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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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Nine Days in September: Congress’s Chance to Break the Gridlock

I hope you all had a good Labor Day. Streetsblog is back to work today, and you probably are too. But Congress? Not until next week. Every time there’s a Monday holiday, Congress takes the whole week off, and they’re milking the last moments of their August recess.

Labor Day has come and gone, but for Congress, it's still the last week of August recess. Enjoy. Photo: KateNews2Day

It’s no wonder lawmakers are procrastinating. They have a lot of unpleasant business to tackle when they get back, and not a lot of time to do it.

The start of fiscal year 2014 is less than a month away, and there are only nine legislative days between now and then. In those nine days, Congress is going to have to make some decisions about spending — including transportation spending. In an ideal world, they’d also give some serious thought to passenger rail policy.

Here’s an overview of the major transportation issues Congress should be addressing.

First, the rail reauthorization

The five-year Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) expires September 30. This spring, Congressional Republicans confidently pledged that it would be reauthorized this year — and then promptly dropped the ball (though, according to a spokesperson for the House Transportation Committee, they are working on language for the bill and will continue to do so into the fall.)

The fact is, it would have been nice to have something new in place before PRIIA’s expiration, but it’s not actually necessary. The current bill will just keep rolling over until Congress actually bothers to pass a new one. It’s not like the surface transportation bill, which needs to be reauthorized or extended before it expires. (The transportation bill is funded with Highway Trust Fund money that doesn’t go through an appropriations process, and the contract authority for that money does need to be current in order for it to be spent.)

But lots of programs get appropriations every year without ever being authorized. (Think TIGER.) Amtrak was one of those for a long time — before PRIIA, there was no rail authorization in place for years.

“An authorization that doesn’t authorize sufficient funding and contains bad policies would be worse than no authorization,” said Malcolm Kenton of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. But a well-designed authorization — “if it gives Amtrak the resources it needs to grow and modernize without micromanaging the company or imposing too many specific mandates” — could be a huge boost for American passenger rail.

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Transportation Funding Bill Dies Unceremoniously in Both Chambers

A few short hours after the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a $594 billion defense spending bill, Republicans blocked the $54 billion transportation and HUD bill from coming to the floor for a vote. House Republican leadership had blocked its own THUD bill the day before.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell fought members of his own party to keep them from allowing a vote on the transportation spending bill yesterday.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Politico that Republicans had to quash the bill in order to “indicate we’re going to keep our word around here” — meaning that the Republicans would adhere to the automatic budget cuts triggered when Congress couldn’t agree on a solution to the debt ceiling crisis. Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, furious that the bill had been pulled, blamed the excessive austerity of the budget they were forced to work within. He called for the end of sequestration “and its unrealistic, ill-conceived, discretionary cuts.”

McConnell, on the other hand, displayed a singleminded determination to kill the Senate transportation spending bill. “He has never worked harder against a member of his own party than he did against me today,” said Sen. Susan Collins, the sole Republican to vote in favor of considering the bill. Collins, the top Republican on the Transportation Appropriations Committee, co-wrote the bill with Chair Patty Murray. According to Politico, other Republicans were prepared to vote in favor of the bill, but “when it became obvious the bill would not meet the 60-vote threshold, she told them they should vote no.”

The Senate leaves today for a five-week August recess and when they return after Labor Day, they’ll have just nine legislative days before the end of the fiscal year.

“So where does that leave us?” Appropriations Committee Barbara Mikulski said. “What is that, are we back to gridlock?”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer was equally frustrated with the Republican block. “We’re hurting the economy, we’re undermining the confidence of the American people,” he said on the House floor.

Hoyer said he wasn’t in favor of his chamber’s THUD proposal, which cut 15 percent from current funding levels, but he was also irritated with Republicans in both houses for blocking votes on the bills. “Nine days from tomorrow, nine legislative days from tomorrow, we’re going to have that issue of how we’re going to fund government and keep it running,” he said. “In both Houses, the Republican Party has abandoned the appropriations process.”

Rogers called the House bill’s prospects in September “bleak at best, given the vote count on the passage that was apparent this afternoon.” But the prospects of these bills have always been bleak, given how different they are and how impossible it would be to conference them into one compromise piece of legislation that the president would sign. So perhaps it’s no great loss. Next month, Congress will find a way to pass a continuing resolution. freezing current budget levels for yet another year.

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House Pulls Its Disastrous Transpo Spending Bill As Senate Moves Ahead

While the Senate continues to consider amendments to its transportation budget bill, expected to pass this week, House leadership has canceled a vote on its own version. The bill, which passed the full Appropriations Committee a month ago, was scheduled to hit the floor this week for a vote by the entire House.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says they don't have the time for a transportation vote before recess. Does he really mean they don't have the votes? Photo: Dennis Brack/Newscom via TPM

A spokesperson from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office said the schedule was too busy this week with more pressing items they want to bring to the floor before the August recess begins. He said the House would consider the THUD appropriations bill once they return. The bill provides a budget for Fiscal Year 2014, which begins September 30.

House Democrats unanimously voted against the bill in committee, calling it “grossly inadequate” and even suggesting that it forebodes “the twilight of the appropriations process.” It cuts 2013 spending levels by 15 percent, eliminates TIGER and high-speed rail funding, cuts Amtrak’s subsidy by a third, and slashes HUD’s Community Development Block Grants program.

Scheduling might not be the only problem, however. Six Republicans in the Senate voted with Democrats on that chamber’s bill, which includes $10 billion more in spending than the starvation-diet House bill, including funding boosts for some of the programs eviscerated by the House plan.

“I always expected they would have vote problems on this,” a Democratic aide told The Hill. Politico reporter Anna Palmer said on Twitter that rumor had it the Republicans didn’t have the votes to pass the bill. “Rough way to go out for August recess,” she said.

Immediately after hearing that the Republicans had pulled the bill, Nancy Pelosi’s office sent out an email with the subject line, “Will House GOP Leave Town with a T-HUD or a Whimper?” She said the Republicans were embarrassing themselves and should “stop trying to placate the Tea Party and other warring factions in their conference.”

Though the House may do as Cantor says and vote on the bill in September, the conventional wisdom is that a continuing resolution will be necessary anyway, since the House and Senate bills are so disparate that a compromise is nearly impossible before the September 30 deadline. That’s not such bad news — a CR freezes current spending levels in place, which includes funding for TIGER and would avoid some of the House’s harshest cuts.

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Eleanor Holmes Norton Takes Top Dem Slot on Highways and Transit Panel

Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts was elected to the Senate last month, setting off a chain of events that has led to the appointment of a new ranking member of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee in the House. That new ranking member is DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, pictured here with a DC flag tattooed on her arm, is the new top Democrat on the Highways and Transit Subcommittee. Photo: We Love DC via thisisbossi

The path from Markey’s victory to Norton’s ascension is a circuitous one. (Larry Ehl did a great job laying it all out a few months ago on Transportation Issues Daily.)

Markey’s move to the Senate opened up the ranking member position on the House Natural Resources Committee. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon was number two there and jumped on the top slot when it opened up. (His departure from the Democratic leadership on transportation is a loss for reformers, as he was a tireless advocate for transit, active transportation, and a strong federal role in transportation funding.)

House Democrats don’t allow members to hold the top position on more than one committee, so DeFazio had to drop his ranking membership on Highways and Transit. Ehl speculated in May that Norton was “very unlikely” to jump on the vacancy, even though she was next in line in terms of seniority, since she would have to drop her ranking membership on the Economic Development and Public Buildings Subcommittee to take it. But she went ahead and did it, and it’s a good thing she did. Eleanor Holmes Norton will be an excellent Highways and Transit ranking member. Here’s why.

On the Highways and Transit panel, Norton is way more Transit than Highways. While DeFazio had a serious soft spot for sustainable transportation, the fact is that his large and mostly rural district relies primarily on roads. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s district — the entire District of Columbia — is entirely urban. DC is home to the second-busiest transit system in the nation, after New York’s subway. Thirty-eight percent of DC residents commute to work on public transportation. Plus, the DC area comes up for public scorn every year when its roads are ranked the most congested by the Texas Transportation Institute. The economic vitality of Norton’s district relies in no small measure on high-quality transportation options.

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A Few Wacky Ideas Persist as Congress Moves to Accept Funding Realities

There are five stages of mourning, and Congress is moving through them as they begin to face the inevitability of increased revenues for transportation. Lawmakers been through denial, anger, and bargaining, and now they’re pretty solidly in the depression phase. That leaves just one more: acceptance.

“I’m going to give you an idea that’ll work,” says Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX). Oh brother. Photo: Cahnman's Musings

But today’s hearing in the House Transportation Committee was still pretty depressing. Members are still thrashing around trying to find a solution that they like better than the only realistic option, which is raising the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon.

Kim Cawley of the Congressional Budget Office was called in to deliver the sobering news: “To avoid the projected shortfall we see in 2015, the Congress could eliminate all highway and mass transit spending in 2015, or raise the tax on motor fuels by about 10 cents per gallon, or transfer about $15 billion from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund.” New CBO figures estimate that the Highway Trust Fund will be completely out of money by the start of 2015 [PDF].

(And by the way, 2015 isn’t quite as far away as you think: the federal government’s fiscal year starts October 1 of the prior year.)

The road to acceptance is a bumpy one, of course. A few holdouts are still in the denial phase. Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI) accused gas tax advocates of treating it as a “sin tax” and worried it would hurt the trucking industry. (Actually, the American Trucking Associations support a 12-cent hike.)

And then South Carolina Republican Tom Rice was somewhere between the phases of anger and bargaining. He said Americans living paycheck to paycheck can’t handle another tax increase. And it’s true: An increase in the user fee will hurt some people more than others, and efforts should be made to mitigate the pain for people with low incomes. But Rice’s proposed solution showed just how far he is from accepting reality. “If there was a way that perhaps we could bring the fuel costs down,” he said, “it might not be as much of a hardship to raise the gas tax a few pennies.”

It’s been a while since I’d heard a Republican accuse President Obama of raising the price of gas, and I’d almost forgotten the complete lack of understanding among some in Congress about how global oil prices are set — or the fact that U.S. gas prices are actually pathetically low, and it shows in our inefficient, auto-centric transportation system.

Clearly, Rice’s heartfelt compassion for the down-and-out is blurring his vision a little. After slamming the president for shutting down some coal-fired power plants, saying that would drive utility costs up, he let loose this doozy: “If we would use the tools we have and the resources God’s given us, it wouldn’t be so hard.” Maybe someone should remind Rep. Rice that we have a finite quantity of those resources and are up against the extremely serious consequences of overusing them.

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T4A Calls for Action Against Dreadful House Transpo Budget

Transportation for America is gearing up for a fight over transit, rail, and TIGER funding, and they’re asking supporters of smart transportation investments to make their voices heard.

The new budget put forth by the House of Representatives would zero out funds for TIGER, strip $400 million from Amtrak and raid $500 million from a fund for, of all things, repairing bridges.

The House and Senate have proposed two very different funding plans for transportation. Image: Transportation for America

But cooler heads and clearer vision prevailed at the Senate, where appropriators put forward a budget that would expand funding for transit and TIGER. The Senate proposal would also help Amtrak keep up with growing demand.

Projects like the Atlanta streetcar and Chicago’s Blue Line rehab were made possible with the help of TIGER, an innovative, merit-based transportation funding program for which demand has been overwhelming. Eliminating TIGER would close off a vital mechanism to fund cost-effective projects that curb traffic, improve safety, and reduce car dependence.

Transportation for America calls the House budget “unabashedly bad” and has issued an action alert asking supporters to contact their Senators to support a budget that invests more in sensible transportation options.

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Amtrak Foe Mica Meets His Match in John Robert Smith

I just sat through a pretty boring hearing on rail financing. But I’m glad I stuck it out, because the fireworks came at the end, when Rep. John Mica picked a fight with the wrong man.

John Robert Smith held his own in a testy exchange with Rep. John Mica today. Photo: Reconnecting America

John Robert Smith is familiar face in transportation reform circles. The former Republican mayor of the town of Meridian, Mississippi, he now leads two of the most significant advocacy organizations in the field, Transportation for America and Reconnecting America. He also happens to be a former chair of Amtrak’s board of directors. All of those qualifications made him a natural choice to testify as a witness at this House Transportation Committee hearing.

Smith’s three main points were relatively uncontroversial: (1) a national passenger rail system has significant economic value; (2) maximizing the system’s value requires increased, stable, and dedicated federal funding; and (3) station area development is a promising area for utilizing innovative financing mechanisms.

Questioning went relatively smoothly until John Mica, former committee chair and self-appointed Amtrak bully-in-chief, started in on Smith. (The video of their exchange is already on Youtube.)

Now that Mica has vacated the chairman’s seat, he’s really let his freak flag fly, as they say. No longer bound to even pretend to negotiate with the other party or with leadership, he can just focus singlemindedly on his obsession with defunding Amtrak, and he apparently doesn’t feel bound to maintain any semblance of collegiality.

Mica started off asking Smith if he was aware that the federal debt was $16 trillion, or that funding had been cut for troops to receive hot meals.

Smith replied that his focus is transportation, and since he wasn’t able to poke holes in Mica’s line of argument, allow me to fill in. I didn’t know about this cutting hot meals thing either, and my initial reaction, also, was indignation. But then I Googled it. John Mica could do this too. And if he did, he’d get a Snopes entry that says that troops get four meals a day, but yes, in a few places, a hot breakfast has been replaced with an “MRE” – “Meals Ready to Eat” – to streamline operations in preparation for force reduction. In reality, no one in the military seems all that bothered about it, and officials emphasize that it wasn’t a budget issue that prompted the change.

Kind of funny Mica would pick such a poor example of budget-cut pain when there are so many legit ones to choose from. He could even stick with the “hot meals” theme and lament the nutrition assistance he voted to cut, or the hit taken by Meals on Wheels, which will deliver four million fewer hot meals this year because of the sequester.

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Bipartisan Bill Would Make Complete Streets the National Standard

Nearly 500 cities, states, and counties around the United States have enacted complete streets policies, according to Smart Growth America. Now a bipartisan team of lawmakers has introduced legislation to make it a matter of national policy that streets should be designed not only for driving, but for walking, biking, and transit as well.

Consideration of complete street measures would become a requirement for federal funds, under a new bill proposed this week. Image: Trailnet

Reps. Doris Matsui (D-CA) and David Joyce (R-OH) yesterday introduced the Safe Streets Act of 2013 [PDF], which would require states and regional planning agencies to develop complete streets policies for federally funded projects within two years.

“Too many of the roads in our country are designed solely with drivers in mind,” said Rep. Matsui in a press release. “The risks of such design are evident in the number of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths and injuries we see every year, and often discourage more people from considering other transportation methods.”

Co-sponsorship by Rep. Joyce, who replaced the famously bike- and transit-friendly Republican Congressman Steve LaTourette following his retirement early this year, seems like a promising sign that the new congressman will continue his predecessor’s legacy as a key GOP supporter of multi-modal transportation policy.

“I’m pleased to be part of the bipartisan effort to make our roadways safer, particularly for seniors and children,” Joyce said in a press release. “It’s important we take steps to improve safety in our communities and this bill is a step in the right direction.”

Smart Growth America applauded the introduction, saying it is “another sign that Congress is responding to the demands of the American public for travel options that are safe and convenient for all users of our transportation system.”

The bill was introduced with the support of a variety of advocacy groups, including the League of American Bicyclists, AARP, Transportation for America, Safe Routes to School, and the American Planning Association.

The law would exempt the type of roadways where pedestrians and cyclists are not allowed, such as freeways. It would also provide an exemption if compliance is “cost prohibitive” or if a project is in a rural area where “there is a clear lack of need for complete streets.”

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“The Twilight of the Appropriations Process”: House GOP Gets Its Knives Out

Constrained by Paul Ryan’s budget and the sequester, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and HUD passed a $44 billion spending bill for 2014 – 15 percent lower than 2013 enacted levels. The bill contains $15.3 billion in discretionary appropriations for the Department of Transportation, also 15 percent below enacted 2013 levels and amounting to about two-thirds of the president’s request. It passed the subcommitee this morning on a voice vote.

Rep. David Price (D-NC): "Are we totally helpless here?"

The budget would eliminate both TIGER and high-speed rail funding (as have all House-passed budgets in recent memory), cut Amtrak’s subsidy by a third, and bring HUD’s Community Development Block Grants back to Ford administration levels. While the cuts are steep, as in past years they are unlikely to be enacted, given Democratic control of the Senate.

At today’s markup, even subcommittee chair Tom Latham (R-IA) admitted that cutting $7.7 billion was “extremely challenging” and “not an easy task.” No other Republican spoke at all. While Latham’s official statement upon the introduction of the bill said that it was crafted “in a bipartisan fashion,” he admitted during the markup that he could thank Ranking Member Ed Pastor only for good “communication” rather than “cooperation” on the bill, since the top committee Democrat wasn’t “a huge fan of the product.”

Across the board, Democrats disavowed the bill and the process that begat it. While many acknowledged that Latham had received “an impossible allocation” from Rep. Paul Ryan’s Budget Committee, Democrats made it clear that the 15 percent cut was “unacceptable.” The appropriation is $4.4 billion lower than the amount allowed by the sequester.

Nita Lowey, ranking member of the full Appropriations Committee, said this budget “impairs the economic recovery,” and Illinois Democrat Mike Quigley said the bill “defies financial common sense,” not to mention the committee’s “moral obligations” to preserve the social safety net. David Price of North Carolina said it was “a grossly inadequate bill” that goes “way beyond the normal range of disagreements and difficulties with appropriations.” He mused that it could be “the twilight of the appropriations process.”

“I’ve never known us to be in this kind of institutional crisis,” Price said. “Are we totally helpless here? I know that’s what we hear, that we’re boxed in by sequestration, that we’re boxed in by the absence of a budget agreement.”

Price suggested the need for leadership “perhaps outside the conventional channels,” implying that they, the appropriators — who understand better than anyone the damaging cuts that are necessitated by such an austere budget — need to take the reins back from the deficit hawks in the Budget Committee.

Highway and transit programs maintain their MAP-21-authorized levels of $41 billion and $8.6 billion, respectively, in the appropriations bill. That represents a $557 million increase for highways over this year. These programs come out of the Highway Trust Fund and so aren’t included in the appropriations bill’s top-line numbers.

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