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Senate Transpo Bill Sinks Under the Weight of Its Own Chicanery

Last night, the Senate voted to proceed with the consideration of the transportation bill Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Barbara Boxer had worked out. It was just a day after the body had voted to block progress, objecting that they hadn’t had time to even look at the bill.

The policy elements of the bill are largely untouched from what we’ve already seen: the Environment and Public Works Committee’s DRIVE Act and the Commerce Committee’s section on rail and safety. Much of that was largely untouched from MAP-21.

A threat to eliminate TIGER was eliminated. A new formula-based multi-modal freight program is included. Some good language on Complete Streets appears to be gone. Advocates will feel better when the transit section gets fleshed out, and the Banking Committee is still MIA. This bill just doesn’t include earth-shaking policy changes.

But truly, the uproar over it has never been about policy. It’s all about funding. You know this because you haven’t been living under a rock for the last five years.

Because of the unreasonable and unyielding refusal on the part of just about everyone in the Washington political machinery to raise the gas tax, they’re left with a grab-bag of gimmicky pay-fors, or offsets, taken from other pieces of government programs. Here is the sad summary:

Image: ##

Table: CFRB

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Senate Committee Moves to Eliminate TIGER Program in Next Transpo Bill

Normal, Illinois, transformed its downtown and improved its transportation options thanks to a TIGER grant. Photo: ## for America##

A TIGER grant helped Normal, Illinois, create a more walkable downtown and new transit hub. Photo: Transportation for America

The Republican-controlled Senate is poised to eliminate the TIGER program, one of the few sources of federal funds that cities can access directly to improve streets and transit.

While the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s outline for its portion of a six-year bill was a marginal improvement on the status quo, the Commerce Committee’s portion, known as the rail and safety title, may wipe out a program with a proven track record of success. The committee plans to pass the bill tomorrow morning and send it to the full Senate.

The worst aspect is the elimination of the TIGER grant program, which in its 7-year history has provided funding for multi-modal projects that found little support from other federal programs. By working directly with cities and regional agencies, TIGER bypassed state DOTs more interested in big highway projects than enhancing transit, biking, and walking options.

The Commerce Committee cynically says its plan “formally authorizes the TIGER transportation grants program,” merely “refocusing” it on freight infrastructure. TIGER has always been a boon to freight projects that had trouble accessing federal dollars, but it has also funded projects to make streets safer, heal scars left by urban highways, and improve transit service. The committee can’t take eligibility away from those types of projects and still call the program “TIGER.”

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Senate Committee Passes DRIVE Act Unanimously After Some Tinkering

Given the bipartisan gushing that accompanied the release of the DRIVE Act on Tuesday, it came as no surprise that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the bill unanimously yesterday, with more gushing for good measure.

The insertion of a few little words will make the DRIVE Act a virtual complete streets policy for the entire National Highway System (except interstates). Photo: ## Arambula##

The insertion of a few little words into the DRIVE Act may lead to safer designs for walking and biking on major streets. Photo: Crandall Arambula

None of the 30-odd amendments offered for the DRIVE Act passed, but the committee leadership did accept some changes in what’s called a manager’s amendment, a group of amendments agreed to by the chair and ranking member and inserted into the bill. By and large, these small changes improved upon some provisions that were already a step up from the current law, known as MAP-21.

Transportation Alternatives Program: The bill had already improved upon MAP-21’s version of Transportation Alternatives Program by giving all biking and walking money directly to local governments instead of giving half to the state. But in its original form, the DRIVE Act allowed states to take back half that money, making the “improvement” symbolic at best. The manager’s mark struck that part, meaning local communities will have the certainty that they can spend 100 percent of their biking and walking funds without fear of having some taken away.

Complete Streets: Inhofe and Boxer added the word “safety” in a key place: a provision requiring traffic engineers to consider “the access and safety” of non-automobile modes on non-interstate roads. According to Caron Whitaker of the League of American Bicyclists, “These two changes taken together come very close to a Complete Streets policy for the National Highway System.”

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Boxer and Inhofe Say Transportation Bill Almost Ready, Funding Still TBD

Two leading Washington lawmakers assured reporters Wednesday that a long-term transportation bill is coming, but provided little in the way of details.

Senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, respectively, held a press conference Wednesday featuring a line-up of construction and labor leaders demanding “action on transportation.” The event is shown in the above video in its entirety.

Inhofe told reporters a draft six-year bill is almost ready. Just six weeks remain before the current extension of MAP-21 expires, and the Highway Trust Fund is set to run out of money in July — potentially threatening the construction season.

A critical hurdle for lawmakers is settling on a funding source to replace the declining gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993. Just yesterday a bipartisan group from the House asked Congress to raise it.

But little was said about funding at the press conference. Boxer said while she is supportive, there isn’t much appetite for an increase in taxes on gasoline or crude oil. “I will do almost anything to fill that trust fund,” she said.

Boxer said she would be “dropping a bill” with Rand Paul to generate revenues by “repatriating” overseas profits on U.S. corporations hiding out overseas to avoid taxes.

“I’m hopeful that this type of reform can bring us together and unite us,” she said. The Hill reports lawmakers are divided on whether to make that 5 percent tax on corporate profits overseas voluntary or mandatory. Paul and Boxer say the repatriation tax bill could bring $2 trillion in revenue.


Movement in Congress to Let Cities and Towns Access Federal Transpo Funds

A state-level funding grant program in Pennsylvania is helping fund this campus master plan for Drexel University in Philadelphia. Image: Transportation for America

A grant program in Pennsylvania is helping fund the campus master plan for Drexel University in Philadelphia. Image: Transportation for America

Finally, proof that Congress is capable of crafting smart transportation legislation and not just zany ways to avoid raising the gas tax.

A bipartisan coalition of 10 lawmakers is supporting the Innovation in Surface Transportation Act, which would help cities, counties, and other local governments directly access federal funding for transportation projects, according to Transportation for America.

The proposal, first floated last year, would let local governments compete for at least $5 billion of the $50 billion or so in federal transportation funds allocated to states each year.

Under the bill, local agencies in each state would apply for grants, with a statewide committee selecting winners. The committees could include, for example, local chambers of commerce, active transportation advocates, transit agencies, air quality boards, ports, and others.

The bill would make better use of federal transportation dollars for two main reasons:

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Obama’s New Transportation Budget: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

With federal transportation funding on track to run dry by May 31, Washington lawmakers are gearing up again to reset national transportation policy… or, if that doesn’t work out, to limp along indefinitely under the status quo.

Unlike the U.S., China is opening high-capacity transit lines left and right. Photo of Beijing metro: Xinhua

Today President Obama unveiled his opening bid in this process. The $478-billion, six-year plan from the White House includes many of the proposals the administration unveiled last year. Congress didn’t advance those ideas then, and with the GOP now controlling both houses, chances remain slim for reforming highway-centric federal transportation policy.

But the White House budget document remains the best summary of the Obama team’s transportation policy agenda. The ideas are intriguing even if they’re politically improbable.

Here’s a look at the highlights [PDF].

The Good

Boosts Transit Funding: Obama proposes a large increase in transit funding, budgeting $23 billion in 2016 and a total of $123 billion to transit over six years. That would represent a 75 percent increase over current levels. The would go toward both expansions and the maintenance and improvement of light rail, BRT, subway, and commuter rail networks.

Promotes State DOT Reform: The Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation program would “create incentives” for state DOTs and other transportation agencies to reform how they approach road safety and congestion management. Funded at $1 billion annually, the program would fund initiatives like “distracted driving (safety) requirements or modifying transportation plans to include mass transit, bike, and pedestrian options,” the White House says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hastily-Debated Collins Measure Could Put More Tired Truckers on the Road

Truck crashes killed almost 4,000 people in 2012. Sen. Susan Collins wants to suspend a safety rule aimed at reducing that number. Screenshot from ##

Truck crashes killed almost 4,000 people in 2012. Sen. Susan Collins wants to suspend a safety rule aimed at reducing that number. Screenshot from 6ABC

It just wouldn’t be Congress if we weren’t trying to debate substantive policy changes, with drastic implications for public safety, with a government shutdown deadline fast approaching.

As Congress tries to wrap up the hideously-named “cromnibus” (continuing resolution (CR) + omnibus) spending bill for the rest of FY 2015 by Thursday, one provision is attracting a heated debate over road safety.

An amendment introduced over the summer by Maine Senator Susan Collins would repeal elements of a 2011 U.S. DOT rule requiring truck drivers to get adequate rest. The two basic pillars of that hours-of-service rule are: 1) drivers have to take a 30-minute rest break within the first eight hours of their shift, and, more contentiously, 2) drivers have to take a 34-hour “restart” period once every seven days. That 34-hour rest period must include two consecutive overnights between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. According to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, “The net effect of these changes was to reduce the average maximum week a driver could work from 82 hours to 70 hours.”

The Collins amendment would maintain the 34-hour rest mandate but would remove the requirement that it include two overnights, and it would allow drivers to take more than one restart in a seven-day period, thereby starting a new 70-hour workweek.

Truck crashes caused 3,921 deaths in 2012 [PDF]. Bloomberg News reports that the fatal-crash rate increased each year from 2009 through 2012, reversing a five-year trend.

Sec. Foxx noted in his blog post that most truckers “behave responsibly and drive well within reasonable limits,” but that the rules guard against those “who are tempted to push the limits.”

“Additionally, new research available on the subject demonstrated that long work hours, without sufficient recovery time, lead to reduced sleep and chronic fatigue,” Foxx wrote. “That fatigue leads drivers to have slower reaction times and a reduced ability to assess situations quickly.” He added that drivers often can’t accurately assess their own fatigue.

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Congress Gives Itself More Free Parking Than Its Own Rules Allow

How much are these free parking spots worth? Probably more than the $250 parking benefit Congress allows. Photo: ##

How much are these free parking spots worth? More than the $250 per month in tax-free parking benefits that Congress allows. Photo: JMT

As TransitCenter and the Frontier Group reported last week, the federal government pays a huge $7.3 billion subsidy to people who drive to work by making commuter parking expenses tax exempt. There are countless reasons for Congress to scrap this poorly-conceived, congestion-inducing subsidy. While policymakers consider the big picture, they also ought to examine how their own parking benefits are administered.

Here’s the short version: Congress is breaking its own law, and it’s shorting the Treasury hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, by providing free parking far in excess of the allowable limits.

USC 26 Section 132f of the tax code allows employers to provide each worker with up to $250 in free parking per month tax-free, which can add up to $3,000 in tax-free perks per employee each year. That’s a pretty big amount to pay people for exacerbating congestion, but the parking at the U.S. Capitol is worth significantly more than that.

It’s hard to know exactly how many free parking spaces we’re talking about. The Architect of the Capitol and relevant committees don’t like to talk about it, but Lydia DePillis reported in the Washington City Paper a few years ago that a plan for the southern part of the Capitol complex completed in 2005 shows that the House office buildings alone have 5,772 parking spaces assigned to them.

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Bi-partisan Senate Bill Would Give Locals More Say Over Transpo Spending


Improving local access to transportation funds would help build project’s like the multi-modal Atlanta BeltLine. Rendering: Atlanta BeltLine

When it comes to transportation funding, cities and towns occupy the bottom of the totem pole. The vast majority of federal transportation money goes to states, to the exclusion of local governments. That means state DOTs get tens of billions to spend on highways each year, while mayors and local agencies have to scrounge for money to improve transit, build sidewalks, or add bike lanes.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate Thursday could give local governments greater access to federal funding. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced the Innovation in Surface Transportation Act — Senate Bill 2891 [PDF] — which would set aside some federal transportation money for states to redistribute to cities and towns on a competitive basis.

Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker says municipalities around his state want access to federal transportation funds. Photo: Senator Wicker

Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker says municipalities around his state want access to federal transportation funds. Photo: Senator Wicker

The legislation would devote 10 percent of federal surface transportation funding — or about $5 billion per year — to local-level projects. The funds would be split up between the states, and in each state a panel would distribute the money on a competitive basis to local governments, transit agencies, and regional planning agencies.

Senator Wicker said the bill is supported by localities across Mississippi as well as the Mississippi Municipal League.

“Local officials in Mississippi are on the front lines of America’s transportation challenges but often lack the resources to pay for critical improvements,” he said in a statement. “This measure would enable these local leaders to have a larger role in deciding which projects merit consideration. In doing so, leaders could implement the most targeted and cost-effective solutions to meet unique and urgent infrastructure needs.”

Three other senators — Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania), and Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi) — have also signed on as sponsors. The Senate bill has a companion in the House — HR 4726, which has been held up in committee.

David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, a leading supporter of the measure, said he doesn’t expect the bill to be passed into law before the holiday recess. But support for the bill today, he said, could help shape the next transportation bill.

Transportation for America is asking supporters to email their senators and urge them to support the measure.