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GOP’s Lunatic Plan for Funding Transportation Draws Nothing But Scorn

House Republicans announced on Friday the latest in a long line of hare-brained schemes for funding the Highway Trust Fund, which is projected to become insolvent in August. Their ingenious proposal is to pay for transportation by making cuts at the post office.

You wouldn't be seeing many of these on Saturdays if the GOP transportation funding plan went through. Photo: ##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Small_USPS_Truck.jpg##Wikipedia##

What does postal delivery have to do with transportation funding? Nothing, unless you’re a House Republican. Photo: Wikipedia

This idea didn’t come from some Tea Party fringe of the GOP. It came straight from leadership: House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.

In a memo to party members, they called the plan “the best way to ensure continued funding of highway projects in a fiscally responsible manner.” They say they can extend the current transportation bill by one year and offset the cost by reducing Saturday delivery. The proposal would save an estimated $10.7 billion over 10 years. Republicans have chided Democrats for offsetting MAP-21 — a two-year bill — with 10 years’ worth of savings, but now they seem prepared to do it themselves.

The other part of the GOP proposal would transfer funds from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund — also pillaged for MAP-21 — to the HTF. The LUST Trust Fund gets revenue from 0.1 cent of the 18.4-cent federal gas tax, but underground fuel storage tanks must be pretty leakproof lately because the fund is flush with money.

Altogether, the proposal would come up with between $14 and $15 billion to fill the gap between transportation spending and Highway Trust Fund receipts.

For the past few years, the idea of eliminating or reducing Saturday mail delivery has come up a number of times. But under those proposals, the savings would shore up the financially shaky U.S. Postal Service itself, which has lost $41 billion in the last six years — not transportation.

The Senate EPW Committee has unanimously passed a six-year transportation bill, though that committee has no idea how the bill would be paid for and is counting on the Finance Committee to come up with a solution. Just about everyone with a dog in the fight, including the reform coalition, is pushing hard for a long-term bill. A one-year extension, no matter how it’s funded, is a highly unpopular option.

The House GOP’s extension is especially unpopular because of the way it’s funded. Democrats have called it “strange,” “unworkable,” and a ”non-starter.” The mail carriers’ union said the proposal “would begin dismantling the Postal Service” and “wouldn’t even work if tried.” Even the Greeting Card Association has taken a stand, calling the plan “misguided.”

Looks like yet another GOP funding gimmick destined for the dustbin.

Not that Republicans have cornered the market on transportation funding gimmicks, of course.

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The House GOP’s Campaign Strategy: Do Nothing on Transportation

A Senate committee has unanimously approved a transportation bill. Three other Senate committees are holding hearings on the bill. But over in the House? Crickets.

Why is T&I Committee Chair Bill Shuster allowing the transportation bill to get lost in political maneuvering? Photo: ##http://shuster.house.gov/recent-photos/##Office of Bill Shuster##

Why is T&I Committee Chair Bill Shuster allowing the transportation bill to get lost in political maneuvering? Photo: Office of Bill Shuster

At a press conference last week, former transportation secretary — and former House Republican — Ray LaHood scolded his old colleagues for failing to take action.

He said there was “nothing happening in the House” on the transportation bill, The Hill reported.

“Nothing introduced, nothing debated, no discussion and we’re in a mess,” LaHood said. “We really are. The American people get it.”

LaHood is probably right. A few days after those remarks, Adam Snider reported in Politico that members of the House Transportation Committee, from both sides of the aisle, agree that the lame duck is the best — or even the only — time to work on a bill. Snider explained the reasoning:

Congress won’t be able to act on a long-term policy bill that could cost $100 billion in an election year. Next year is a new Congress with new members, making an immediate policy deep dive too difficult. But by the time everybody is up to speed in 2015, the presidential election cycle will be in full swing. And come January 2016, things will start all over with a new president and another new Congress and slate of lawmakers.

“If they try to talk about it now for six years, it will never get done,” said the Republican Snider talked to. “If they get to November and they have the guts to do something in the lame duck, that’s where the opportunity is.”

It’s a baldly political calculus for determining the future of the nation’s transportation systems, but that’s business as usual in Washington.

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How the Federal TIGER Program Revived a Cleveland Neighborhood

The "Uptown" development in Cleveland is part a way of construction that a TIGER grant helped catalyze in Cleveland. Photo: MRN

The “Uptown” development in Cleveland was catalyzed by a TIGER grant that helped relocate a rail station. Photo: MRN

Cleveland doesn’t look like a dying Rust Belt city these days in the Little Italy and University Circle neighborhoods. In fact, it looks like it’s thriving.

At the corner of Euclid and Mayfield, a new mixed-use development — MRN’s “Uptown” — is filling out, hosting a bookstore, a bakery, bars, and new apartments. Just across the street, the new home of the Museum of Contemporary Art sits gleaming, in the words of the New York Times, “like a lustrous black gem.” Another major office, retail, and residential project is planned a stone’s throw away.

biden_train

Vice President Joe Biden was in Cleveland Wednesday urging action to invest in infrastructure and preserve the TIGER program. Photo: Angie Schmitt

It’s hard to understate how remarkable this type of investment is in this area. Cleveland’s decades-long population decline has helped make it one of the weakest urban real estate markets in the country.

But this is a sweet spot in Cleveland. The Cleveland Clinic — Ohio’s largest employer — is less than a mile away. So are many of the city’s renowned cultural institutions — the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Orchestra, and Case Western Reserve University. About 50,000 people work in the area.

Even so, the new developments in Little Italy might never have happened if not for the U.S. DOT’s TIGER program. Greater Cleveland’s Regional Transit Authority received a grant from the third round of TIGER funding in 2011, which provided about $12.5 million to rebuild and move a rail station from a dark, isolated location under a bridge about a third of a mile away to the middle of the neighborhood.

Local leaders in Cleveland had for years hoped to move the station to help build on the nearby assets. When the RTA applied for funding through TIGER, it was one of 828 projects seeking $517 million in funding. Just 46 of those applicants were awarded grants.

Despite the enormous demand for TIGER, it has been under the constant threat of elimination by the House GOP since the program was launched in 2009. A recent proposal put forward by House Republicans would turn TIGER from a multi-modal program that helps cities and metro areas directly access federal funds into a roads program. Meanwhile, the Senate has proposed a new transportation bill that fails to fund TIGER.

And that’s why Joe Biden was in Cleveland on Wednesday stumping for a new transportation bill that would preserve TIGER. ”This is what we should be doing all over the nation,” said Biden.

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GOP Appropriations Bill Would Turn TIGER Into a Roads Program

As the president’s transportation proposal fades from the news cycle and we eagerly await the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s six-year reauthorization bill, here comes the House Republicans’ proposed budget for transportation and housing for next year.

This is what the country's best innovative transportation grant program could become. Photo: ##http://t4america.org/2009/12/11/pew-self-sustaining-highways-are-increasingly-subsidized/##T4America##

This is what the country’s best innovative transportation grant program could become. Photo: T4America

Note: What the House GOP released yesterday wasn’t an authorization bill but an appropriations bill for 2015. So far, there is no authorization guiding transportation spending for 2015, and as such this appropriations bill says that its funding levels are “contingent on the enactment of new transportation authorization legislation.” Nothing can be appropriated that isn’t authorized.

While previous GOP appropriations proposals have eliminated TIGER grant funding altogether, this proposal allocates $100 million for TIGER, down from the $600 million the program got this year. More horrifically, the GOP proposes to limit TIGER grants to projects that “address critical transportation needs,” defined as roads and bridges, ports and freight rail.

And just to be clear about what they mean, the GOP adds, “The legislation does not allow these funds to be used for non-essential purposes, such as street-scaping, or bike and pedestrian paths.” Also ineligible are transit projects that would be eligible for New Starts or other FTA grants, carpool projects, ADA compliance for sidewalks, highway and transit safety improvements, planning, congestion mitigation, intelligent transportation systems, anything related to congestion pricing (including electric toll collection and travel demand management), or recreational trails.

Honestly, if that’s what TIGER would become, maybe it would be best to zero it out altogether.

President Obama’s proposal, released last week, would double the TIGER program. Historically, TIGER has been a way cities and metro areas can bypass their states to go directly to the federal government for funds for multi-modal programs. Transit, biking and walking projects — as well as freight projects that haven’t always had a natural home in other federal funding programs — have done very well with TIGER.

The rest of the GOP appropriations bill’s cuts are mostly notable in their restraint. The bill hews to the bipartisan two-year budget resolution for 2014 and 2015 and not Paul Ryan’s 2015 budget, which would have held transportation spending to the levels available in the Highway Trust Fund.

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Active Transportation Loses a Key Republican Ally as Rep. Tom Petri Retires

For years, if there was a Republican sponsor of a good piece of legislation on active transportation in the House, more often than not it was Tom Petri of Wisconsin. Advocates will be sorry to learn that Rep. Petri has announced that after 35 years in Congress, he will not seek another term.

Tom Petri received the Wisconsin Bike Federation’s Hero Award last year. Photo: Wendy Soucie/Lodi Valley News

Petri is the Republican co-chair of Rep. Earl Blumebauer’s Congressional Bicycling Caucus, he recently helped launch Partnership for Active Transportation, and he’s a regular at the National Bike Summit. But he really stole everybody’s heart when he was the sole committee Republican to vote against the disastrous House transportation bill in 2012. He says he voted against it “primarily because it slashed highway funding for Wisconsin,” but we suspect that if his amendment to restore Safe Routes to School funding had succeeded, he might have decided to support the bill.

When Petri was named chair of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, it seemed the often-sidelined party outsider would be able to inject a little bit of reason into the proceedings before the passage of a new transportation bill. The hearings he’s held on MAP-21 have been thoughtful, and he’s given considerable attention to the needs of transit, but he hasn’t had much opportunity in the committee to focus on bike and pedestrian issues.

If a bill does pass before a new session begins in January, Petri will have a hand in helping craft it. But if, as most people expect, Congress punts this summer, passing some kind of extension to keep funding going while they stall on finding a sustainable revenue source, Petri will likely be out by the time real negotiations get going.

Streetsblog has requested an exit interview with Rep. Petri before he leaves office. We look forward to bringing you his parting thoughts.

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Paul Ryan’s New Budget Seeks to “Murder” Amtrak

Just four months ago, the country was hailing a bipartisan budget deal negotiated by Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray and her House counterpart, Paul Ryan. It was a respite from the deeply partisan posturing over spending that has gridlocked Washington for years. Even better, it was a two-year budget resolution, meaning it seemed the next fight would be a long way off.

Rep. Paul Ryan released an unnecessary budget proposal just to show off how badly he'd destroy transportation. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/5446900144/##Gage Skidmore/flickr##

Rep. Paul Ryan released an unnecessary budget proposal to show off his deficit hawk bona fides.
Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Not long enough.

This week, Ryan unveiled a new “Path to Prosperity,” the title he puts on all of his attempts to starve the federal government.

Ryan didn’t have to release a budget this year, but as USA Today reports, “Republicans have long emphasized the importance of outlining the party’s philosophical priorities, even if [it] stands no chance of becoming law.” In an election year, Ryan appears eager to play up his deficit hawk bona fides and put his cooperative work with Democrats behind him.

No one could accuse Ryan of cozying up to Democrats this time around.

“This proposal takes a partisan jackhammer to our transportation infrastructure at a time when we need to be working together to find ways to rebuild it,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, in a statement. “This is budget déjà vu. Just like last year, this proposal is another road to ruin, not a ‘path to prosperity.’”

While this week’s budget plan technically fits within the broad outlines of December’s bipartisan agreement, the details Ryan fills in would never have been passed by the Senate or signed by Obama.

Ryan acknowledges that “efforts need to be made to find a long-term solution to the [highway] trust fund’s financial challenges,” and asserts that he places a priority on keeping it funded with user fees. But he has never supported a gas tax increase, and he doesn’t do so here. Instead, Ryan merely slashes spending — the same unimaginative and destructive plan Rep. John Mica had a few years ago that was booed off the stage.

According to Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, Ryan’s new plan would cut surface transportation funding by $172 billion over the next 10 years.

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Rep. Joe Crowley Announces Pedestrian Safety Bill — The Third in Six Months

Rep. Joe Crowley announces his Pedestrian Fatalities Reduction Act this morning in Queens. Photo courtesy of the Office of Rep. Joe Crowley.

Rep. Joe Crowley announces his Pedestrian Fatalities Reduction Act yesterday in Queens. Photo courtesy of the Office of Rep. Joe Crowley.

Rep. Albio Sires has his New Opportunities for Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure Financing Act (HR 3978). Rep. Earl Blumenauer has his Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act (HR 3494). And now, Rep. Joe Crowley has unveiled his Pedestrian Fatalities Reduction Act.

The New York City Democrat, a supporter of Vision Zero, made the announcement yesterday morning in Queens, which suffers a high rate of pedestrian crashes. He was flanked by street safety advocates and public officials.

States are currently required to submit comprehensive, statewide Strategic Highway Safety Plans to the Federal Highway Administration in order to receive federal highway safety funds. Crowley says the SHSP “is used by state departments of transportation to outline safety needs and determine investment decisions” but that “surprisingly, federal law does not require SHSPs to include statistics on pedestrian injuries and fatalities.”

His bill [PDF] would require states to report on the rate of fatalities and serious injuries among pedestrians and “users of nonmotorized forms of transportation.” If those numbers go up, a state would have to explain in its SHSP how it will address the problem.

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Transit Benefit Reappears on the Congressional Agenda

The tax benefit for transit riders has zigzagged dizzily from parity with the car parking subsidy to second-class status. Currently, while drivers can pay for up to $250 in parking costs per month with pretax income, transit riders can’t claim more than $130. Could it zigzag back up?

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) included tax parity for transit riders in his extenders package. Photo: ##http://www.wyden.senate.gov/meet-ron/biography##Office of Sen. Ron Wyden##

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) included tax parity for transit riders in his extenders package. Photo: Office of Sen. Ron Wyden

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who took over the gavel of the Finance Committee when Max Baucus left to become ambassador to China, just introduced a package of tax extenders, which the committee will consider in a hearing Thursday. The $50 billion package, which re-instates tax benefits that have expired or are expiring, includes a provision bringing the maximum transit benefit up to $250, equal with the driving benefit, for the next two years. That would be a welcome respite from the zigzagging.

The bill has a long way to go before passage, however. It has no “pay-for,” meaning it adds $50 billion to the deficit — a tough sell in an election year. However, some of the benefits included in the package [PDF] — help with mortgages, education deductions, and assistance to members of the military, for example — may be popular enough to warrant it.

Over in the House, Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp has announced he plans to go through the extenders package policy by policy, so lawmakers can decide whether to make them permanent or kill them off. “I think we can all agree that a short extension of tax policies is no way to legislate and is even worse for the families and businesses who utilize those tax benefits,” he said in a letter to Ways and Means Committee members last week. “Moreover, it further confuses the debate as to what the real revenue baseline is. It is time for clarity in both policy and baseline.”

Camp’s plan to hold hearing after hearing on individual measures will take a long time. Wyden wants to act more quickly than that. But Camp is angling toward comprehensive tax reform, especially now that he’s announced that he’s retiring after this term. Although even his fellow Republicans have deemed his reform proposal — which pays for transportation with revenues from a changed corporate tax code — dead on arrival, Camp would clearly like to leave a legacy of some permanent reform.

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The Next Transpo Bill: Can Congress Solve the Funding Problem?

From left to right, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Catepillar Group President Stuart Levenick, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Lawrence Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, testified before House transportation leaders today. The event kicked off a new transportation bill reauthorization process. Image: ##http://transportation.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=364867## House T&I Committee##

From left to right, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Caterpillar Group President Stuart Levenick, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, testified before House transportation leaders today. The event kicked off a new transportation bill reauthorization process. Photo: House T&I Committee

It’s that time again. Just 18 months after the passage of the latest federal transportation bill, known as MAP-21, Congress has to get serious about the next one. The first hearing on the bill that will replace MAP-21 took place today in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

With gridlock the order of the day in Washington, expectations for sweeping policy reforms are low. This round of legislating will focus mainly on how to pay for the federal transportation program. The speakers today, who represented interests ranging from the construction lobby to transit unions, all stressed the need for greater certainty and pushed for a funding mechanism to support a long-term, six-year bill.

Members of the committee heard testimony from Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Stuart Levenick of industrial manufacturer Caterpillar, and Larry Hanley of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Those who testified even went so far as to suggest an outright funding crisis would be preferable to another series of short-term extensions, like the endless foot-dragging that preceded MAP-21, which itself lasted barely longer than an extension. A scenario where lawmakers let funding for transportation totally run out would at least add a sense of real urgency to negotiations, the thinking goes.

Wisconsin Congressman Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) asked the panel which outcome they’d prefer, in the case of another stalemate between Republicans and Democrats in the House.

Reed responded, “I would err on the side of short-term pain.”

Those who testified pressed for bold solutions, including alternatives to the gas tax. ”What we need to do is have a conversation in this committee where we put all options on the table,” said Reed.

Hanley suggested Congress consider a tax on financial transactions, the so called “Robin Hood” tax, to fund a 100 percent increase in transit funding, which he said was warranted by growth in major cities and young people’s declining interest in driving.

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TIGER Funding Gets 20 Percent Boost in Final 2014 Spending Bill

We’re less than a third of the way through fiscal year 2014 and we already have a budget! Well, almost — the president still has to sign it. But the House and Senate unveiled the details of the omnibus budget bill yesterday, and just having a complete bill that both parties and both chambers have agreed to is a pretty big deal.

Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski said the omnibus bill takes the transportation budget and other functions of government off "autopilot" for the first time since 2011. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/nasa_goddard/5613807476/?welcome##NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr##

Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski said the omnibus bill takes the transportation budget and other functions of government off “autopilot” for the first time since 2011. Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr

For the past few years, Congress has been unable to agree on a budget, so funding levels have essentially been frozen in place, and then various deals and sequesters have taken slices out without much strategy or forethought. “For the first time since 2011, no mission of our government will be left behind on autopilot,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski in a statement, noting that all 12 sections of the bill are complete.

The results for multi-modal transportation programs [PDF] are better than we’ve grown accustomed to. TIGER gets a 20 percent jump, from $500 million in 2013 to $600 million in 2014. The $500 million translated into $474 million in grants last year, with some taken out for planning and administration. A staffer said that $20 million of the 2014 amount is earmarked for planning, though some of that could go to help grantee communities with their planning.

Amtrak gets $1.39 billion — about $80 million more than last year, but the money comes with strings attached. The bill includes “policy reforms” for Amtrak, including overtime limits for employees and a prohibition on federal support for routes where Amtrak offers a discount of 50 percent or more off normal, peak fares — except where the loss from the discount is covered by the state and the state participates in setting the fares.

There’s nothing for high-speed rail. The Office of Sustainable Communities and its Integrated Planning and Investment Grants (formerly known as Regional Planning and Community Challenge grants) are also zeroed out.

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