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Posts from the "U.S. Senate" Category

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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 ##http://6abc.com/traffic/police-truck-driver-fell-asleep-prior-to-crash-on-i-95-in-del/144318/##6ABC##

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: ##http://www.jmt.com/project-portfolio/us-senate-parking-lot-study/##JMT##

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

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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.

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Congress Hits the Snooze Button on Transpo Funding Until May

Someone had to cave and last night, it was the Senate.

Closed for the summer. Photo: ##http://www.capitol.gov/html/EVT_2010061578974.html##Capitol.gov##

Closed for the summer. Photo: Politic365

The upper chamber had fought as long as it could to adjust the House transportation bill so it wouldn’t expire when the GOP controls both chambers of Congress. But senators were never willing to actually let the Highway Trust Fund go broke. U.S. DOT would have started cutting back on reimbursements to state DOTs as of today in the absence of an agreement.

After the House rejected the Senate’s amendment yesterday, hours before representatives were due to return to their home districts for the five-week August recess, it seemed the Senate had no choice. Then, news broke that the House was going to stick around a little longer to keep fighting about the border crisis.

Could the Senate have taken advantage of the House’s presence to toss the football back to them, on the assumption that the last team holding it will get blamed for the fumble? Maybe. Maybe the House would have been the one to cave, then. Maybe they would have sent the transportation industry into a tailspin. In a recent poll, 85 percent of transit agencies said they would implement service cuts if that happened.

At least we were spared that. But perhaps not for long. Former U.S. DOT official Beth Osborne, now at Transportation for America, noted that each extension seems to be getting harder. “The easy ways to pay for the program are gone,” she said. “It’s going to get harder doing this with bubble gum and band-aids.”

Who cares?

Last night on Twitter, Cap’n Transit paid me the backhanded compliment of my life by saying:

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Time’s Up: 6 Things to Know About Today’s Transpo Showdown (UPDATED)

UPDATE 2:40 p.m.: The House has rejected the Senate amendment, as expected.

Today is the House of Representatives’ last day in session before departing for an August recess full of photo ops and electioneering in their districts. The Senate will stick around DC for one more day before going home. Before that happens, the two houses have to come together on a plan to keep the Highway Trust Fund going. If not, U.S. DOT will have to take drastic measures.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker disagrees with the House GOP on when the bill should expire and how to pay for a new one.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker disagrees with the House GOP on when the bill should expire and how to pay for a new one.

Both the House and the Senate have voted on not entirely dissimilar plans to keep the fund going. But the differences between them have set up a high-stakes showdown that has to be resolved by tomorrow.

Here are the key points:

    1. The timing: The House is expected to vote on the Senate bill today at about 3:00 p.m. and is expected to refuse to budge. Then they’ll leave town, meaning the Senate can either cave or be blamed as the Highway Trust Fund goes dry before August recess ends and transportation works grind to a halt. Meanwhile, Sec. Anthony Foxx has warned state DOTs that federal payments will slow down August 1 — that’s tomorrow — if Congress doesn’t take action to keep the Fund from going insolvent.
    2. The numbers: The House is gloating that the Senate’s bill contains a $2 billion technical error — which is true; it comes up with just $6.2 billion of the $8.1 billion needed — but Senate Democrats say it can be easily fixed.
    3. The urgency: Since summer is the high season for construction, the real pressure on the Highway Trust Fund is between now and the end of the year, when states will need to get reimbursed for the work that’s going on now. That’s why there’s not a huge monetary difference between the House proposal that lasts till May and the Senate proposal that ends in December. There’s just not a lot of cash going out the door at U.S. DOT between January and May.
    4. The conflict: The House and Senate disagree on what budget gimmicks to use to “pay for” the transfer into the trust fund, but more fundamentally they disagree about how long the patch should be. As we’ve reported before, Boxer prefers a December deadline, saying it’s unfair for this Congress to fail to fix a problem that occurred on its watch and instead kick it to the next Congress. What she means is that she wants her six-year bill to pass and that won’t happen after the end of this year if the GOP wins a majority in the Senate and she loses the chairmanship of the EPW Committee. That’s precisely why the House is gunning for a May deadline.
    5. The breakdown: The Senate Republicans aren’t as enthusiastic as the House about having to take this up when they’re in charge. Thirteen Rs joined the Ds in pushing for a December sunset, including Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who wants to raise the gas tax and be done already. “Wouldn’t it be great to finish 2014 actually solving one issue; taking one issue off the plate next year?” he said yesterday at a WSJ press breakfast. Only one Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, voted no on Boxer’s date-change amendment. Notably, David Vitter, the ranking member on the EPW Committee, who has shown great bipartisan unity with Boxer, broke with her on this and voted to essentially flush their six-year-bill down the toilet. His predecessor, James Inhofe, voted in favor of Boxer’s December 19 deadline.
    6. The fallout: If the GOP does win the Senate in 2014, the conventional wisdom says they’ll lose it again in 2016. Will the Republicans really want to take on a tax increase of any kind during the only two years when they’ll get the lion’s share of the blame? Of course not. The prognosis is that if there’s no long-term bill this term, it’ll be another three years. Three more years of patchwork funding gimmicks is nothing to look forward to.
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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.