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Congress Gives Itself More Free Parking Than Its Own Rules Allow

How much are these free parking spots worth? Probably more than the $250 parking benefit Congress allows. Photo: ##http://www.jmt.com/project-portfolio/us-senate-parking-lot-study/##JMT##

How much are these free parking spots worth? More than the $250 per month in tax-free parking benefits that Congress allows. Photo: JMT

As TransitCenter and the Frontier Group reported last week, the federal government pays a huge $7.3 billion subsidy to people who drive to work by making commuter parking expenses tax exempt. There are countless reasons for Congress to scrap this poorly-conceived, congestion-inducing subsidy. While policymakers consider the big picture, they also ought to examine how their own parking benefits are administered.

Here’s the short version: Congress is breaking its own law, and it’s shorting the Treasury hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, by providing free parking far in excess of the allowable limits.

USC 26 Section 132f of the tax code allows employers to provide each worker with up to $250 in free parking per month tax-free, which can add up to $3,000 in tax-free perks per employee each year. That’s a pretty big amount to pay people for exacerbating congestion, but the parking at the U.S. Capitol is worth significantly more than that.

It’s hard to know exactly how many free parking spaces we’re talking about. The Architect of the Capitol and relevant committees don’t like to talk about it, but Lydia DePillis reported in the Washington City Paper a few years ago that a plan for the southern part of the Capitol complex completed in 2005 shows that the House office buildings alone have 5,772 parking spaces assigned to them.

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Lawmakers Could Finally Equalize Benefits for Transit and Parking This Year

It’s time to rev up the annual fight over parity between federal transit and parking benefits for commuters. Members of Congress hope this might finally be the year to get it done.

This could be the year to equalize benefits for transit riders and make it permanent. Photo: ##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RTD_Bus_%26_Light_Rail#mediaviewer/File:Denver_light_rail_train_at_16th-California_station.jpg##Wikipedia##

This could be the year to equalize benefits for transit riders and make it permanent. Photo: Wikipedia

This morning, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Jim McGovern (D-MA) announced that they will, again, push to equalize the tax benefits available to transit commuters and car commuters.

Right now, people who drive to work can get up to $250 a month in tax-free earnings to pay for parking. The monthly tax-free income available to the 3 million Americans who use the transit benefit, meanwhile, is capped at $130.

With the passage of the 2009 stimulus law, parity was implemented between the parking benefit and transit benefit for a brief while. After extending the higher transit benefit a few times, however, in recent years Congress has failed to take the necessary action to do so.

At today’s press conference, Washington Metro Board Chair Tom Downs noted that Metro ridership had stagnated since transit benefits dropped. “If you’re providing a $1,500-a-year incentive to drive your car over taking transit, you’re probably going to have an impact on mode choice,” Downs said.

Increasing the transit benefit makes the law more fair, but it probably won’t make a big impact on how people get to work. Studies show that providing parking benefits always increases solo driving rates, whether or not the workplace also offers transit perks. Better to do away with all commuter benefits than to provide both [PDF]. Besides, most transit commutes cost far less than $235 a month. A monthly New York subway pass costs $112. In DC, you’d have to travel from one end of the system to the other every day during peak hours to make use of the full $235 transit benefit Blumenauer proposes.

Though Blumenauer’s plan only cuts the parking benefit by $15, it’s deficit neutral (at worst), since so many more people drive than use transit.

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Top House Dem on Transportation, Nick Rahall, Lost His Seat. That’s OK.

Four years ago, another stunning night of GOP victories took out Representative Jim Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who chaired the House Transportation Committee. Had Oberstar kept his seat, the new GOP majority would have cost him the gavel, but he would have continued as ranking Democrat. Instead, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia coal country took his place. Now, Rahall is out the door too.

Rep. Nick Rahall has lost his seat -- and therefore, the top Democratic slot on the House Transportation Committee. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/wvablue/4881172202/in/photolist-bNm6xB-bzrrBo-nsdn5i-6d1Czb-4xP9zC-8hCPic-6P37qR-8rkhrq-6c4GBK-bW5ytt-cdrUgm-cds5Bu-bW5JKr-bNm6uM-bNm6zk-bNm6wT-nsNNfk-naZTcU-nsd33m-84nx5z-8pSiyH-pEx3WD-dWfTqE-dWafwH-dWfTkJ-dWafyF-h7vzsH-6azXT5-6azXZu-6azXM1-i2DqiM-i2Co6V-i2DoT2-i2CK3J-i2CJJs-i2CKDJ-i2Dot4-i2CJPY-i2CBDN-i2CErb-i2CLoQ-i2DpZv-i2CDew-5JAgy7-9v2hNn-7WiCH2-edYuhG-jrwMxe-5UAApN-9hwquQ##West Virginia Blue/flickr##

Rep. Nick Rahall has lost his seat — and therefore, the top Democratic slot on the House Transportation Committee. Photo: West Virginia Blue/Flickr

Rahall has represented southern West Virginia for as long as I’ve been alive, and has served on the Transportation Committee the entire time. But State Senator Evan Jenkins easily unseated him last night, winning 55 percent of the vote.

In the long run, Rahall’s loss might be good news for sustainable transportation. Rahall was always more at home on the Natural Resources Committee, where he could subvert Democratic environmental goals by defending coal every chance he got. Insofar as he was interested in transportation, it was more about highways than transit, which is scarce in his district.

Recreational biking and walking, however, was a passion of his. Rahall was an architect of the federal Recreational Trails program, which was created in 1991 as part of the ISTEA transportation bill. He understood the economic value of active tourism. But that hasn’t always translated into a firm defense of active transportation. In 2012, when bike/ped provisions were watered down in MAP-21, first in the Senate and then in conference with the House, he didn’t hold the line.

The negotiation of MAP-21 in 2012 was a low point for bipartisanship on the House Transportation Committee. Though the Senate carefully crafted language both parties could agree to, the House wanted to start over with its own bill, was unable to, and instead went to conference with nothing but the Senate bill and a hatchet. And House Democrats — even Rahall — were completely shut out of the process.

It was infuriating to watch, but insiders say a different leader would have fought harder and raised a bigger stink about the exclusion. For example, Peter DeFazio of Oregon.

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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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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.