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Republican Senators Threaten to Slow Extension With Backward Amendments

Just as it seemed like a transportation extension was on the fast track to passage, a Tea Party senator from Utah is gumming up the works — and the top Republican on the EPW Committee might have a plan to help him.

How many crappy amendments are you trying to force down the Senate's throat, Mike Lee? That's right: two. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/7998337795/##Gage Skidmore/Flickr##

How many crappy amendments is Mike Lee trying to force on the Senate? That’s right: two. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

CQ Roll Call reports that Sen. Mike Lee is threatening to block progress on the extension in the Senate unless Harry Reid agrees to allow votes on two right-wing amendments.

The first is a classic “devolutionist” maneuver, a measure to gradually reduce the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents to 3.7 cents per gallon and shift the responsibility for transportation spending to the states.

Rep. Peter DeFazio loves invoking the Amos Schweitzer example to illustrate what a bad idea devolution is. In 1956, Kansas and Oklahoma were going to build a highway linking cities in the two states, but Oklahoma didn’t get the money together, so the road dead-ended at the border. “For three years cars crashed through the barrier at the end of this [road] and landed in Amos Schweitzer’s farm field,” DeFazio said on the floor of the House two days ago. ”That’s devolution!”

President Eisenhower’s interstate campaign, the creation of a federal Department of Transportation, and the implementation of a federal gas tax allowed for a national transportation vision to replace a fragmented state-by-state strategy. Federalization is especially important for freight, since states simply can’t be solely responsible for the ports, roads, and railways that are crucial for moving goods all around the country.

Lee’s second bad idea, which he insists the entire Senate get the chance to consider, is the repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act, a landmark labor law that requires developers to pay workers no less than the locally prevailing wage for their work. Conservatives are forever introducing measures to repeal or weaken this law.

Voting on these amendments would slow the process of approving the extension, but probably not as much as not voting on the amendments. If Reid refuses Lee’s ultimatum, Lee says he’ll refuse to allow a quick vote on the extension bill. Any senator can block “unanimous consent,” which is necessary for a bill to find a quick route to a floor vote.

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House, Senate Take Different Paths to Prop Up Transportation Funding

This morning, the House Ways and Means Committee passed its plan to prop up the Highway Trust Fund — which pays for transit and bike/ped infrastructure in addition to roads — until May 2015. A few hours later, the Senate Finance Committee approved a plan of its own, with no deadline attached.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the two top dogs on the Finance Committee, agreed on a bill that matches the dollar amount in the House bill — $10.8 billion. Wyden’s original proposal had the bill expiring December 31, but the final bill didn’t have any deadline in it at all. The fact that the Senate matched the House bill dollar for dollar, however, indicates that they’re leaving the door open to extend it all the way to May 31, like the House.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said she was grateful to the Finance Committee for agreeing on a “shorter-term patch” and still hoped to pass a long-term bill by December, though it’s unclear that’s what the Finance bill does.   

As I said yesterday, an extension through May would be a huge blow to Democrats, who would prefer to see the extension expire by the end of this year in hopes of forcing action on a long-term bill while Democrats still control the Senate.

The Senate bill adds in some of the House’s pay-fors too, including $2.7 billion raised from “pension smoothing,” which is generally viewed as a gimmick that doesn’t raise any actual money long term. The House plan takes $6.4 billion from pension smoothing, but Wyden wanted to reserve some of that money — fictitious though it may be — for other purposes. You can read the Senate’s full list of pay-fors here [PDF].

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With No Transport Funding Fix, USDOT to Cut Payments to States Next Month

Click to enlarge. Next month, the Highway Trust Fund -- the funding mechanism for the nation's transportation system -- will become insolvent next month without Congressional action. Chart: FHWA

Click to enlarge. Next month, the Highway Trust Fund — the funding mechanism for the nation’s transportation system — will become insolvent unless Congress acts. Chart: FHWA

State transportation departments could see the federal funding they receive pared back as early as a few weeks from now if Congress doesn’t come up with a transportation funding solution.

A “cash management plan” to deal with the impending shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund — which actually pays for transit, biking, and walking projects in addition to roads — was outlined in a letter from U.S. DOT to state transportation officials yesterday [PDF]. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote that “as we approach insolvency, the Department will be forced to limit payments to manage the reduced levels of cash.”

Federal transportation revenues have been faltering for a long time, primarily because inflation has eaten away at the gas tax, which hasn’t increased in more than 20 years. Congress and the White House have floated many possible solutions of varying merit — a gas tax increase, an excise tax on oil, “business tax reform,” even canceling Saturday mail service. Lacking an agreed-upon revenue source, the Highway Trust Fund has been propped up with general revenues over the last few years. It is unclear whether Congress will extend that stopgap before funding starts to run dry in the next few months.

In his letter, Foxx indicated that if the issue isn’t resolved by August 1, around the time when revenues are expected to dip below current spending levels, U.S. DOT will dole out the available money based on existing funding formulas. In other words, the funding cuts will be shared among all the states, based on population and other factors.

In a speech yesterday in Washington, President Obama urged Congressional action to ward off funding problems, saying inaction would put 700,000 jobs at risk — or about as many people as live in Denver or Boston. He blamed Congressional Republicans for failing to act to resolve the issue.

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Senator Pat Toomey Fights to Spare America From Safe Streets

You know the Senate is close to passing transportation legislation when someone introduces a hare-brained amendment to ban bike and pedestrian programs.

Sen. Pat Toomey's answer to the transportation funding crisis is to stop funding the most cost-effective projects. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/8565245671/##Flickr/gageskidmore##

Sen. Pat Toomey’s answer to the transportation funding crisis is to stop funding the most cost-effective projects. Photo: Flickr/gageskidmore

Sen. Ron Wyden, as promised, yesterday introduced a bill to extend MAP-21 and the Highway Trust Fund’s authority by three months. It also transfers some money from the general fund into the HTF to keep it afloat until December 31.

Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey saw that as his chance to attack bike and pedestrian programs. He inserted an amendment that he calls “To reserve federal transportation funds for national infrastructure priorities.” Those national priorities apparently don’t include safety, air quality, congestion reduction or public health. Here’s his amendment:

No funds distributed from the Highway Trust Fund established in Title 26, Sec. 9503 of the United States Code may be spent for the purpose of operating the Federal Transportation Alternatives Program.

The Transportation Alternatives Program is the tiny pot of money available for bike and pedestrian projects.

Toomey also introduced an amendment rescinding high-speed rail funds and another exempting infrastructure destroyed during a “declared emergency” from environmental reviews if they’re rebuilt in the same footprint.

Other amendments [PDF] include Wyden’s push for an expedited process to pass a long-term transportation bill (when the time comes) and a proposal from four Democratic senators to extend the transit commuter benefit at the same level as the parking benefit. 

Sen. Jay Rockefeller has an intriguing amendment to create an account within the Highway Trust Fund called the Multimodal Transportation Account. It would fund freight projects, intelligent transportation systems, and other works that don’t fit neatly into one modal silo or another.

Sen. Carper has his name on two amendments to raise the gas tax until it recoups the purchasing power it’s lost over the 21 years since it’s been set at 18.4 cents a gallon, and index it to inflation thereafter. There’s also an amendment to establish an Infrastructure Financing Authority and one to establish an American Infrastructure Fund.

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And So Begins the Long Slog to the Lame Duck

The Highway Trust Fund is projected to run out of money a month before MAP-21 expires, but a real solution is still a long way away. Image: ##http://www.dot.gov/highway-trust-fund-ticker##U.S. DOT##

The Highway Trust Fund is projected to run out of money a month before MAP-21 expires, but a real solution is still a long way away. Image: U.S. DOT

The push for a long-term transportation bill is slowly giving way to the reality of an utter lack of consensus around a funding mechanism. The chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which is charged with finding that consensus, indicated today that the job just isn’t possible right now. The Hill reports that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has a bill in the works for a short-term extension to keep MAP-21 alive and funded, at least, until the end of the year.

The Highway Trust Fund (20 percent of which goes to transit) is expected to run out of money in August, well before the bill expires September 30.

Wyden’s plan would transfer $9 billion from the general fund to keep MAP-21 going until December 31. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously passed a six-year transportation bill last month, but the bill lacks a funding source. The House hasn’t taken any action, except for floating a scheme to pay for transportation by reducing Saturday mail delivery.

The Hill’s Keith Laing notes that Wyden has spoken against temporary transportation funding measures, saying it would be a “tragic mistake” for lawmakers to fail to pass a long-term package. But there is not yet a critical mass of lawmakers lining up behind any of the funding proposals on the table: a 12- or 15-cent fuel tax increase, President Obama’s corporate tax reform proposal, an upstream per-barrel oil fee, or the GOP post office plan. Wyden himself hasn’t come out in favor of any particular idea.

Wyden’s three-month extension would push big decisions about funding into the lame duck period, between the November Congressional elections and the start of the next Congressional session. Several lawmakers have indicated that the lame duck is the best — or only — chance for passing a long-term transportation bill.

Of course, SAFETEA-LU was extended for three years before MAP-21 passed, and lawmakers failed in every season to gather up the guts to address the funding shortfall in a sustainable way. Another series of extensions or short-term funding gimmicks remains a strong possibility, even after the lame duck.

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Senators Murphy (D) and Corker (R) Propose 12-Cent Gas Tax Increase

There are several proposals on the table to stave off the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund (which pays for transit, biking, and walking projects too) in two months. Just now, two senators teamed up to announce one that might actually have a chance.

The R after Sen. Bob Corker's name might make all the difference for this proposal. Photo: ##http://www.corker.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Images.Display&ImageGallery_id=a36a3e1a-0103-b714-2285-f8fb90d613e1##Office of Sen. Corker##

The R after Sen. Bob Corker’s name might make all the difference for this proposal. Photo: Office of Sen. Corker

Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) have proposed increasing the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon over two years. The federal gas tax currently stands at 18.4 cents a gallon, where it has been set since 1993, when gas cost $1.16 a gallon. The senators’ proposal would also extend some expiring tax cuts as a way to reduce the impact on Americans.

“I know raising the gas tax isn’t an easy choice, but we’re not elected to make easy decisions – we’re elected to make the hard ones,” said Murphy. “This modest increase will pay dividends in the long run and I encourage my colleagues to get behind this bipartisan proposal.”

This proposal — while still not introduced as a formal bill — has far more potential than anything else that’s been offered. President Obama’s corporate tax scheme was dead on arrival, even though it had support from the Republican chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp. Rep. Peter DeFazio’s idea of a per-barrel oil fee and Sen. Barbara Boxer’s idea for a wholesale oil tax don’t have Republican support. Neither does Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s 15-cent gas tax hike, which was the most logical proposal on the table, until now. What the House Republicans want to do is fund the transportation bill by reducing Saturday postal service — a hare-brained scheme if ever there was one.

What gives this proposal a fighting chance, of course, is Bob Corker’s name on it. Not only is Corker a Republican, but he’s a respected leader on the Banking Committee. It’s also a sign that maybe, just maybe, as we stare down the barrel of a real funding shortfall, members of Congress might find the gumption to do what they all know needs to be done: raise the gas tax.

“In Washington, far too often, we huff and puff about paying for proposals that are unpopular, yet throw future generations under the bus when public pressure mounts on popular proposals that have broad support,” said Corker. “Congress should be embarrassed that it has played chicken with the Highway Trust Fund and allowed it to become one of the largest budgeting failures in the federal government. If Americans feel that having modern roads and bridges is important then Congress should have the courage to pay for it.”

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Why the Senate Transportation Bill Will Devastate Transit

Transit officials lined up today to make clear that holding transit spending at current levels — as the Senate’s transportation authorization bill does — will put transit systems at risk of falling further into dangerous disrepair.

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are "woefully insufficient."

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are “woefully insufficient.”

The backlog for transit maintenance and replacement stands “conservatively” at $86 billion, according to the Federal Transit Administration. That backlog is expected to keep growing at a rate of $2.5 billion each year without a significant infusion of funds.

To put it another way, the country needs to spend $2.5 billion more per year – from federal, state and local sources – just to keep the state of the nation’s transit systems from getting even worse.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was determined to expose the shortcomings of the bill Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) recently shepherded through the Environment and Public Works Committee. While the bill’s transit title hasn’t been written yet, EPW has been clear about its intentions to keep spending at current levels plus inflation. That means no help toward the $2.5 billion boost needed to keep things from getting worse.

Menendez chaired a hearing today of the Banking Committee — the very committee tasked with writing the transit title within the framework established by EPW — to demonstrate the problem with the bill’s funding levels.

“By a simple yes or no,” Menendez asked the transit officials before him, “does anyone on the panel believe that current funding levels are enough to help you achieve a state of good repair?”

“They are insufficient,” answered Joseph Casey, general manager of Philadelphia’s SEPTA.

“Woefully insufficient,” added Beverly Scott, head of Boston’s MBTA and a nationally respected transportation visionary.

“No sir,” said Gary Thomas of Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

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Senate Transportation Bill Moves Forward With a Few Key Changes

The Senate’s proposal for the next transportation reauthorization took another step forward today with the unanimous approval of the Environment and Public Works Committee. The bill the members sent to the full Senate was slightly different from the one that was unveiled Monday night.

EPW Committee Chair Barbara Boxer said she's proud of the bipartisan bill the committee passed unanimously this morning.

EPW Committee Chair Barbara Boxer said she’s proud of the bipartisan bill the committee passed unanimously this morning.

The changes include [PDF]:

  • An amendment introduced by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) increasing the proportion of National Highway Performance Program funds that can be used for non-National Highway System bridges from 10 percent to 15 percent. That helps correct an error of MAP-21, in which all bridge funding went into NHPP but less than half the nation’s bridges went into that program, leaving the rest unfunded.
  • An amendment introduced by James Inhofe (R-OK) reducing the TIFIA loan program from $1 billion to $750 million a year and using the savings to fund research and development out of the Highway Trust Fund. Originally, the bill kicked research out of the HTF and left it to discretionary general funds, which left many worrying that it wouldn’t get funded at all. Inhofe’s amendment restores some certainty but also cuts funding levels for research almost in half.
  • An amendment agreed to by the top four members of the committee — Barbara Boxer, David Vitter, Tom Carper, and John Barrasso – weakened safety performance measures and reduced the consequences for worsening conditions.
  • An amendment introduced by Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that essentially classifies Vermont (and a handful of other states) as rural for the purposes of making it eligible for rural funds under the discretionary PNRS grant program.

All the senators present at the markup agreed with Boxer’s assertion that “this is truly a great day for our committee.” Many members specifically expressed their enthusiasm for the six-year duration of the bill after the disappointingly short two-year MAP-21.

“I’m proud we’ve stepped up in a bipartisan manner to develop and pass the legislation,” she said. “I hope it sends a powerful signal to our colleagues and to the public that we will address the looming funding crisis in the Highway Trust Fund.”

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Barbara Boxer’s Transportation Bill: Same As It Ever Was

The future of national transportation policy is pretty much like the present of national transportation policy, if the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has its way: underfunded and highway-centric.

This is your freight network, America. Enjoy. Photo: ##http://www.komu.com/news/licking-man-sentenced-for-arson-fires-at-truck-stops/##KOMU##

This is your freight network, America. Enjoy. Photo: KOMU

The bill released by Senator Barbara Boxer’s EPW Committee yesterday [PDF] rejects pretty much everything the Obama administration put forth in its bill, including permanent funding for TIGER and the elimination of red tape that prevents states from tolling interstates. The administration called for spending $302 billion over four years, while the EPW bill envisions a $265 billion budget over six years — although that figure does not include transit or rail.

And that’s part of the problem. The administration put forward a comprehensive, multi-modal transportation bill proposal. But in the Senate, the process is shepherded by EPW, and EPW only writes the highway component of the bill, then hands it over to the Banking Committee for the transit piece and the Commerce Committee for the rail and safety piece. And of course, nothing at all will happen unless the Senate Finance Committee can find a way to pay for it.

“It’s disappointing that the Senate is still operating under complete modal siloes and not thinking of this as a comprehensive system in any way, shape, or form,” said Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Boxer has long hinted that she doesn’t see much need to change the policies laid out in the current transportation bill, MAP-21, which was negotiated less than two years ago. And by that standard, she has delivered. While there are some updates to MAP-21, by and large, the EPW bill maintains the status quo right down to the level of funding, which is only adjusted for inflation.

Of the few changes included in the bill, the proposals are hit-or-miss. Here’s the rundown.

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Senate Delays Bill as Metro Businesses Plead For Transportation Investment

Tampa riverwalk

The latest extension of Tampa’s Riverwalk is now under construction, thanks to TIGER — among the transportation investments that the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s CEO supports. Photo: Apalapala/Flickr

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee once again delayed the release of its six-year reauthorization bill, a follow-up to the MAP-21 bill that expires September 30. Committee Chair Barbara Boxer had initially promised to unveil the legislative text early this week, then today, and now is promising to release the bill next Monday, with a markup scheduled for next Thursday.

Meanwhile, key interest groups are already trying to improve the bill-to-be, which promises to largely maintain the status quo as far as federal funding levels and formulas go. Yesterday, a long list of local Chamber of Commerce executives, representing business leaders in metropolitan areas from Mobile to Youngstown to Brooklyn, sent a joint letter to their members of Congress and to EPW leadership. The letter urges Congress “to address both the federal funding shortfall and the impediments to empowering metropolitan regions to advance locally-driven innovative solutions to our transportation challenges.”

The chamber executives, all members of the Metro Cities Council at the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, join a long list of others, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Obama administration, in advocating greater federal transportation spending. Their letter points out that municipalities and states are “stepping up to identify sources of additional transportation revenue,” but need “a strong federal partner” to keep up with critical transportation needs.

The bill the EPW Committee will reveal on Monday does not have any funding stream attached to it — that’s the Finance Committees’s job – nor does it raise investment levels over the previous bill, which, in turn, recycled numbers from the bill before that.

In a Commerce Committee hearing yesterday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx dodged a question about whether the administration had ruled out a gas tax increase, answering only that he would “listen to Congress.”

“That’s what your predecessor said,” retorted ranking Republican John Thune, “except he ruled it out.” Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller needled Foxx on his evasiveness: “You’re better than that, Mr. Secretary.”

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