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Sen. Boxer Calls For Solution to Highway Trust Fund Insolvency

Senator Barbara Boxer brought together transportation industry representatives this morning to highlight the damage that would be done to the economy if Congress doesn’t come up with a solution to the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund. New CBO estimates, released this week [PDF], project that the fund will be zeroed out by the time MAP-21 expires at the end of Fiscal Year 2014. Boxer says she doesn’t intend to wait until the last minute to act.

From one shorty to another, Senator, I love that little stepstool. Photo by Tanya Snyder.

While members of Congress are beginning to accept the need for additional revenues, very few are willing to get behind any one solution. Boxer herself wasn’t willing to support any particular option. And that’s been the problem: No one wants to be first.

Boxer said there are “dozens of options,” and while there might be a few she particularly favors, they’re all on the table. She said she didn’t want to “get out in front” of her colleagues on the committee on this issue.

She also indicated that Sen. Max Baucus of the Finance Committee and Rep. Dave Camp of the Ways and Means Committee were working hard on tax reform, and they’re committed to including a fix for the trust fund. “This committee doesn’t put in place user fees,” she explained, but also said EPW wasn’t just going to leave the conversation up to others. The committee is planning to hold a hearing on the issue in September, and Boxer is hoping they can start getting specific about the various options.

Boxer emphasized that she does believe in user fees, not general fund transfers, and that while she’s a “strong supporter” of a vehicle-miles-traveled fee, she doesn’t think her colleagues are. She also said she would only support a VMT fee if it was on the honor system and didn’t involve a “black box” tracker in the car. She is “unalterably opposed” to that. She alluded to “our proposal,” which involves doing away with the gas tax, but it’s unclear what proposal she’s referring to.

She said a move away from the gas tax would be fairer, since people like her, who drive electric vehicles, don’t pay anything. If everybody were paying in, she said, some people could end up paying less than they do now at the pump. (Her math doesn’t compute, though: Hybrid cars represent only 3 percent of the U.S. market, and electrics are still barely a blip. Additional income from those drivers won’t come anywhere close to equalling a 10-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax across the board, which the CBO says would be needed to cover the shortfall in 2015.)

Still, that’s one of Boxer’s answers to concerns, like those raised at Tuesday’s House hearing on the subject, that struggling families can’t cope with higher gas taxes. Her other answer is simply that if the economy hemorrhages nearly three million jobs, working families will suffer a lot more than if they were simply asked to pay an extra 10 cents a gallon. Such an increase would cost the average driver about $60 more a year.

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T4A Calls for Action Against Dreadful House Transpo Budget

Transportation for America is gearing up for a fight over transit, rail, and TIGER funding, and they’re asking supporters of smart transportation investments to make their voices heard.

The new budget put forth by the House of Representatives would zero out funds for TIGER, strip $400 million from Amtrak and raid $500 million from a fund for, of all things, repairing bridges.

The House and Senate have proposed two very different funding plans for transportation. Image: Transportation for America

But cooler heads and clearer vision prevailed at the Senate, where appropriators put forward a budget that would expand funding for transit and TIGER. The Senate proposal would also help Amtrak keep up with growing demand.

Projects like the Atlanta streetcar and Chicago’s Blue Line rehab were made possible with the help of TIGER, an innovative, merit-based transportation funding program for which demand has been overwhelming. Eliminating TIGER would close off a vital mechanism to fund cost-effective projects that curb traffic, improve safety, and reduce car dependence.

Transportation for America calls the House budget “unabashedly bad” and has issued an action alert asking supporters to contact their Senators to support a budget that invests more in sensible transportation options.

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Senate Offers a More Multi-Modal 2014 Transportation Budget Than the House

Last week, a House panel envisioned some big cuts to next year’s transportation budget. TIGER and high-speed rail would get nothing, Amtrak would get slashed, and ixnay on all that green “livability” crap. (And that’s practically a quote.)

The recent collapse of a bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state inspired the Senate to include a $500 million program for bridge repair in its 2014 budget. Photo: CNN

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted this morning on the budget its own transportation subcommittee put together, and the end product couldn’t have been more different. Where the House allowed for $44 billion in discretionary spending, the Senate wants to budget $54 billion. To hell with the Ryan budget and to hell with the sequester, too.

Many experts see all this budgeting as an exercise in futility, however. In recent years, the House and Senate have been so unable to see eye to eye on budgeting that they’ve passed a series of continuing resolutions, basically freezing current budget levels in place. That looks like a likely outcome for 2014, as well. That’s not the worst thing in the world, since the budget that’s been frozen in place since 2011 contains funding for TIGER, sustainability grants, high-speed rail and other important discretionary programs.

Still, the appropriations process is a useful time when each chamber shows its hand. And what we learned is that the Senate is still far more willing than the House to invest in transportation infrastructure, especially infrastructure that could help shepherd the country toward a less car-dependent future.

Under the Senate plan, not only would U.S. DOT award the full $474 million for the fifth round of TIGER grants (the House would take away half of that), another $550 million would be allotted for round six. (Once overhead is taken out, that would probably mean about $520 million for grants.)

The Senate’s been lukewarm on high-speed rail lately, refusing to zero out the program like the House but also not throwing its full support behind the president’s vision of giving 80 percent of Americans access to HSR within 25 years (though even Obama doesn’t mention that goal anymore). The subcommittee allocated $100 million for what it’s now calling high-performance passenger rail grants. With people like Anderson Cooper bellyaching when sound, effective rail grants still don’t bring speeds above 110 mph, it probably wasn’t a bad idea to change the rhetoric from “speed” to “performance.” Still, the Senate’s allocation pales in comparison to the president’s $40 billion budget request for high-speed rail over five years.

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Foxx Rocks His Confirmation Hearing, Reveals Some Initial Priorities

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx’s Senate hearing was, by all accounts, the one “oasis of calm” on an otherwise stormy Capitol Hill yesterday. There were no sharp exchanges, no tense moments, not even any particularly tough questions. Two weeks from today, we’ll probably be calling him “Mister Secretary.”

Foxx enjoyed smooth sailing through his confirmation hearing yesterday in the Senate and is expected to be confirmed at the beginning of June.

Cabinet nominees often spend all their time on the witness stand at these hearings dodging questions, saying they’ll “look into that and get back to you.” But Foxx gave some real answers. He was well-informed and confident, and when senators asked him how he would handle thorny issues like funding constraints and modal silos, Foxx reassured them that he had ably handled the same issues as mayor.

For a blow-by-blow account, check out our live-blog of the proceedings.

TIGER. Foxx spoke with authority about TIGER, having managed TIGER grants in Charlotte that he felt did a lot of good. The city got $18 million in 2011 for additional power substations and extended platforms at three stations on its expanded light rail Blue Line. Foxx said that constraints of formula funding had hindered them from building the platforms right the first time, and it was a testament to TIGER’s flexibility and multimodalism that it was able to step in and fill that gap.

Funding. Senators seemed determined to try to scare Foxx by reminding him of the funding emergency confronting the department, but he remained sanguine. He didn’t show his hand about what solutions he had in mind — and it’s Congress’s decision anyway — but he indicated that they’ll have to “think outside the box,” as his predecessor, Ray LaHood, liked to say. To his credit, Foxx did not follow Obama’s line and promise to pay for transportation with war savings.

He also had a very reasonable response to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who asked him to make sure that the sequester and any future spending cuts be implemented with a minimal amount of pain to consumers, targeting only “waste, fraud and abuse.” Foxx refused to take the bait. He said that, certainly, they would seek to minimize pain, but there would be some. If lawmakers are going to continue to cut programs, they can’t fool themselves into thinking that there won’t be consequences.

Tolling. Foxx indicated he would continue the current policy of allowing tolling only on new federally-funded roads to pay for their construction — not on existing roads to pay for their maintenance. He said tolling “has a place” but “we’re not going to toll our way to prosperity.” Maybe not, but it sure could help. Allowing state DOT’s to toll existing interstates — something many agencies want to do — could result in wringing more efficiency out of the transportation network without building expensive new infrastructure.

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Live-blogging Anthony Foxx’s Senate Confirmation Hearing for DOT Secretary

4:29: Hearing adjourned. Rockefeller: “I adjourn this hearing on the supposition that you will ride the fast rail right into the secretaryship.”

4:27: Thune: We also can’t continue to borrow from general fund to fund highways. Either we need to find a way to pay for it or we need to cut our appetites. Can’t just keep borrowing from our children and grandchildren.  I hope you and the president will lead and put specific ideas on the table. Infrastructure is important. Best way to avoid deficits and debt is to grow the economy.

4:23: Rockefeller: We’re going to have to spend money and no one wants to talk about it. Because as soon as you talk about it, your opponents will find someone to run against you. You have to goad us. If you can’t do something because you don’t have the money to do it, tell us. Express your frustration. Safety inspections, next-gen shouldn’t be sacrificed because we don’t have the money.

4:22: Rockefeller is on a roll, but I’m not sure what he’s talking about. Now talking about hospital bathrooms and the international space station (re: MRSA). He’s already ordered Foxx not to respond to what he’s saying. He’s very poetic but sort of rambly.

4:20 Rockefeller: “I want you to be a good secretary of transportation. And you can’t do that without revenue.” Your predecessor just went around saying whatever he wanted. Great to talk about infrastructure bank, but private sector will invest if federal government does.

4:16: Rockefeller: Fear of next primary is destroying the country. You’re being told to eliminate all rules and regulations, don’t do any tolls, raise no revenues — by simply avoiding waste, fraud and abuse. Hypocrisy. “You can’t minimize yourself into greatness.”

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A Golden Opportunity for Congress to Avoid the Transportation “Fiscal Cliff”

The Highway Trust Fund is expected to slip into negative territory in 2015. Estimates are based on CBO's February 2013 baseline projections. Image: CBO

MAP-21 expires in a year and five months. When it does, if lawmakers haven’t already found a solution to the “transportation fiscal cliff,” they’ll have to do one of three things, according to a report issued last week by the Congressional Budget Office [PDF]:

  • Transfer $14 billion more in general funds
  • Raise the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon
  • Cut the authority to obligate funds in 2015 from about $51 billion projected under current law to about $4 billion

“If lawmakers chose to wait until fiscal year 2015,” wrote CBO analyst Sarah Puro, “at the expiration of MAP-21, to reduce spending, those cuts in 2015 would need to total about 92 percent for the highway account and 100 percent for the transit account.”

It couldn’t be clearer. Congress has to stop dithering and start working on a revenue solution, stat. Oh, and the president and his new secretary of transportation have to get behind it, guns blazing.

Congress has three potential vehicles for a revenue solution: 1) a “grand bargain” on the deficit, the sequester and the fiscal cliff, 2) tax reform, and 3) the next surface transportation bill.

And what will that “revenue solution” be? The simplest, most easily implemented fix is a gas tax hike, but over the long term, taxing fossil fuels as a way to pay for transportation infrastructure just won’t cut it.

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How Amtrak Can Provide World-Class Service on the Northeast Corridor

Yesterday was a tough day to try to get attention for a Senate hearing on the future of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. After all, at least one senator had gotten a poisonous letter and everyone on Capitol Hill was on high alert. What’s more, the Amtrak hearing coincided with the vote on gun control, one of the most dramatic and high-stakes votes in the body so far this session.

The Northeast Corridor is already at capacity during peak periods. Major investment will be needed to handle the increase in ridership that's already happening. Photo: WIkimedia/Peter Van den Bossche

Even Commerce Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller, a passionate supporter of Amtrak, gave his opening statement and scooted out of the room to join the action on the Senate floor.

Before he left, Rockefeller lambasted Congress for creating Amtrak and then failing to establish a viable strategy for it to succeed. “Amtrak, and passenger rail in general, has limped along financially since it was created,” Rockefeller said. “Unpredictable federal financial support has been a detriment to Amtrak’s core responsibility to provide travel for millions of Americans and continues to hamper its long-term planning.”

The consequences, he said, are $22 billion in lost productivity each year due to congestion on the highways and in the airspace above the region. “Everyone in this room knows that simply maintaining what we have in the Northeast Corridor is not enough,” he said. “We need to provide expanded capacity to meet future needs of the region. Throwing $22 billion down the drain annually in this economy – all because we cannot agree that transportation infrastructure is a priority – is shameful.”

He put in a plug for his infrastructure bank bill and encouraged the transportation establishment to break down its modal siloes, which he compared to the intelligence community’s turf battles that were exposed after 9/11.

Frank Lautenberg’s absence at a hearing on his beloved Northeast Corridor was glaring. Health problems have kept Lautenberg away from the Hill for about a month, and though he did make it back yesterday – in a wheelchair – to vote for the gun control measure, he didn’t make an appearance at the hearing.

The Northeast Corridor carries twice as many trains today as in 1976, said Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman, making the corridor “among the most heavily-used rail lines in world.” About 150 Amtrak trains, 2,000 commuter trains (run by eight different agencies), and 70 freight trains run up and down that track daily.

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Sen. Patty Murray Increases Transportation Investment in 2014 Budget

So, right now you’re thinking, “God save me, not another post about the budget!”

Sen. Patty Murray proposes $100 billion for transportation in her FY 2014 budget. Photo: Puget Sound Business Journal/Kent Hoover

And you’re to be forgiven. There are two versions of the FY 2013 budget out there right now (House and Senate), for a year that’s half over. There are the budget cuts from the sequester that everyone’s still waiting to feel the full impact of. Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the Budget Committee, put out his FY 2014 blueprint Tuesday. And Wednesday, Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) rolled out her budget proposal. Considering how dysfunctional every single one of these budget processes is, it’s no wonder we plug our ears at more budget news.

But there is a silver lining: Murray’s budget, which her committee approved yesterday, contains a $100 billion “targeted jobs and infrastructure package” that would focus on transportation.

It includes $50 billion to create jobs repairing “our nation’s highest priority deteriorating
transportation infrastructure” — fixing roads, bridges, and airports, and also “updating”
mass transit systems, which could mean more than just state of good repair. She notes that a 21st century transportation system includes “road projects that make room for bicyclists and pedestrians, bridge projects that include transit as well as cars and trucks, and regional plans that require multiple jurisdictions to work together.” She also mentions that transit is essential, as “building more roads alone will not solve the nation’s congestion challenge.”

Murray’s proposal also creates an infrastructure bank to leverage private sector investment, seeded at $10 billion, as Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Jay Rockefeller recently proposed, and as former Sens. John Kerry and Kay Bailey Hutchison had also proposed.

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Senate Restores MAP-21 Funding Through 2013

The Senate yesterday restored hundreds of millions of dollars in federal transportation spending singled out for elimination by the House of Representatives.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) fought to help preserve the transportation spending levels agreed upon in MAP-21 in a recent Senate funding resolution. Image: Wikipedia

The Senate’s continuing resolution — which would set spending levels through the end of FY 2013 — matches the transportation spending priorities laid out by MAP-21, the transportation bill hashed out in a bipartisan manner last year.

Top senators, including Barbara Boxer (D-CA), were alarmed when the House resolution, passed last week, called for spending cuts below what was agreed upon in the transportation bill — $117 million for transit and $555 million for highways.

Senator Boxer, who chairs the Senate Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, told reporters her approach to restoring spending levels was “very straightforward.”

“‘We said: ‘How can you do this? It’s not right, we paid for this,’” she said.

Pressure from Boxer and other Senate committee chairs wasn’t what clinched it, though: The Obama administration requested MAP-21 funding levels be honored, and the Appropriations Committee chair inserted that language into the bill.

Representatives of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials this morning applauded the Senate’s decision.

“The Senate’s continuing resolution recognizes that the nation’s economic recovery remains dependent on the funding levels envisioned in MAP-21 and now is not the time to deviate from those levels,” said Bud Wright, AASHTO executive director, in a press release.

The House and Senate versions of the continuing resolution must still be reconciled.

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Congress Comes to the Bike Summit (and the Bike Summit Goes to Congress)

Tuesday morning, Rep. Earl Blumenauer took his usual place behind the podium at the National Bike Summit. (He never misses a Bike Summit.)

Rep. Earl Blumenauer never misses a Bike Summit. Photo: Brian Palmer

“I’m coming up this morning and smiling at someone going past me on the bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue,” Blumenauer said. “Remember four years ago, I talked about risking my life on Pennsylvania Avenue. And I talked from a podium not unlike this and said, ‘Maybe we could just put bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue.’ Some of you clapped; others of you said, ‘I agree, but not in my lifetime.’ [Four] years later: It’s there, it’s a fixture, it matters to people. And it’s part of the renaissance in our nation’s capital.”

Blumenauer encouraged the 750 assembled cycling advocates to be “proud and modestly aggressive” in driving home the point that cycling infrastructure creates good, family-wage jobs. Safe Routes to School “gives us an opportunity to reduce [congestion during] the morning commute 30 percent and not have so many morbidly obese fourth graders,” he said.

Summit participants were already planning to spend the next day on Capitol Hill, talking to members of Congress and their staff about increasing federal support for cycling programs. But Blumenauer told them not to stop there — they should be lobbying even harder when the members are at home, and the district staff are trying to fill their schedules with events that will put them face-to-face with constituents. Inviting them out for a ride to try out a trail that was made possible by federal funds would be a good way of showing them the concrete (and asphalt!) benefits of programs like TIGER and Transportation Enhancements (now Transportation Alternatives).

Another member who made the trip up Pennsylvania Avenue to speak to the Bike Summit was Sen. Ben Cardin, who solidified his standing as Bike Hero when he fought for the Cardin-Cochran amendment, which preserved some local control over bike/ped funds, even as dedicated funding was stripped out of the federal bill.

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