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Posts from the "2009 Transportation Bill" Category

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Lessons From the Former Chairman: Oberstar on Ending the Interstate Era

Streetsblog had a chance today to ask the former Democratic chief of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, about life since the 2010 election, when he lost by a hair to Republican Chip Cravaack. He said he’s spending his post-Congress time traveling to France, getting paid to say things he used to say for free, and telling his four kids and seven grandkids the story of his wife, who succombed to breast cancer 20 years ago.

We also asked him for his thoughts about some major themes in transportation today. 

Chairman Jim Oberstar calls transportation enhancements "the point of transformation" for transportation. Photo courtesy of Oberstar's office.

On the “dissipation” of high-speed rail funds:

We reshaped Amtrak in the 2008 authorization, designating 11 corridors and creating a mechanism by which there could be competition from private sources and from state consortia, with Amtrak, to provide the passenger rail service in a particular corridor.

At first, I didn’t like that idea, but I spent a lot of time talking to Mr. Mica about it and as we talked, I said, “You know, that’s beginning to make more sense. We ought to challenge Amtrak. That’s a good idea; let’s put this into the bill.” And then we got consensus that high-speed should be defined as 110 mph, and that was in the bill. And we got a bill that George Bush signed!

So there was a structure against which to pit [the $8.5 billion in stimulus dollars for high-speed rail]. I thought that was going to happen. Instead, it was all put up for competition for various states to come forward and put a proposal on the table.

Wisconsin, for example: to Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago. That should have been done as part of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Initiative, with Chicago as the hub, south to St. Louis, east through Detroit to Cleveland and eventually to Cincinnati, and west to Minneapolis-St. Paul. That would have been one very defensible, manageable anchor.

The Northeast Corridor could have been another important anchor. The west coast, which is already underway: a third anchor to this system. And then some other amounts in the other corridors, depending on proposals that they would have and should have submitted to DOT.

Allowing pieces to be bid or requested by states dissipated the critical mass of investment. And I’m not saying that in hindsight – that was my concern at the time.

On the attack on Transportation Enhancements in Congress:

Transportation Enhancements was the pivotal point of transformation at the end of the interstate era — an era in which travelers went where the road took them — to the era in which users of our system had a say in their quality of transportation and where that road should go in the future and how their transportation experience should be managed.

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On Transpo Bill, Administration Wants Congress to Sort Out The Details

At a networking event for young transportation professionals yesterday, a member of the Department of Transportation’s policy team offered insight into the Obama administration’s strategy as it attempts to reset the nation’s transportation polices.

U.S. DOT Beth Osborne. Photo: Adam Voiland

U.S. DOT Deputy Assistant Secretary Beth Osborne. Photo: Adam Voiland

Federal lawmakers usually set transportation policy by authorizing a major spending bill every five or six years.  The last of these bills — known as SAFETEA-LU — expired in 2009, but lawmakers’ efforts to agree on a reauthorization bill have languished in Congressional committees due to disagreements about how to pay for it.

Since SAFETEA-LU expired, Congress has passed stopgap spending measures to keep the system functioning; however, the lack of a coherent, long-term vision has left state and city transportation departments adrift and has made it challenging for them to plan strategically.

On Labor Day, President Obama put transportation near the top of his agenda by calling on Congress to tackle stagnant job growth by repairing and upgrading infrastructure. He asked Congress to ramp up investment in roads and rail, create a federal infrastructure bank that would help fund large and complex projects, reform the Balkanized structure of federal transportation spending programs, and make the nation’s transportation system safer and more livable. Advocates for shifting away from the highway-centric effects of current federal policy were encouraged by Obama’s use of the word “reform,” and the lack of any mention of expanding highways.

However, in many ways, Obama’s Labor Day proposal lacked specificity. Most notably, it offered little insight into how the administration expects Congress to pay for the next reauthorization. At yesterday’s event, the deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy at U.S. DOT, Beth Osborne, made clear the lack of specificity was by design. “I’ll be very honest. There aren’t a lot of details beneath what we put out to the public,” she said. “We really want to go at this in cooperation with Congress.”

And that process, she warned, won’t necessarily be a smooth one. While the last several authorizations have had plenty of funding, the program is broke this time around due to the dwindling power of the gas tax. “It’s not going to be as easy, but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing,” she said.

One of the administration’s priorities, she noted, will be to improve the livability of the nation’s cities and towns. Critics in Washington, she said, have told her that livability is hard to define, but that the concept has proven easy enough to grasp for people outside of politics:

Interestingly, I really only hear that inside the Beltway. When you travel with the Secretary nobody thinks it’s hard to define and nobody needs it defined. They know exactly what we’re talking about. And it is remarkable. This is not a regional thing, this is not a big community versus small community thing. People really get what you’re talking about. What we’re talking about with livability is a community that has transportation choices, different types of housing, and destinations close to your home. That’s it. Not a terribly complex concept.

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Postcards From Our National Transportation Funding Meltdown

At an event billed as a “town hall” held at USDOT headquarters yesterday, top department officials answered questions about the future of the nation’s road, rail, bus, and bike networks -- even as the prospects of passing a comprehensive transportation reauthorization bill anytime this year appear as dim as ever. Already, reauthorization of the transportation bill is nearly a year overdue, as lawmakers have failed to muster the will to pay for it.

cardin.jpgMaryland Senator Ben Cardin addresses the crowd yesterday. Photo: Adam Voiland
A plenary session that focused on the Mid-Atlantic region prior to the town hall provided a few glimpses of how the continued legislative deadlock is plaguing local agencies and preventing the evolution of transportation planning beyond the car-based status quo.

The head of the District Department of Transportation, Gabe Klein, called the current moment one of the scariest times in transportation history. He warned that lawmakers have difficult and uncomfortable decisions ahead about how to pay for the reauthorization bill.

Klein emphasized the need for diversified sources of funding for transportation investment, despite the political challenges. He noted, for example, that local jurisdictions, like DC, should have the latitude to explore congestion pricing as a way to raise revenue.

During the same panel, Richard Sarles, the interim general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) explained that his agency is spending much of its funding on efforts to improve the safety of its system after a catastrophic Metro collision last summer. With little clarity about what the future holds, Sarles warned that there simply aren’t funds available to address large expected increases in ridership on city transit systems in the coming years.

Reform-minded lawmakers, most notably House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Jim Oberstar (D-MN), have made it an urgent priority to reauthorize the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU, or, more commonly, the transportation bill). But with revenues from the stagnant gas tax flagging, lawmakers can’t agree on how to raise the funds needed for the bill, and they’ve postponed dealing with the problem by passing a series of emergency extensions.

The frustration was evident among attendees at yesterday's conference. "There’s no innovation right now," said Faramarz Mokhtari, a planner at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "The status quo is continuing."

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Frustration With Stop-Gap Transpo Funding Shows at DOT Town Hall

Agency Expects Congress to Authorize Third Round of TIGER Grants

U.S. DOT’s top leaders (save Secretary Ray LaHood) fielded questions about the next long-term transportation bill this morning as part of a “town hall” session at agency headquarters. The conference, the sixth and final stop on a national listening tour, was billed as a chance to give feedback about how the transportation bill should take shape. While senior department staff adhered to the listening session format, divulging few specifics about their current thinking, they did provide a glimpse of the frustration over the ongoing lack of certainty for transportation funding.

One piece of news to come out of the session concerned the agency’s popular Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program. Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Polly Trottenberg reported that Congress will likely authorize a third year of the TIGER competitive grant program, which is seen as a model for allocating infrastructure investment based on strategic goals and criteria.

During the Q&A, DOT leadership made two points clear. The department wants and needs a long-term funding authorization, and they want to cut the time it takes to approve and finish projects.

“The series of short term authorizations is frustrating to us,” Deputy Secretary John Porcari said, pointing out that the department has gone through some weekend construction shutdowns caused by reauthorization delays. The most desirable outcome for DOT, Porcari said, is a long-term authorization with predictable funding.

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Transit Industry and State DOTs Agree: Senate Climate Bill Needs ‘Rewrite’

The transit industry's leading D.C. lobbying outlet today joined the umbrella group for state DOTs and two major construction groups to protest the Senate climate bill's failure to set aside all of the revenue from its proposed new fuel fees for infrastructure projects -- specifically, to the cash-strapped highway trust fund that is generally split, 80-20, between roads and transit.

030210_Senate_climate_bill_full_600.jpgSens. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), center, and John Kerry (D-MA), right, with onetime climate bill cosponsor Lindsey Graham (R-SC) at left. (Photo: CSM)
American Public Transportation Association (APTA) chief William Millar told reporters that while the local transit agencies he represents are "very supportive of legislation to address climate change and energy issues," the Senate bill's diversion of all but about $6 billion of its fuel revenues for purposes unrelated to transportation is a matter of serious concern.

"This is one of those cases where we really can't even talk about the merits of any portion of the bill because the fundamental position is flawed," Millar said.

Referring to the legislation's promise of funding for the clean transport and land-use grants known as "CLEAN TEA" and TIGER, he added, "Many of those are very good ideas … but you can't make those ideas work if there's no significant funding to make them work, and this bill would aggravate the funding situation for public transit."

John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), was more direct in outlining where state DOTs want to see the Senate climate bill's fuel revenues directed. "Channel[ing] every dollar through the highway trust fund," he said, would help the industry break through a congressional stalemate and win passage of a new six-year federal transport bill.

Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors, and Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, echoed Horsley's interpretation of the new fuel fees in the climate bill -- which are imposed on oil companies and refiners but are likely to be passed along through higher gas prices -- as a de facto "user fee" on drivers.

The climate proposal, Ruane said, does "nothing more than finance a lot of goals, which are enviable in part, on the backs of transportation users."

It remains to be seen whether the transportation industry's combative stance against the partial diversion of the bill's transportation revenue, billed as a "call for a rewrite" of the climate legislation, will help force senators into restructuring the measure. Ruane said he "like[s] the odds" facing the four groups.

But a spokesman for Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) said that APTA, AASHTO, and 25 other industry groups mis-estimated the amount of revenue set aside for transportation in a letter outlining their concerns that was sent today to Kerry and his chief climate bill co-sponsor, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT).

“Let’s get the facts straight," Kerry spokesman Whitney Smith said via email. "This bill invests more than $6 billion annually in transportation infrastructure, which is more than any other comprehensive energy and climate bill and more than twice what's claimed in this letter. In effect, the letter advocates a policy that would accelerate emissions from the transportation sector and increase our dependence on foreign oil. That's not good for anyone, especially consumers."

One congressional source was befuddled by APTA's move to "bit[e] the hand that feeds them" by criticizing a climate bill that stands to give broad, lasting benefits to rail and bus systems.

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Former U.S. DOT Chief on the Worst-Case Scenario: 4 Years of Extensions

To a certain extent, hope springs eternal in federal transportation circles. Even as state DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations operate under the latest in a series of extensions of the 2005 law that governs road, transit, and bike-ped spending, few are willing to envision a future in which new legislation doesn't pass by next year.

4f6109eb_a6dd_5098_8aad_e76fc2cb6270.preview_300.jpgAnti-tax protesters. (Photo: Tribune)
After all, even the Obama administration -- which last spring called for an 18-month delay in taking up House transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar's (D-MN) infrastructure measure -- has signaled a willingness to begin talks on broader policy changes by next spring.

But that outcome assumes that Congress and the White House can reach an agreement by early 2011 on how to find as much as $200 billion to pay for a significant six-year investment in infrastructure.

Right now there remains only two practical options on the table: paying for a new transport bill with general Treasury money, which would amount to deficit spending at a time when White House aides profess mounting concerns about the nation's red ink; and raising the federal gas tax, which the president has flatly ruled out.

What would the worst-case scenario look like? It is rarely mentioned on the record by Washington infrastructure watchers, but former Transportation Secretary James Burnley IV outlined it neatly in an interview this week with D.C. Velocity:

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Senate GOP Continues to Resist Sanctions-Based Distracted Driving Rules

The Senate environment committee's senior Republican yesterday joined his counterpart on the commerce panel in criticizing legislation that would withhold federal highway funding from states that fail to crack down on distracted driving, casting doubt on Congress' ability to approve any punitive approach to reining in texting and cell phone use by drivers.

080927_1A_Distracted_Drivin.jpg(Photo: SCnow.com)

At transport safety hearing in the environment panel -- which is working on a new six-year infrastructure bill that could see action in the upper chamber this year -- Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) ruled out any attempt to use federal money as leverage in encouraging stronger state safety rules.

"What I oppose is forcing a one-size-fits-all Washington solution on all states ... that withholds highway funds from states that do not enact specific laws," Inhofe said.

In response to environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer's (D-CA) assertion that "we have seen tremendous cooperation on the safety part of this bill," Inhofe added that "if there's any division up here ...  it's going to be over the role of the states."

Inhofe's comments follow questions raised by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX), the commerce committee's senior GOP member and co-sponsor of a competing bill that uses federal grants as an incentive to coax states into passing new distracted driving laws.

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What Happened to the Proposed ‘Transportation Tax’ on Wall Street?

For several weeks last fall, as members of the House infrastructure committee pushed for passage of a new six-year federal transportation bill as a strategy to rouse the economy from recession, a proposal to pay for the legislation with a small tax on oil futures trades attracted a healthy crop of Democratic cosponsors and some vocal pushback from Wall Street.

defazio.jpgRep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR), at left, joined Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) to introduce a Wall Street transaction tax in December. (Photo: AP/Oregonian)

But the tax proposal has since lost steam in Washington transportation debate, getting little notice from lawmakers who strongly support taking up a new six-year infrastructure bill in 2010 even as it remains a magnet for progressives looking to rein in financial industry excesses.

What happened to the idea of using an oil futures transaction fee -- set at 0.02 percent in a December bill offered by Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) -- to fund long-term federal transportation projects?

Jim Berard, spokesman for the House infrastructure panel, explained in an interview late last week that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had conducted a preliminary analysis that found the transaction tax would raise less money than lawmakers had initially hoped. The reason for the lower-than-expected revenue, Berard said, was the rationale hinted at by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in November: a tax levied only on domestic futures would end up pushing trades overseas.

"What sounded like a really good solution six months ago turned out to be not as good as we thought, and just not as viable," Berard told Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

That leaves federal transportation policymakers essentially where they were at this time last year, searching for a politically feasible stand-in for a gas tax increase that the White House and congressional Democratic leaders have both ruled out for now.

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Could Gas-Tax Bonds Pay For the Next Federal Transportation Bill?

House infrastructure committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), facing steep political odds in his push to pass a new six-year federal transportation bill this year, has begun to pitch an outside-the-box solution to the financing shortfall that is still stalling congressional action: Treasury bonds.

Oberstar's proposal would plug the hole in anticipated highway trust fund revenue for the next transport bill with top-rated Treasury debt securities. Those bonds, the Minnesotan explained on Friday, would "be repaid with revenues from the highway trust fund out into the future. And we would delay the repayment for the first perhaps four years, giving the economy time to recover."

In order to repay the Treasury for its up-front bond issue, Congress would ultimately need to raise the gas tax -- a step lawmakers have been unwilling to take since 1993, and one that the White House has ruled out for the time being.

"The idea of waiting three or four years for the economy to recover would be an appealing part of" the idea, Iowa state DOT chief Nancy Richardson told Oberstar when he sought her reaction to the plan at a Friday House hearing. "[That] would allow it to appeal to some of the dissenters in terms of increasing funding."

Delaying for three or four years, however, also would assume that future Congresses would be more open to voting on a gas-tax hike that few lawmakers are eager to debate, even in rosy economic times. The evidence of success for such kick-the-can-down-the-road moves is few and far between: both parties, for example, have habitually voted to postpone previously scheduled cuts in Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors rather than fix the long-term formula.

In addition, the growing production boom in semi- and fully electric cars casts doubt on the gas tax's ability to raise sustainable revenue for transportation going forward. Depending on how popular highly fuel-efficient cars become by the time Congress considers a future gas tax change, the cents-per-gallon increase needed to repay the Treasury may be much higher than any current predictions.

The gas-tax bonding plan has a third potential hiccup. Read more...

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As Minneapolis Joins NACTO, Oberstar Backs Shift on Transit Operating Aid

At an event in Minneapolis today, House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) announced his support for giving urban transit agencies more flexibility to spend federal transportation formula money on operating -- a change in the current law that has already won the backing of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood but has split the transit industry.
transit_oberstar_3_30_10.jpgOberstar (center) joined New York City transport chief Janette Sadik-Khan (right) at today's event. (Photo: B.Clements, Finance & Commerce)
Oberstar appeared at an event marking Minneapolis' move to join the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), founded 14 years ago by then-New York City Transportation Commissioner Elliot Sander to counterbalance the influence of state DOTs' voice in D.C., the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Oberstar's specific remarks on transit operating aid were unavailable as of press time. But transport committee spokesman Jim Berard said the Minnesotan supported "in principle" the concept of allowing transit agencies from areas with populations greater than 200,000 to use their federal transportation formula grants on operating expenses. Under current law, urban transit agencies are restricted to spending federal formula money on capital expenses, such as purchasing new rail cars or laying track for an expanded line. Congress agreed last year to give transit officials the freedom to redirect 10 percent of their federal stimulus aid to operating budgets, underscoring that the change was a temporary response to the recession. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the transit industry's chief lobbying group for more than a century, has opposed the use of formula grants for transit operating, preferring that already-scarce highway trust fund dollars be reserved for capital spending on rail and buses. APTA did not return a request for comment by press time on the growing support for changing the existing rules governing transit operating funds. Read more...