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Posts from the House of Representatives Category


Just How Bad Is the Final House Transportation Bill?

Nobody was expecting the GOP-controlled House of Representatives to put together a transportation bill that did much for streets and transit in American cities.

Congress passed a 6-year transportation bill this morning. Yay? Image: Transportation Dems

The House passed a six-year transportation bill this morning. Yay? Image: Transportation Dems

And they were right — there’s nothing to get excited about in the bill. But neither is it the total disaster for walking, biking, and transit it could have been. So how does the House bill stack up against the current law? It’s looking a little worse.

Amendments to the bill were heard earlier this week, and the final bill was passed just hours ago. Some last-minute changes made it in, but in general not the ones that would help modernize the nation’s transportation policy and reduce our dependence on driving.

The final House bill includes a $40 billion funding patch to cover the gas tax shortfall, which means it now has funding for six years instead of three. But the new money is very gimmicky. At the last minute, Texas Re­pub­lic­an Randy Neuge­bauer introduced an amendment to raid the Federal Reserve’s Capital Surplus Account, and it was approved overwhelmingly.

Prior to that, House leaders had not indicated (or figured out) how they intended to pay for the bill. Yesterday, they refused to even hear an amendment from Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer to raise the gas tax.

Neugebauer’s amendment allowed lawmakers to pass the long-term bill industry and government agencies have been begging for without doing the responsible (and politically courageous) thing and finding a revenue source that doesn’t amount to a desperate one-shot.

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3 Bright Prospects for a Better Transportation Bill

The developer of Portland’s Zidell Yards, a transit-oriented development by the car-free Tilikum Crossing, says access to federal financing programs is critical to meeting increased demand for walkable urban housing. Photo: Chatterbox

Yesterday we reported on some of the terrible amendments that might get tacked on to the House transportation bill this week. But there are also some good ideas with bipartisan support among the hundreds of amendments submitted by members of the House.

Here are three amendments that have the potential to improve transportation policy in the U.S. — should legislators give them the thumbs up in the next few days.

Amendments 18 and 101: Financing for Transit-Oriented Development

Amendments 18 and 101 would both make federal loans available for the construction of walkable places around transit stations.

Amendment 18 [PDF], sponsored by Dan Lipinski (D-Illinois), Mike Quigley (D-Illinois) and Bob Dold (R-Illinois), would open up $30 billion in federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing to transit-oriented development projects.

“It would expand the eligibility so it’s not just about fixing railroads and ties, it’s about fixing up the station and the area around the station,” said Stephen Lee Davis of Transportation for America.

Similarly, Amendment 101 [PDF], sponsored by the bipartisan pair of Donna Edwards (D-Maryland) and Barbara Comstock (R-Virginia), would open up $200 million annually in loans from the TIFIA financing authorized by the Senate’s DRIVE Act to transit-oriented development projects. It would also lower the minimum project cost to apply for TIFIA financing from $50 million to $10 million.

T4A’s Davis says financing is still a big obstacle to transit-oriented development, because banks have been slow to adjust to changing preferences.

“This is a way for them to get them done and meet the surging demand for housing near transit and hopefully bring down prices in the process,” he said.

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Funds for Walking and Biking Under Attack in Congress This Week

Funds for walking and biking infrastructure account for a tiny portion of federal transportation spending. Safer streets don’t cost much, though, so for the cities and towns that count on these programs, a few dollars from the feds can be a huge help. Despite the relatively small sums at play, walking and biking programs are a constant target for a certain breed of hardline conservative in Congress. This year is no different.

Three proposed amendments to the House transportation bill take aim at programs that fund walking and biking infrastructure.

Georgia Republican Buddy Carter is leading a charge to eliminate the small pool of federal money that helps protect and support cyclists and pedestrians. Photo: Buddy Carter

Georgia Republican Buddy Carter is leading a charge to eliminate the small pool of federal money that supports walking and biking. Photo: Buddy Carter

Tomorrow these amendments will be considered in the Rules Committee, which will decide which get a vote by the full House of Representatives during a markup session Wednesday and Thursday, says Caron Whitaker, vice president of government relations for the League of American Bicyclists. People for Bikes, the League of American Bicyclists, and the Rails to Trails Conservancy are all urging supporters to contact their representatives and tell them to oppose these amendments.

Here’s a summary of what’s proposed:

Amendment 68 — Buddy Carter (R-Georgia)

What’s at stake: The flexibility to spend any funds from the Surface Transportation Program on walking or biking infrastructure.

What it would do: Amendment 68 would forbid funds from the $10 billion Surface Transportation Program from being spent on walking and biking projects. This program accounts for about one fifth of annual federal transportation spending, with a small fraction of that going toward biking and walking projects. In 2014, about $128 million from this program was allocated to walking and biking projects, according to FHWA.

Why it’s a bad idea: States and localities have been choosing to invest more STP money in biking and walking — especially since MAP 21, the current transportation law, reduced the dedicated pool of funding for those activities. That $128 million spent in 2014 represented an 83 percent increase over STP funding for biking and walking in 2009.

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There’s a Nod to Complete Streets in the House Transportation Bill

Let’s be clear: The House transportation bill would be a big step backward for federal transportation policy. But it does include some ideas worth cultivating, including a nod to the idea that road projects should take walking, biking, transit, and access for people with disabilities into account. The problem is that the provision has no muscle behind it.

When the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee marked up its six-year transportation bill last week, an amendment put forward by Carlos Curbelo (R-Miami) and Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) — the Safe Streets Amendment — was included, without modifications, as part of the “manager’s package.” That means Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) accepted the amendment without a floor vote — a sign that it is relatively uncontroversial.

Of course, there’s no reason to object to an amendment that won’t have much of an effect on policy, and that seems to be the case here. Emiko Atherton of the National Complete Streets Coalition says the language in the House bill [PDF] isn’t as strong as the complete streets amendment added to the Senate transportation bill [PDF].

The House version says only that the U.S. secretary of transportation shall “encourage” states and metropolitan planning organizations to adopt standards for safe accommodation of all road users — meaning not just people in cars. The more robust Senate version instructs that states and MPOs “shall” adopt standards for accommodating all users.

“If the Secretary is encouraging states to establish [complete streets] standards, it’s going to encourage some states to do it,” said Atherton. “There will be some states or MPOs who don’t see it as a priority. And they might be like, ‘That’s really great but we don’t have to do this.'”

Atherton said she appreciates the sponsors of the House amendment but that if both bills reach conference committee, the National Complete Streets Coalition will be working to ensure that the language from the Senate’s version makes it into the final bill.


House Transpo Bill Spells Trouble for Transit Projects Across America


Chicago’s Red and Purple Line modernization project could be delayed or worse under the funding formulas in the House transportation bill, says Representative Dan Lipinski. Image via CTA

A provision in the House GOP’s new transportation bill threatens to upend how transit agencies fund major capital projects, delaying or killing efforts to expand and maintain rail and bus networks.

The Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act (STRR), released Tuesday and marked up in committee yesterday, would change funding rules for the three federal programs that support transit maintenance and expansion projects, known as New Starts, Small Starts, and Core Capacity.

Currently, transit capital projects are eligible to receive 80 percent of their funding from federal sources, with local sources providing the remaining 20 percent. This is the same as the federal match available for highway projects. But the new House bill would cut the maximum federal match for transit projects to 50 percent while leaving the highway formula untouched. The bill would also prohibit transit agencies from counting funds from other federal programs (TIFIA loans, for instance) toward the local portion.

Representatives from urban areas warn that the House bill jeopardizes projects to maintain and improve transit systems. At the mark-up hearing yesterday, Representative Dan Lipinski, a Democrat who represents Chicago, said the measure “could end or delay Red and Purple Line modernization projects in Chicago.”

By cutting the potential share of project funds available from federal sources, the bill would also make transit projects less appealing relative to highways in the eyes of local governments, which would have to pitch in a smaller percentage for road projects.

Smaller cities are more likely to take advantage of federal matching funds that exceed 50 percent of a project’s total cost. Albuquerque, for instance, is counting on an 80 percent match to build its downtown BRT route. Larger cities are more likely to supplement a 50 percent federal grant with another source of federal funds, like TIFIA loans.

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House Dems: We Won’t Support a Transpo Bill That Cuts Bike/Ped Funding

House Democrats won’t stand for any cuts to federal funding for walking and biking infrastructure. That was the gist of a letter signed by every Democratic member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week.

Rick Larsen, a congressman representing parts of Washington State, rallied Democrats to support funding for biking, walking and transit. Photo: Rick Larsen

Rick Larsen, a congressman representing parts of Washington state, rallied Democrats to support funding for biking, walking, and transit. Photo: Rick Larsen

Groups aligned with the Koch brothers and their organization Americans for Prosperity have pushed to eliminate all federal funds for walking, biking, and transit. While Democrats are in the minority in the House, by coordinating as a bloc around this issue, they’re making it harder for the extreme elements in the Republican Party to roll back active transportation funding.

The letter, initiated by Washington representative Rick Larsen, states that Democratic committee members won’t support any bill that undermines the “Transportation Alternatives” program — the small pot of money dedicated to walking and biking.

“For the House transportation bill to be bipartisan, it must not cut funding for TAP or make policy changes that undermine the local availability of these dollars,” reads the letter, addressed to the committee’s two ranking Democratic members, Peter DeFazio (OR) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC):

Communities of all shapes and sizes — rural, urban and suburban — are clamoring for TAP dollars to give their residents lower-cost transportation options that reduce road congestion, improve safety for children and families, and boost quality of life. These types of projects are also essential to helping cities and counties increase property values, grow retail sales and attract tourism. While MAP-21 gave states the option of transferring up to half of TAP funds to other transportation priorities, just 10 percent of TAP funds have been transferred — clearly showing the demand for these funds across the country. This is a good program and it deserves to continue.

Congress has yet to make much progress on a long-term transportation bill to replace the previous bill, MAP-21, which expired last year. During the last transportation bill reauthorization process, biking and walking programs took a big hit. In an email to Streetsblog, Larsen said, “I do not want to see that happen again.”

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House Votes to Slash Amtrak Funding Just Hours After Horrible Crash

Just hours after seven people were killed and hundreds injured in an Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia, the U.S. House voted to cut funding for the passenger rail service.

Photo: Wikipedia

Early reports suggest the derailment was caused by excessive speed — exactly the type of crash that could be avoided with a new safety system that Amtrak is in the midst of installing on the Northeast Corridor. Watchdogs have identified a lack of funds as one obstacle to timely implementation of the system, known as Positive Train Control.

Nevertheless, the House voted this morning to approve an appropriations bill that cuts Amtrak funding by $260 million.

According to the New York Times, the train was traveling 100 mph on a stretch of track near Frankford Junction where the advised limit is 50 mph:

That area, in the Port Richmond section of the city, does not have a safety system called Positive Train Control that can, among other features, automatically reduce the speed of a train that is going too fast.

MSNBC says the House vote came after a heated debate about whether insufficient infrastructure funding was responsible for the crash.

Federal safety officials have required Amtrak to install Positive Train Control by the end of 2015. A report issued by the Amtrak Inspector General at the end of 2012 [PDF] concluded that a “significant challenge” to meeting the deadline is “ensuring that Amtrak has enough funds available to implement PTC.”

John Olivieri, national campaign director for transportation at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, called the House vote unbelievable. “The nation’s intercity rail network has seen growing ridership and Americans increasingly are looking for alternatives to driving,” he said. “They should be increasing the Amtrak budget, not cutting it.”


House Bill Proposes to Slash TIGER Funding

Federal lawmakers are running out of time to come up with a long-term transportation funding solution by May 31, when the current bill expires. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee has released a budget for FY 2016, which begins in October, that proposes to drastically reduce funds for projects that promote walking and biking.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail is one of hundreds funded by TIGER. Image: Visit Indy

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail is one of hundreds funded by TIGER. Image: Visit Indy

The budget proposal calls for keeping transit and highway funding about the same as this year. It also calls for big cuts to the enormously popular TIGER program, which has helped fund projects like Tampa’s Riverwalk and the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

The proposal would cut TIGER funding from $500 million to $100 million. The bill calls for reducing the size of individual grants from a minimum of $10 million to $2 million, and from a maximum of $200 million to $15 million. The bill would also increase the required local match from 40 to 50 percent.

Fortunately, this proposal will have to be hammered out with the Senate, which is likely to be more friendly to TIGER, says Transportation for America’s David Goldberg.

“We know that there’s pretty solid support for TIGER in the Senate,” Goldberg said. “We expect their number to be higher … but we’ll see if we can get it up to what it was this year.”

On the bright side, Goldberg said, this year’s appropriations bill doesn’t call for limiting TIGER funding to road, bridge, and port projects, like early proposals did last year.

The appropriations bill also proposes cuts to the New Starts program, which provides federal funds for major new transit projects. Under the House proposal, New Starts would receive $200 million less in total funding, for a total of $1.92 billion. All projects that already have a full funding agreement with the federal government would receive their money. The bill would leave an additional $250 million for other projects.


Movement in Congress to Let Cities and Towns Access Federal Transpo Funds

A state-level funding grant program in Pennsylvania is helping fund this campus master plan for Drexel University in Philadelphia. Image: Transportation for America

A grant program in Pennsylvania is helping fund the campus master plan for Drexel University in Philadelphia. Image: Transportation for America

Finally, proof that Congress is capable of crafting smart transportation legislation and not just zany ways to avoid raising the gas tax.

A bipartisan coalition of 10 lawmakers is supporting the Innovation in Surface Transportation Act, which would help cities, counties, and other local governments directly access federal funding for transportation projects, according to Transportation for America.

The proposal, first floated last year, would let local governments compete for at least $5 billion of the $50 billion or so in federal transportation funds allocated to states each year.

Under the bill, local agencies in each state would apply for grants, with a statewide committee selecting winners. The committees could include, for example, local chambers of commerce, active transportation advocates, transit agencies, air quality boards, ports, and others.

The bill would make better use of federal transportation dollars for two main reasons:

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Obama’s New Transportation Budget: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

With federal transportation funding on track to run dry by May 31, Washington lawmakers are gearing up again to reset national transportation policy… or, if that doesn’t work out, to limp along indefinitely under the status quo.

Unlike the U.S., China is opening high-capacity transit lines left and right. Photo of Beijing metro: Xinhua

Today President Obama unveiled his opening bid in this process. The $478-billion, six-year plan from the White House includes many of the proposals the administration unveiled last year. Congress didn’t advance those ideas then, and with the GOP now controlling both houses, chances remain slim for reforming highway-centric federal transportation policy.

But the White House budget document remains the best summary of the Obama team’s transportation policy agenda. The ideas are intriguing even if they’re politically improbable.

Here’s a look at the highlights [PDF].

The Good

Boosts Transit Funding: Obama proposes a large increase in transit funding, budgeting $23 billion in 2016 and a total of $123 billion to transit over six years. That would represent a 75 percent increase over current levels. The would go toward both expansions and the maintenance and improvement of light rail, BRT, subway, and commuter rail networks.

Promotes State DOT Reform: The Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation program would “create incentives” for state DOTs and other transportation agencies to reform how they approach road safety and congestion management. Funded at $1 billion annually, the program would fund initiatives like “distracted driving (safety) requirements or modifying transportation plans to include mass transit, bike, and pedestrian options,” the White House says.

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