabo referred to a recent report by U.S. PIRG that found the average American drives six percent fewer miles today than in 2004. “While that’s significant,” he said, “what’s really significant is what you’re seeing with younger people.” He cited U.S. PIRG’s finding that from 2001 to 2009, driving among the 16-34 year old demographic declined 23 percent while transit use increased 40 percent. Szabo went on:

We’re talking about the next generation that actually considers it badge of honor not to own a car but instead to use inter-city passenger rail, mass transit, bike-sharing, and car-sharing. And this is the future. So it’s time for Congress to recognize this future and prepare for this rapidly growing trend.

Szabo’s remarks came during a press event with the American Public Transportation Association, which released impressive ridership numbers for the first quarter of 2012. Americans took nearly 2.7 billion trips on transit during the first three months of the year, a five percent increase over last year — the fifth consecutive quarter of U.S. public transit ridership increase, APTA said.

Rail modes experienced especially strong growth, with light rail use up by 6.7 percent and heavy rail use up by 5.5 percent. Szabo said that rail transit will continue to play a big role in a mode shift away from cars.

“There are efficiencies in rail that can’t be ignored,” he said. “With service levels targeted for the marketplace, passenger rail can be the most cost-effective, least oil-reliant, and most environmentally friendly mode of transportation.” He said the country is experiencing a “rail renaissance,” with ridership up 72 percent between 1995 and 2008.

Swings in the economy have likely contributed to the recent ridership surge, with transit becoming more appealing to Americans looking to economize on transportation costs. Many of those new riders will stick with transit: APTA studies have shown that a significant number of transit converts don’t go back to driving when gas prices fall. Job growth could also be a factor, since commuting constitutes 60 percent of transit use.

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Celebrate Earth Day the FTA Way, With a Map of Sustainable Transpo Projects

The Federal Transit Administration has launched a new website for Earth Day (this Sunday), showcasing the agency’s efforts for livability and clean energy. It’s all good Earth Day reading, but what stands out is this useful map of sustainable transportation projects.

Click here for the FTA's sustainable projects map

Click here for the FTA's sustainable projects map.

They note that the map is just a “selection” of federally-funded projects, so don’t get worked up if there’s one missing from your area. Still, three things stand out for me:
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Proposed Federal Transit Safety Regs Under Scrutiny From House Panel

In June 2009, a fatal crash on the D.C. Metro prompted federal lawmakers to consider adding a new layer of transit safety oversight. Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, introduced the National Metro Safety Act of 2009 to establish national safety standards for transit systems. It was never enacted, but it certainly raised the issue’s profile, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has not let it fall by the wayside.

U.S. DOT Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III thinks the FTA needs greater authority as a safety regulator. Photo: Zimbio

This year, the Senate Banking Committee inserted a measure into the Senate’s two-year transportation bill that instructed states to “submit proposals for state safety oversight programs for rail fixed guideway public transportation systems,” which was touted as one of the bill’s selling points at the recent legislative conference of the American Public Transportation Association. The House bill also contained some provisions related to transit safety.

Some local transit advocates have warned against new federal safety requirements, arguing that they will impose excessive burdens on transit agencies, making it more difficult to provide a transportation service that already boasts a remarkable safety record.

Any new transportation bill is on hold for the moment, but transit safety is still on the feds’ agenda. Last Thursday, USDOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel defended expanded federal oversight at a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.

Subcommittee Chair Tom Latham (R-IA) asked Scovel whether the Federal Transit Administration had the wherewithal to establish a new safety program. (Latham’s subcommittee questioned FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff on the same topic last week.)

Scovel explained that his office had already issued recommendations to FTA — currently little more than a grant-maker – in January about how to go about setting up such a program. One of the program’s primary tasks will be to record transit safety hazards, including what Scovel called “near miss/close call elements,” similar to a safety metric already used by the Federal Aviation Administration. However, the FTA lacks the authority to follow through on all of DOT’s internal recommendations, he said.

Latham seemed skeptical that additional authority was warranted. Citing a lack of interstate commerce to be regulated, Latham asked, “Why the reason for a federal oversight alternative?”

“There aren’t many agencies that cross state lines,” Scovel admitted, “but there is a clear federal role” in ensuring transit safety standards. He added that deficiencies at local agencies, like the ones that emerged in the aftermath of the 2009 WMATA crash, underscored the need for closer federal oversight.

You can read the full testimony from Scovel and other witnesses here.

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After 30 Years of Federal Support for Transit, Battle Lines are Redrawn

Add Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff to the list of people saying that it’s premature to declare victory over the House’s attempts to cast transit into the abyss. Rogoff knows a thing or two about transportation bills: He was an aide on the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee for 20 years, during which time the federal government passed three long-term transportation laws.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff says 30 years of not having to defend federal funding has led to complacency. Photo: Minnesota Public Radio

Until they show us something different, said Rogoff, the same old House bill — the one that cuts off all dedicated revenue streams for transit programs — is still the one before us. And since the House has yet to bring forward any concrete alternatives, it presents “an incredibly fluid and dangerous situation, especially since our highway trust fund programs are scheduled to expire in three weeks.”

The House bill “deliberately puts public transportation on a starvation diet, forcing it to survive on the most controversial of funding proposals,” like oil drilling, according to Rogoff. “And I’m talking about what the House bill does, not what the House bill did.”

“We spend a great deal of time talking to each other, but we’re in a fundamental fight now for our own survival,” Rogoff said. “I don’t think we’ve won the fight on the trust fund. We haven’t won anything. The only thing that’s happened is that the expiration of our program has grown weeks closer.”

Support for mass transit has been enshrined in federal law since Ronald Reagan signed the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, which raised the federal gas tax for the first time since 1959 and directed a portion of the proceeds to fund transit. Since then, Rogoff surmises, the transit industry has gotten complacent.

“We’ve never had to have the discussion about why we are there in the name of a balanced transportation system,” Rogoff said. “I’d be willing to bet that of the 535 members of House and Senate, less than a dozen were in office when Reagan signed transit into the trust fund. That gives us 520-plus people to educate.” (The real number is well over a dozen, in fact closer to 40, but it doesn’t change his point.)

The result is a Congress that never truly internalized the rationale for supporting transit, and therefore sees it as as a superfluous nice-to-have rather than a hard-fought and well-deserved component of federal policy. ”We need to talk to each and every one of them. We need to stop just speaking to our friends.”

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OMB: Senate Seeking Too Much Highway Money to Fund Transportation Bill

These numbers, from the Office of Management and Budget, indicate that the Highway Account of the Highway Trust fund is in better fiscal shape than previously thought. So why are senators still chasing after $12 billion? Source: OMB

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) and his Finance Committee have been looking high and low for a $12 billion patch to fund the transportation reauthorization bill that passed the Senate EPW Committee a few weeks ago. According to Politico’s transportation reporters, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch, has already rejected several of Baucus’s ideas.

But the question is not only, “How will we get the money?” It’s also, “How much money do we need?” The dollar amount the Senate is seeking could lavish more money than necessary on roads while leaving transit out in the cold.

The EPW Committee wants to hold transportation spending at current levels (plus inflation), which they estimate at $109 billion over two years. Receipts into the Highway Trust Fund (from gas taxes and other vehicle fees) aren’t expected to be sufficient to pay that bill. The Congressional Budget Office told the committee that the HTF is $12 billion short of the amount needed to fully fund the bill. That amount is destined just for highways, based on projections that the Mass Transit Account will be solvent through the end of 2013 – in fact, ending that year with a $1.5 billion balance.

But last month, the two top members of the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over transit, asked FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff for confirmation of those numbers [PDF]. Rogoff replied that he, in fact, found another set of numbers to be more accurate [PDF].

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Who Killed Transit on the New Tappan Zee? Feds and NY State DOT Won’t Say.

Two weeks ago, every option for reconstructing the Tappan Zee Bridge posted on the state's project website showed both a bus line and a rail line. Now, all the documents showing transit across the bridge have disappeared. Image: Tappan Zee Bridge website, captured by Streetsblog

Call it the mystery of the missing transit. One of New York state’s biggest transit projects, in the works for nearly a decade, was canceled overnight and no one will explain why, or even claim responsibility for the decision.

Two weeks ago, each of the four alternatives for replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge, which spans the Hudson River north of New York City, connecting the suburban counties of Rockland and Westchester, included a new Metro-North commuter rail line and some form of bus rapid transit. The project called for widening the highway but also included a major expansion of transit in both counties. It was the product of nine years of study and a whopping 280 public meetings. The whole process was thoroughly documented, with information about each alternative — along with hundreds of pages generated by the environmental review process and public commentary — easily found on the state’s Tappan Zee Bridge website.

On October 11, the Federal Highway Administration and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office announced that the bridge project had been selected for expedited federal review. The project they promised to speed up, however, was vastly different from the one vetted over the course of nearly a decade. The new plan for the bridge promised to add space for car traffic but left the transit component to be completed at an unspecified future date. Transit advocates are skeptical that the commuter rail and BRT lines will ever see the light of day.

At the same time that transit was removed from the plan, the state expunged from the public record all information about the nine-year public process and the four design alternatives that included rail and bus lines. The Tappan Zee website no longer displays the documents it did two weeks ago, as blogger Cap’n Transit first noted. The endorsement of transit, the extensive environmental analysis, the history of public input — all of it gone, replaced by three short documents chronicling the brief history of the transit-free project.

So much for transparency. Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said she couldn’t recall a single example of this kind of wholesale document scrubbing.

In addition to hiding the history of the Tappan Zee project, the state and federal agencies in charge won’t disclose how they reached the decision to build the bridge without transit.

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FTA Distributes $1 Billion to Local Transit Agencies

Transit providers in Detroit, Miami, Seattle and Bloomington, Indiana were a few of the many winners in the latest round of Federal Transit Administration capital grants.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was in Detroit Monday to announce almost $1 billion in transit grants to local agencies across the country. Photo: USDOT

On Monday, FTA awarded almost $1 billion to local transit agencies to purchase buses, construct shelters and plan for the future [PDF].

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the grants in Detroit Monday alongside Mayor Dave Bing and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

Transit agencies throughout the state of Michigan were awarded $46 million, including $2 million for Detroit to study expanding its planned Woodward Avenue light rail line into the suburbs past Eight Mile Road.

The city of Detroit’s Department of Transportation was also awarded $6 million to purchase new buses. Meanwhile, Detroit’s suburban bus system, SMART, received $5 million to update its fleet.

“This is a significant investment in Michigan’s future,” said Snyder. “A modern transportation system is key to a stronger economy and enhanced quality of life in our state.”

Elsewhere around the country, Sound Transit in Seattle will receive $5.4 million to buy hybrid buses, and the South Florida Regional Transit Agency will receive $4.5 million to replace its shuttle buses with vehicles that run on alternative fuel. These vehicles link public transportation centers with the airport, hospitals and universities in the Miami-Dade area, according to Environmental News Service.

In one of the smaller grants, Bloomington, Indiana received almost $30,000 to purchase lockers for cyclists at a new downtown transfer station.

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