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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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Uh-Oh: Senate Finance Committee Draws a Blank on Transpo Funding

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is on the verge of releasing its proposal to reauthorize the federal transportation program until 2021. But it’s counting on the Senate Finance Committee to figure out how to pay for it. And that committee seems disturbingly far from an answer.

Sen. Barbara Boxer testified today before the Senate Finance Committee, asking members to come up with $18 billion a year for her spending plan.

Sen. Barbara Boxer testified today before the Senate Finance Committee, asking members to come up with $18 billion a year for her spending plan.

The Highway Trust Fund (yes, that’s still what it’s called) is projected to run out of money in August. U.S. DOT is planning to slow down reimbursements to states this summer and is hoping that Congress will act to prevent the agency from taking austerity measures in the next fiscal year. 

Without more cash, Joseph Kile of the Congressional Budget Office said, highway spending would have to decrease by more 30 percent over next decade and transit spending would drop by at least 65 percent.

The EPW Committee is getting ready to unveil its bill any day now, a six-year bill at current funding levels plus inflation. (That’s the same formula as the current bill, meaning transportation investment would be stuck at 2009 levels until 2021 without getting a raise, despite much angst over the nation’s diminishing performance in global infrastructure rankings.)

Current levels-plus-inflation is the middle ground between aligning spending with meager gas tax revenues and investing at the levels that would actually make a difference in the state of U.S. infrastructure. At least the committee is planning a long-term bill, which can give states and cities a little more assurance that they can plan around the federal contribution.

But as EPW Chair Barbara Boxer told the Senate Finance Committee this morning, her bill requires Finance to find $18 billion next year alone to fill the holes in the Highway Trust Fund. And the senators on the Finance Committee haven’t given any indication that they have any better idea than the rest of us where that money’s going to come from.

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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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