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Is Your Rep a Member of the New Public Transportation Caucus Yet?

The answer to that question is: Probably not. Reps. Daniel Lipinski, a Democrat from Chicago, and Michael Grimm, a Republican representing Staten Island and a little slice of Brooklyn, announced their new transit-focused Congressional caucus just last week, and this week the House has been in recess.

Rep. Lipinski, pictured here between Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Illinois DOT Secretary Gary Hannig on a Metra train, has formed a Public Transportation Caucus in the House. Photo: CREATE

But according to Lipinski spokesperson Guy Tridgell, there has been interest from other lawmakers, and Lipinski and Grimm will be reaching out to colleagues in the coming weeks to recruit more membership.

Rep. Lipinski is well-known for his support for transit and complete streets. He fought hard against the GOP effort to strip transit out of the Highway Trust Fund in 2012 and has been pushing hard to get more frequent service on the Metra commuter line that runs through his district. Lipinski is also a big believer in federal support for bike and pedestrian projects like Safe Routes to School.

Lipinski is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee but doesn’t serve on the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, serving instead on both Railroads and Aviation.

Congressional caucuses don’t have any formal duties, but Tridgell said the Public Transportation Caucus will be an active one. Aside from engaging on any issue that arises in the House, Tridgell said it will focus on state of good repair for transit systems. Though caucuses don’t hold hearings like committees do, Tridgell said the Public Transportation Caucus would gather input from stakeholders, including riders, employers, transit operators, business community.

Rep. Grimm is one of a small handful of Republicans to publicly support transit. He represents the only borough of New York not connected to the city’s subway system. By New York standards, Staten Island is fairly car-dependent, but by the standards of most of the country’s Republican districts, it’s a transit paradise.

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Will the Nation’s First Strategic Freight Plan be Multi-Modal?

Congress is joining U.S. DOT in committing more resources to a national freight plan, a more strategic way of moving goods than the current haphazard and fragmented current approach. As mandated by MAP-21, U.S. DOT is working on a strategic plan for a nationwide freight network, and last month, Congress kicked off its contribution, holding an inaugural hearing of the new, specially-appointed freight panel of the House Transportation Committee. At that first hearing, panel members heard from representatives of the trucking, freight rail, and shipping industries, as well as labor.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler headed a special panel hearing on freight last month in Washington. Image: The Political Carnival

The Congressional panel on freight will be traveling the country over the next few months seeking input on the nationwide freight plan.

At the hearing, Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) emphasized the need to develop a 21st century freight transportation system in a way that doesn’t prioritize highways over other modes.

“MAP-21 authorized some incentives to encourage states to develop highway freight plans… and required the Federal Highway Administration to designate a national freight network,” Nadler said. “There remains much work to be done to expand this vision to include all modes of transportation — highway, rail, water and air — to ensure that the resources are available to implement this vision.”

In the past, Obama administration officials have asserted some modal preferences in the “goods movement hierarchy.” Deputy Secretary John Porcari said in 2010 that “we want to keep goods movement on water as long as possible, and then on rail as long as possible and truck it for the last miles.”

Each panel witness provided recommendations guided by his own industry’s self-interest, and none offered a broad, multi-modal philosophy. There did seem to be general agreement on a few matters, primarily that the federal government has a role to play in funding major freight projects.

Fred Smith, president of FedEx, contended that regulations allowing bigger trucks would improve efficiency and environmental outcomes — an argument refuted by opponents who point out that bigger, heavier trucks will require more road maintenance and pose a greater danger on the roads.

Smith, like nearly all the other panelists, argued for more revenue.

“We need a funding mechanism in the form of a revised fuel tax or vehicle mileage tax, which the user community almost universally supports to fund additional infrastructure, particularly in the more congested parts of the country,” he said.

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A Golden Opportunity for Congress to Avoid the Transportation “Fiscal Cliff”

The Highway Trust Fund is expected to slip into negative territory in 2015. Estimates are based on CBO's February 2013 baseline projections. Image: CBO

MAP-21 expires in a year and five months. When it does, if lawmakers haven’t already found a solution to the “transportation fiscal cliff,” they’ll have to do one of three things, according to a report issued last week by the Congressional Budget Office [PDF]:

  • Transfer $14 billion more in general funds
  • Raise the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon
  • Cut the authority to obligate funds in 2015 from about $51 billion projected under current law to about $4 billion

“If lawmakers chose to wait until fiscal year 2015,” wrote CBO analyst Sarah Puro, “at the expiration of MAP-21, to reduce spending, those cuts in 2015 would need to total about 92 percent for the highway account and 100 percent for the transit account.”

It couldn’t be clearer. Congress has to stop dithering and start working on a revenue solution, stat. Oh, and the president and his new secretary of transportation have to get behind it, guns blazing.

Congress has three potential vehicles for a revenue solution: 1) a “grand bargain” on the deficit, the sequester and the fiscal cliff, 2) tax reform, and 3) the next surface transportation bill.

And what will that “revenue solution” be? The simplest, most easily implemented fix is a gas tax hike, but over the long term, taxing fossil fuels as a way to pay for transportation infrastructure just won’t cut it.

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Congress Indulges in Crazy Talk About De-Funding Transit and Taxing Bikes

The House is a dangerous place these days. You want to have a fruitful conversation about how to solve the transportation funding crisis and you end up ruminating about whether to tax bikes.

Watch out, Robert Poole, if you sit too close to that guy in the audience with the bike pin, you might start to have progressive thoughts about transportation!

That’s what happened to Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). He requested that the Budget Committee hold a hearing on the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund, but guess who controls the agenda? Not Earl Blumenauer! Committee Chair Paul Ryan controls the agenda. And he invited Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation and Richard Geddes of Cornell University and the American Enterprise Institute as the Republican witnesses.

Ryan didn’t stick around past his opening statement – he had other business to attend to – but guess who he passed the gavel to? Rep. Scott Garrett of New Jersey – the guy who keeps sponsoring a bill to diminish the federal role in transportation funding and pass it along to the states. This hearing was clearly going to be a doozy.

Highways only and forever

The hearing started off crazy and just got crazier. Poole got right to the point: Let’s stop funding anything but highways out of the Highway Trust Fund. There’s plenty of money in it if we only spend it on highways – and not just any old highways either, only the ones with a role in interstate commerce. You know, the ones that are “truly federal.”

Not only that, let’s move the Federal Transit Administration out of U.S. DOT and into the Department of Housing and Urban Development – “That would be consistent with the increasing emphasis at FTA on smart growth, community economic development and so forth.” Essentially, let those woolly urban liberals go crazy over at HUD — we weren’t using that agency anyway. Let’s keep DOT clean of all that livability junk.

Oh, and let that new HUD FTA fight for general funds every year, instead of having guaranteed income from a trust fund.

Some more tolling could be helpful, too, Poole said; some public-private partnerships, some private activity bonds, TIFIA, and let’s talk about switching to a mileage-based user fee, or VMT tax – but really, the red meat here is highways and only highways.

Thanks, Robert Poole. Next up, Richard Geddes wanted to talk about the insustainability of any funding mechanism that depends on the burning of fossil fuels and the benefits of a VMT fee — a decent start. But the part of his talk that Rep. Garrett homed in on was the mention of a “permanent” public trust fund (basically a Highway Trust Fund, but invested in the stock market). Garrett speculated that Washington would get its mitts on that “permanent” fund and “use it for different things – highway beautification, bike paths – ooh, great things” but not what highway money should be used for.

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Reps. Duncan and Nadler Will Lead New T&I Panel on Freight

MAP-21 pushed U.S. DOT to get serious about freight: In recent months, the agency has announced the creation of a national freight policy, a National Freight Advisory Committee, and a Freight Policy Council, as mandated by the bill.

Will the new House panel on freight focus on rail or just highways? Photo: Emotional Intelligence

Now the House Transportation Committee is getting in on the action. The committee announced today that Rep. John Duncan (R-TN), vice-chair of the full committee, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) will lead a new “Panel on 21st Century Freight Transportation.” The panel, being multi-modal in scope, will bring together members that serve on the various modal subcommittees.

“In the past, the conversation about freight transportation and goods movement has focused only on one specific mode of transportation or another,” said Rep. Duncan in a statement.  “But freight doesn’t move just by ship, or by rail car, or by truck. Chances are the goods you buy at the store got on the shelves thanks to all those methods of transportation. Bottlenecks during any leg of that journey from the manufacturer to the market drive up costs. That’s why improving the flow of freight across all modes of transportation is so critical to a healthy economy.”

“The movement of freight is one of the most critical transportation questions for the 21st century,” added Rep. Nadler. “How we prioritize, invest, and develop freight infrastructure will have considerable bearing on how our economy grows, how we compete on the world stage, and how we create a sustainable and environmentally clean future at home.”

A focus on multi-modalism and environmental sustainability would be a welcome addition to the conversation. Though a national conversation about freight movement is long overdue, it’s gotten a bumpy start: Advocates are nervous that the new freight councils and committees could repeat the errors of the past and focus too much on highways. It didn’t help when Sec. Ray LaHood suggested building 3,000 miles of new roads as part of the freight plan.

The House panel will serve for six months, beginning with its first hearing on April 24.

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Congress, Administration Trade Gimmicky Ideas For Keeping Amtrak Afloat

Image: Amtrak

At today’s hearing on Amtrak’s budget proposal, the nation’s rail leaders met with a different kind of Congressional leadership than in it has in recent years. The vibe of the meeting was significantly less combative — with the primary exception being Rep. John Mica’s reprise of his famous role as Amtrak villain. Here are some highlights:

Budget request. First, the topline numbers [PDF]: Amtrak made its formal budget request to Congress two weeks ago, asking for $373 million in operating support – 17 percent less than it requested in 2013 – and $2.065 billion in capital support. It needs less operating support now because skyrocketing ridership is allowing Amtrak to cover more and more – 88 percent this year — of its operating costs through ticket sales.

Dedicated funding. FRA Administrator Joe Szabo and Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman advocated for rail’s inclusion in a dedicated “transportation trust fund.” They said that would make rail funding more stable and predictable and help bring rail into parity with other modes. Recent history shows that a dedicated fund hasn’t saved highways and transit from severe uncertainty and piecemeal funding. The real solution, as always, is to increase revenues to stabilize the trust fund.

The peace dividend. Republicans can be forgiven for dismissing it as a gimmick, but the administration continues to insist that the “savings” from the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan can help pay for infrastructure. The plan, as Szabo laid it out, is to dedicate $300 billion of the $600 billion “savings” to deficit reduction, then spend $214 billion to fully fund highways and transit through 2020, and then add rail into the equation with a $40 billion infusion.

Rural service. “Aviation is leaving these rural communities, inter-city buses are leaving these rural communities, and rural America has to have some transportation options,” Administrator Szabo told Rail Subcommittee Chair Jeff Denham (R-CA). Denham agreed and said he would look into holding a hearing to focus exclusively on mobility options in rural America. (Szabo also noted that inter-city buses, which often get praised for not requiring public support, benefit from billions of dollars in highway subsidies.)

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Rep. Scott Garrett Wants to Let Dead-Broke States Go It Alone on Transpo

In order to “address our insolvent transportation program and end the taxpayer bailouts of the Highway Trust Fund,” Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ) has introduced a bill to let states “opt out” of the federal transportation program altogether.

Rep. Scott Garrett's own state would likely not do well under his plan to hand states the reins on transportation funding. Photo: Pete Marovich/Zuma via Mother Jones

In true devolutionist fantasy style, Garrett says he wants to give states the option to forgo their transportation allocations and keep the 18.4 cents per gallon that now is charged as a federal tax.

It harkens back to the old griping from “donor” states that they pay more in gas taxes than they get back in formula funds, only there’s no such thing as a donor state anymore because of the constant stream of federal bailouts. Garrett says that’s the target of his bill.

“For our children and our grandchildren’s future, we must put an end to Washington bailouts,” said Garrett upon introducing the bill. “On top of the bailouts to the banks and car companies, the hardworking American taxpayers have bailed out the Highway Trust Fund no less than three times over the last five years. It must stop.”

Garrett’s press release also notes that MAP-21 provided for $18.8 billion more from the general fund in 2013 and 2014.

He says letting states opt out of the federal program would “free up states’ transportation dollars from federal micromanagement” – though MAP-21 gave states an even longer leash than they’d asked for.

Giving states sole authority over the nation’s infrastructure is a funny way to “solve” the infrastructure funding problem. First of all, the recession has been brutally hard on states, forcing cuts to just about every program, no matter how essential. Second, virtually all states are constitutionally bound to balance their budgets. Maybe that’s Garrett’s big idea – states can’t run up deficits like the feds can, so let the states handle it. That’s a recipe for either massive cuts in infrastructure spending – fresh on the heels of the latest D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers – or tax hikes.

Garrett’s bill is almost definitely going nowhere (he introduced the same bill two years ago, and it died without any serious consideration), but it would be interesting to consider what would happen if his home state opted out of the federal transportation program.

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Congress to U.S. DOT: The Roads Aren’t Safe Until They’re Safe For Everyone

Yes, traffic fatalities have been (mostly) going down, but as long as cyclist and pedestrian fatalities keep going up, we can’t truly say our streets and roads are getting safer. That’s the message from 68 members of Congress to one pretty receptive audience: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Lawmakers say states should be making sure their streets are safe for everyone. Photo: Tiffany Robinson, Ped-Bike Images

In their letter to LaHood, sent on Saturday, the 68 lawmakers – including nine Republicans — note that between 2010 and 2011, driving got safer: Roadway fatalities dropped 2 percent overall; 4.6 percent for occupants of cars and light trucks. But bicyclist fatalists went up 9 percent and pedestrian deaths rose 3 percent in the same time period.

LaHood announced earlier this month that U.S. DOT would be holding two bike safety summits this year. But the lawmakers want the agency to go further. And they didn’t just ask in vague terms for increased attention to safety. They got specific: U.S. DOT should create “separate performance measures for non-motorized and motorized users.”

If it sounds like they might have gotten some ideas from people deep inside the bike advocacy world, well, you got that right. Hundreds of Bike Summit participants made this their key “ask” earlier this month when they visited their representatives on Capitol Hill. Apparently their representatives listened.

SAFETEA-LU, passed in 2005, required states to set goals for reducing overall fatalities but included no specific reporting requirements for biking and walking. Without state attention, vulnerable road users have become even more vulnerable, with fatalities increasing both in real numbers and as a percentage of roadway fatalities, according to Caron Whitaker of the League of American Bicyclists.

One-third of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee signed on to the letter, giving DOT a good sense how the committee wants them to interpret MAP-21. “When Congress set performance measures areas, they were saying, ‘These are the things we are going to judge you on,’” Whitaker said in an email. “If bicyclists and pedestrians aren’t included in the performance measures, we risk being left behind.”

“In over half of all states, more than 10 percent of roadway fatalities are bicyclists and pedestrians but yet only seven states report investing in any bicycling and walking safety projects,” she added.

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Sen. Patty Murray Increases Transportation Investment in 2014 Budget

So, right now you’re thinking, “God save me, not another post about the budget!”

Sen. Patty Murray proposes $100 billion for transportation in her FY 2014 budget. Photo: Puget Sound Business Journal/Kent Hoover

And you’re to be forgiven. There are two versions of the FY 2013 budget out there right now (House and Senate), for a year that’s half over. There are the budget cuts from the sequester that everyone’s still waiting to feel the full impact of. Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the Budget Committee, put out his FY 2014 blueprint Tuesday. And Wednesday, Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) rolled out her budget proposal. Considering how dysfunctional every single one of these budget processes is, it’s no wonder we plug our ears at more budget news.

But there is a silver lining: Murray’s budget, which her committee approved yesterday, contains a $100 billion “targeted jobs and infrastructure package” that would focus on transportation.

It includes $50 billion to create jobs repairing “our nation’s highest priority deteriorating
transportation infrastructure” — fixing roads, bridges, and airports, and also “updating”
mass transit systems, which could mean more than just state of good repair. She notes that a 21st century transportation system includes “road projects that make room for bicyclists and pedestrians, bridge projects that include transit as well as cars and trucks, and regional plans that require multiple jurisdictions to work together.” She also mentions that transit is essential, as “building more roads alone will not solve the nation’s congestion challenge.”

Murray’s proposal also creates an infrastructure bank to leverage private sector investment, seeded at $10 billion, as Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Jay Rockefeller recently proposed, and as former Sens. John Kerry and Kay Bailey Hutchison had also proposed.

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Lawmakers Fret About Impact of Budget Cuts on Transit

“In 2014, federal investment in surface transportation — which is currently about $50 billion per year — will drop to $6 billion or $7 billion. In one year.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio says underinvestment in transit is killing people, and it's about to get way worse.

Those were the dire words spoken by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) at the start of this morning’s Transportation & Infrastructure Committee hearing on MAP-21. What he meant was this: At the end of MAP-21, the Highway Trust Fund is expected to have a balance of almost zero and a $7.1 billion shortfall in 2015. Congress would have to radically reduce FY 2015 highway and transit investment levels to ensure that the trust fund remains solvent. According to AASHTO, federal highway investments would have to be cut from approximately $41 billion to $6 billion and transit investment from $11 billion to $3 billion.

“That is pathetic,” DeFazio said. “And we have to do something about it.”

Funding Cuts Force FTA to Break Agreements

T&I Chair Bill Shuster agreed. “That’s our biggest challenge moving forward,” he said. And Ranking Democrat Nick Rahall added that the sequester cuts and Congress’s inability to pass a real budget has compounded the funding crisis.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff warned that the cuts will have a profound impact on transit projects around the country:

Overall, the sequester struck $656 million from FTA’s budget. It reduced program funding for our [New Starts] capital investment grants program by almost $100 million. This will means that few, if any, New Starts construction projects will be fundable in the near term.

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