Skip to content

Posts from the "House of Representatives" Category

3 Comments

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.

Read more…

No Comments

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.

Read more…

8 Comments

Will Old Transit Systems Eat Up All the New Starts Grants?

The first Core Capacity grant of the New Starts program will ease overcrowding on Chicago's red and purple lines. Photo: Michael Boyd/##http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/how-to-fix-the-el-cta/Content?oid=3473194##Chicago Reader##

The first Core Capacity grant of the New Starts program will ease overcrowding on Chicago’s red and purple lines. Photo: Michael Boyd/Chicago Reader

One of MAP-21’s many mixed blessings was the New Starts Core Capacity program. It expanded eligibility for New Starts grants — normally reserved as capital assistance for new transit lines — to existing corridors. To qualify, the system just had to show that the improvements would expand the capacity of the line by at least 10 percent.

The double-edged sword is this: The expanded mission didn’t come with any more money. In fact, the Federal Transit Administration saw its funding for New Starts/Small Starts frozen for several years, and then faced a 7 percent cut with the sequester for 2014. Luckily, the budget deal appears to have saved them from that, and though details are still forthcoming, it may mean a more modest 2 percent cut. Less horrific than was feared, perhaps, but still less money for more eligible projects.

That’s led some people to fear that the smaller, newer systems New Starts has traditionally targeted could lose out to legacy systems in major transit markets like New York and Boston. Those concerns came out last week during a Highway and Transit Subcommittee hearing in Congress, focusing on the new program.

“With the expanded eligibilities, one could see a potential situation in which a handful of expensive projects in large urban areas could monopolize the New Starts funding over several years,” said subcommittee chair Tom Petri (R-WI) in his opening remarks. “This could come at the expense of funding opportunities for new public transportation systems in the rest of the country.”

The first New Starts Core Capacity grant to an existing line was put in the project pipeline last month — for Chicago’s red and purple lines, a $4 billion project.

Read more…

25 Comments

Lawmakers Score Conservative Bona Fides By Attacking Efficient Transport

Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Congressman Tom Graves (R-Georgia) have introduced a bill to eliminate federal involvement in transportation policy, which would spell disaster for funding that supports transit, biking, and walking. A largely symbolic vote in favor of “devolution” will allow Republican members of Congress to demonstrate their conservative bona fides.

Senator Mike Lee is one of 21 Republicans sponsoring a bill to eliminate the federal role in transportation. Image: ##http://blog.heritage.org/2013/11/15/changing-transportation-status-quo-empowering-states/## The Foundry##

Senator Mike Lee is one of 21 Republicans sponsoring a bill that would decimate funds for transit, biking, and walking. Image: The Foundry

The Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA) — get it? — is sponsored by 21 lawmakers, all Republicans. The Hill reports that the arch-conservative Heritage Action group will be scoring lawmakers on how they vote. The bill would reduce the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents over five years and turn all spending decisions over to state governments.

Heritage Foundation writer Emily Goff, in her report on TEA, specifically notes that the bill would decimate dedicated funds for transit, biking, and walking projects. Heritage sees that as a big plus:

Under the current highway bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, at least 25 percent of authorized funding for FY 2013 was diverted to non-general purpose roads and bridges. Transit, the largest diversion, received $8.5 billion, or 17 percent, of authorized funds. Other diversions include $809 million authorized for the transportation alternatives program (TAP), which pays for bicycle and nature paths, sidewalks, and community preservation activities, none of which reduce congestion or improve mobility for the motorists paying for them.

Heritage remains oddly silent on the massive subsidies that pay for roads. Nor do they seem to notice the enormous, wasteful boondoggles perpetuated routinely by states.

And Heritage doesn’t seem convinced that making transportation systems more efficient in the nation’s economic hubs, lowering the death toll from nearly 34,000 traffic fatalities per year, and reducing dependence on fossil fuels are in the national interest. Your state might not lie along a major freight corridor, but freight bottlenecks and delays cost all of us.

Conservative lawmakers have been trying unsuccessfully to enact devolution since the mid-1990s. House Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) has made it his mission to persuade even the most conservative of Republicans that the founding fathers and free-market thinkers including Adam Smith intended a strong federal role in transportation — and he intends to keep it that way.

No Comments

Another Bike/Ped Safety Bill Coming Soon, Courtesy of Rep. Albio Sires

Yesterday was a great day for Congressional support for bicycle safety! Two Democrats and two Republicans introduced a bill to make states set separate performance measures for bike and pedestrian safety. And in addition, Rep. Albio Sires, a New Jersey Democrat, announced on the floor of the House of Representatives that he’ll be introducing a bill to help low-income communities invest in biking and walking.

Rep. Albio Sires spoke on the House floor yesterday to preview a bike safety bill he plans to introduce.

Rep. Albio Sires spoke on the House floor yesterday to preview a bike safety bill he plans to introduce.

His remarks came on the heels of yesterday’s release of national safety data that confirmed that pedestrian and cyclist fatalities comprise a growing share of overall traffic deaths.

Sires said that he was inspired to action by a report the Sierra Club and the League of American Bicyclists released this spring called, “The New Majority: Pedaling Towards Equity.”

Here’s what Sires said on the House floor:

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to talk about the importance of investing in safe infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists. I recently read a report presented by the Sierra Club and League of American Bicyclists, entitled The New Majority: Pedaling towards Equity, and as someone who rides a bicycle regularly, I think there’s a lot to be excited about in their findings. Across the nation, bike ridership is up — and the numbers are impressive. From 2001 to 2009 there has been a 22 percent increase in bike trips among white Americans, 50 percent for Hispanics, 80 percent for Asian Americans, 100 percent among African Americans, and there’s plenty of room for those numbers to grow.

Unfortunately, concerns about access to safe infrastructure remains a barrier for many would-be riders. I believe we must do more in Congress to address that. It’s a simple fact that when we invest in complete streets with safe pedestrian and bicycle pathways, we create communities where businesses want to invest and families want to live. That is why I plan to introduce a bill in the coming weeks that will create innovative new ways of financing non-motorized infrastructure projects. I am hopeful that this legislation will attract bipartisan support here in Congress, so that Americans of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy equitable access to safe roads.

6 Comments

Was TIGER Eliminated in the Shutdown Deal?

Soon after the government shutdown ended, we heard murmurs that the TIGER grant program for innovative transportation projects had been a casualty of the negotiations.

Congress's inability to do anything has meant a temporary de-funding of TIGER. Photo: Wikimedia

Under the rules of the Office of Management and Budget, any program that was de-funded in either chamber’s bill would be de-funded in the continuing resolution (the temporary budget) until it can be replaced by an approved appropriations bill. That’s to ensure compliance with the Anti-Deficiency Act, which basically says Congress shouldn’t allocate money to a program for a given year if it’s later going to say that program has no budget for that year.

The House, as usual, de-funded TIGER in its budget proposal, while the Senate dutifully allocated $474 million for the fifth round of TIGER grants and another $550 million for a sixth round. Neither chamber passed the budget on the floor, but the OMB rule that ended up de-funding TIGER only requires that the bill be voted out of committee, which it was in both chambers.

Thankfully, this CR only lasts through January 15, 2014. But then what? Congress has four options:

  1. Pass a 2014 budget. Outlook: negative. Congress hasn’t passed a budget since 2009. It’s nice of the Senate to even bother going through the motions these days, which they didn’t for a few years. If Congress did, miraculously, agree on a budget to send to the president, it’s anyone’s guess whether TIGER would be included.
  2. Pass another continuing resolution through the end of FY2014. That would reinstate TIGER funding at last year’s levels, since there would be no risk of a full-year bill violating the Anti-Deficiency Act. Technically, the House could insist on a rider to the CR zeroing out TIGER, but those sorts of things severely gum up the process and it’s unlikely they’d bother for something so small and low-profile.
  3. Pass another short-term CR for just a few weeks or months. TIGER and just about everything else would remain in limbo.
  4. Shut down the government. It could happen.

Even worse: On January 15, when a new budget or CR will have to come into effect to prevent yet another government shutdown, they’ll have to deal with a new round of sequester cuts. Luckily, much of the painful part is already over. Though the 2014 cuts look big — $109.3 billion — that’s the reduction from pre-sequestration levels, not 2013 levels. “Only” another $20 billion needs to come out of the budget this time around, and almost exclusively from defense. So the most vulnerable transportation programs like New Starts and Amtrak, which come out of discretionary, not mandatory, spending, needn’t suffer too much.

That won’t stop the House from trying, of course.

4 Comments

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.

Read more…

1 Comment

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.

Read more…

No Comments

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.

No Comments

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.