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Posts from the House of Representatives Category

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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.”

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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.

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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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Koch-Funded Groups: Cut All Federal Funding for Walking, Biking, Transit

The Highway Trust Fund is going broke, but a group of conservatives is pretending that the problem is "squirrel sanctuaries." Image: Brookings

As inflation eats away at the gas tax, the Highway Trust Fund is going broke. But a group of conservatives is pretending that the problem is transit and “squirrel sanctuaries.” Image: Brookings

You know it’s time to fight over the federal transportation bill when the fossil fuel-soaked elements of the conservative movement start agitating to stop funding everything except car infrastructure.

Yesterday, a coalition of 50 groups, several funded by the Koch brothers, sent a letter to Congress arguing that the way to fix federal transportation funding is to cut the small portion that goes to walking, biking, and transit [PDF]. The signatories do not want Congress to even think about raising the gas tax, which has been steadily eaten away by inflation since 1993.

The coalition membership includes many stalwarts of the Koch network, including Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners, and the Club for Growth. The Koch brothers recently went public with plans to spend nearly $900 million on the 2016 elections.

The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card. Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is “regressive” because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can’t afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.

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DeFazio, Norton, and Larsen Take on Dangerous Street Design

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is already proving that he’ll put some muscle into the fight for bike and pedestrian safety in his new post as ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Before even starting his new job as Ranking Member on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio is going to bat for bike and pedestrian safety. Photo: ##http://bikeportland.org/2012/03/27/rep-defazio-takes-us-inside-the-transportation-fight-and-the-republican-psyche-69482##Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland##

Before even starting his new job as ranking member on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio is going to bat for bike and pedestrian safety. Photo: Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland

DeFazio and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), top Democrat on the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, have signed on to fellow T&I Democrat Rick Larsen (D-WA)’s letter asking the Government Accountability Office to look into the recent rise in bike and pedestrian fatalities, which increased 6 percent between 2011 and 2012.

At the state and federal level, efforts to improve the safety of walking and biking often blame the victim — as the Governors Highway Safety Association did when it flagged the recent increase in cyclist fatalities without noting that biking rates have gone up much more. DeFazio and company are emphasizing a much more fundamental problem: street design.

In their letter, they state:

[W]e are concerned that conventional engineering practices have encouraged engineers to design roads at 5-15 miles per hour faster than the posted speed for the street. This typically means roads are designed and built with wider, straighter lanes and have fewer objects near the edges, more turn lanes, and wider turning radii at intersections. While these practices improve driving safety, a suspected unintended consequence is that drivers travel faster when they feel safer. Greater speeds can increase the frequency and severity of crashes with pedestrians and cyclists who are moving at much slower speeds and have much less protection than a motorized vehicle affords.

The GAO responds to lawmaker requests like these by investigating the matter and reporting back to help members of Congress develop a deeper understanding of the issues so they can set better policy. The GAO itself makes recommendations for improvement in the reports.

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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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