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EPW Big Four Announce Plan to Maintain Status Quo for the Next Transpo Bill

Sen. Barbara Boxer, together with Sens. Carper, Vitter and Barrasso, announced their agreement to maintain the status quo with the next bill. Screenshot from press conference.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, together with Sens. Carper, Vitter and Barrasso, announced their agreement to maintain the status quo with the next bill. Screenshot from press conference.

Last year, while the House flailed in partisan misery, the Senate passed a transportation bill 74 to 22. When the bill was signed into law, it was considered one of the few real achievements of a deeply divided Congress. Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer got tremendous credit for enacting legislation three years in the making. And yet, it left a lot of good provisions on the cutting-room floor. While MAP-21 included some modest reforms, lawmakers missed an opportunity to prioritize transit, biking, and walking – modes that are gaining popularity and help achieve national goals like congestion mitigation and air quality improvement.

History appears to be repeating itself. This morning, Sen. Boxer (D-CA) joined with the rest of the “Big Four” of the EPW Committee — Ranking Republican David Vitter (R-LA), Transportation Subcommittee Chair Tom Carper (D-DE) and Subcommittee Ranking Republican John Barrasso (R-WY) — to announce that they had reached agreement on a set of principles to guide the next bill.

While it’s good news to hear the senators are working together and making progress, they’re not proposing any solutions to the nation’s dysfunctional transportation policy, which funnels billions of dollars to wasteful road expansions ever year. Below is a look at the guiding principles (verbatim, in bold) and what they mean:

  • Passing a long-term bill, as opposed to a short-term patch. You won’t find anyone who says they want a short-term bill. There is unanimous agreement that a two-year bill was inadequate and that the next bill must last five or six or even 10 years. The challenge has always been to find enough funding to pay for such a long bill. MAP-21 pulled coins out of the proverbial cushions to piece together a somewhat illusory pay-for to get MAP-21 passed. Even President Obama’s proposal for the next bill is just four years.
  • Maintaining the formulas for existing core programs. Ouch. A primary goal of transportation reformers is to tie more money to performance and merit instead of giving states no-strings-attached funding that tends to get wasted on highway expansion. Reforming the existing formulas could force states to prove that they’re spending money well, using a benefit-cost analysis in their decision making, and thinking smart about the future.

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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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A Bill to Make American Streets Safer Surfaces in the Senate

Has the moment finally arrived for a national complete streets law?

Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas. Photo:

Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas. Photo: City of Austin Public Works Department/Flickr

A bill creating incentives for transportation agencies to design safe streets for everyone — pedestrians and cyclists in addition to motorists — is back on the floor of Congress this week. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) are sponsoring the Safe Streets Act of 2014, which would require all states to develop complete streets policies for federally funded roads within two years. A companion piece of legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives last year.

Exemptions would be allowed, with special approval, on limited access highways, in very rural areas, or if the agency could demonstrate the cost was “excessively disproportionate” to the anticipated bike or pedestrian traffic.

In the last 10 years, 47,000 pedestrians have been killed on American roadways, thanks in part to street designs that make walking dangerous. Two-thirds of pedestrian deaths occur on federally funded roads, according to Senators Schatz and Begich.

“Our legislation provides commonsense solutions to consider the needs of our seniors and children, encourage alternative forms of transportation, and make our roads and communities safer for everyone,” said Schatz.

Groups including the National Association of Realtors, Smart Growth America, and AARP cheered the bill’s introduction.

“Safe mobility options … are essential to the independence and well-being of mid-life and older Americans,” said Joyce Rogers, senior vice president of government affairs at AARP, in a press release. “Fully one-fifth of persons age 65 and above does not drive. Yet almost half of respondents to an AARP survey of persons age 50 and above said they cannot safely cross the main roads in their neighborhoods. “

Schatz and Begich are seeking additional sponsors. The full text of the bill is not yet online.

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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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Senators Warner and Blunt Take Another Stab at an Infrastructure Bank

You’d be forgiven for being cynical about big plans in Washington to create an infrastructure bank.

Sen. Mark Warner is behind a new attempt to create an infrastructure bank. Photo: ##http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/02/18/1187984/-VA-Sen-Mark-Wanrer-D-Elizabeth-Warren-D-MA-Push-For-Action-On-Consumer-Credit-Reporting##DailyKos##

Sen. Mark Warner is behind a new attempt to create an infrastructure bank. Photo: DailyKos

President Obama has been talking about it for years. Every so often he comes out with a new big “push” for infrastructure investment, and it includes a bank of some kind. Multiple Senate bills have proposed an infrastructure bank or fund, sometimes housed under U.S. DOT and sometimes independent, sometimes with grant-making authority and sometimes without. Republican opposition has strangled all of them.

Virginia Democrat Mark Warner and Missouri Republican Roy Blunt introduced a new bill in the Senate last week, and the one really new thing about it — the thing that might give it legs — is the fact that Blunt is on board, along with four other Republicans. The only Republican to previously get behind an I-bank effort, Kay Bailey Hutchison, is no longer in the Senate.

The BRIDGE Act’s sponsor list so far is evenly split between Rs and Ds. In addition to Blunt and Warner, the bill has been co-sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

The idea is to use federal loans and loan guarantees to incentivize private investment in infrastructure.

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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.

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With Senate on Fire, Can Cory Booker Save Its Transportation Committees?

Outside of New Jersey, Cory Booker is probably best known for running into a burning building to save a woman’s life. Inside New Jersey, he’s better known for trying — with mixed results — to turn around the state’s biggest and perhaps most troubled city, Newark. Nowhere has he made a particular name for himself on transportation.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker became U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) yesterday.

That all might change. Mayor Booker became Senator Booker yesterday, replacing Frank Lautenberg, whose support for rail transport was so integral to his identity that his casket was carried to Washington on an Amtrak train.

Not only will Booker replace Lautenberg in the Senate, he’s replacing Lautenberg on two key committees with jurisdiction over transportation: the Environment and Public Works Committee, which is in charge of crafting the surface transportation bill, and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which authors the bill’s rail and “safety” portions.

The Commerce committee authored laudable rail and safety legislation for MAP-21, only to see it get left on the cutting room floor. That was a shame, because it included an important provision for multiplying complete streets policies around the country — a goal Cory Booker shares.

Booker was enthusiastic last year when Newark passed a complete streets policy, boasting, “Newark’s streets will be the safest and most welcoming in the entire nation.”

“We have taken a holistic approach to making our streets and sidewalks safe and accessible for all of our residents and visitors, whether they walk, drive, or bicycle,” he said. Booker himself is always game for a bike ride.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, the rail reauthorization

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

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

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

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

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Transportation Funding Bill Dies Unceremoniously in Both Chambers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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