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Posts from the "2009 Transportation Bill" Category

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New Poll: Support For Transit Expansion Transcends Rural-Urban Divide

charty.pngHow respondents replied to the following statement: "My community would benefit from an expanded and improved public transportation system, such as rail or buses." (Chart: T4A)

Despite the frequent reluctance of rural lawmakers to support more federal investment in transit, a majority of rural and urban voters alike believe their home towns would gain from a local transit expansion, according to a new poll released today by the infrastructure reform group Transportation for America (T4A) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

When asked if increased transit investment would help their community, 69 percent of poll respondents answered in the affirmative, including 74 percent of suburbanites and 55 percent of rural residents. Those numbers decreased for a separate question that asked whether transit should get more federal funding, but a majority of voters from both suburban (59 percent) and rural (50 percent) areas remained supportive.

The survey, conducted four weeks ago by pollsters from both GOP- and Democratic-aligned firms, also sought to gauge public consciousness of U.S. transportation spending patterns. When respondents were asked what share of federal transport dollars they thought should go to transit, the mean answer was 37 percent. Transit's actual share is about 19 percent.

David Metz of Fairbank Maslin Maullin Metz & Associates, one of two pollsters who worked on the survey, told reporters that its conclusion was clear: "Americans want more transportation options than they have today," he said. "The vast majority of Americans say they have no choice but to drive as much as they do and that they would like to drive less."

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have made positive predictions recently about the fate of the six-year transportation bill offered last June in the lower chamber. Indeed, T4A depicted its poll as a valuable messaging tool in the wake of Sen. George Voinovich's (R-OH) extraction of a vow from Democratic leaders to take up long-term infrastructure legislation before 2011.

But the lack of a sustainable revenue source to pay for that long-term bill, expected to cost upwards of $450 billion, continues to hamstring the effort. Few if any observers of the Washington transportation debate view a new bill as politically feasible in 2010, particularly given the opposition of both the White House and Congress to increasing the gas tax while the recession still looms.

Should this month's stirrings of possible momentum for a new bill grow stronger in recent months, the T4A poll offers green groups, social-equity advocates, and other pro-reform interests valuable insights on how to sell voters on a more transit-focused six-year bill.

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‘A Dozen or So’ Senators Delay Passage of Oberstar’s Highway Funding Fix

A contentious congressional dispute over $932 million in transportation funding remains unresolved this week after the Senate approved a one-month extension of federal aviation law rather than a three-month version of the bill that included a fix to the provision at issue.

harry_reid_rotunda2.jpgSenate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (Photo: LV City Life)
House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) had added language to the three-month aviation measure redistributing the $932 million based on existing highway funding formulas -- rather than giving 58 percent of the money to four states by extending project earmarks, as would occur under the jobs bill that President Obama signed 10 days ago.

Oberstar's proposed fix also would amend language in that jobs bill that disproportionately under-funded seven federal transportation programs, including Safe Routes to School, Metropolitan Planning, and Recreational Trails.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) had vowed to the House chairman that upper chamber would approve his fix as part of a future jobs bill, but objections from several senators prevented it from hitching a ride on the aviation bill.

CQ identified one of the objecting senators in its story on the issue (sub. req'd.):

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Oberstar Stays Optimistic About New Transport Bill in 2010

House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) today renewed his call for action on a new federal infrastructure bill before year's end, using a hearing on the Obama administration's stimulus law to urge passage of long-term legislation as well as a second round of short-term investment in roads, bridges, and rail.

0131mnfederal_dd_graphic_oberstar.jpgHouse transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) (Photo: Capitol Chatter)
Oberstar invited Joyce Fisk, a construction worker from his home state who gained employment thanks to a stimulus contract, for a second appearance before his panel. After hailing Fisk's "appeal" for a new federal transport law to boost the recession-ravaged construction industry, Oberstar warmly cited the move by Senate environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to use his bill as a starting point in crafting her transportation measure.

The Minnesotan, who clashed openly with the White House this year over its preference to delay new transport legislation until 2011, said he was "encouraged that we will be able to complete the bill in this session of Congress."

One unspoken source of urgency for Oberstar and fellow House members: waiting until next year to take up a new transport bill would mean starting from scratch after the midterm elections, which could significantly shrink the size of the Democrats' majority. A more conservative transport committee would complicate the path to passage for the new transit spending envisioned in Oberstar's current bill.

Oberstar was the dominant force at today's stimulus hearing, scheduled for a Friday afternoon when many members were in the process of returning home for Congress' Easter recess. The chairman took the opportunity to press witnesses on unresolved policy controversies, including the debate over allowing transit agencies to spend federal aid on operating -- a representative for the transit industry's lobbying group called for extending the 10-percent flexibility approved last year -- and the need for Senate movement on the "second stimulus" that cleared the House in December.

"We have to sustain those existing jobs and investments so the private sector can catch up -- one more summer of stimulus will set the stage and move the country forward," Oberstar said, deeming the Senate's progress on infrastructure job creation "not sufficient."

During a discussion on the massive financing gap that is bogging down the next transport bill, Oberstar also pooh-poohed the prospects of tolling interstate highways built during the road program's postwar heyday. Pennsylvania is currently pushing for federal approval to add tolls to an existing interstate.

"We're not going to allow tolling of the interstate highway system," Oberstar said. "It's already been built and paid for."

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EPA Drops Data Before GOP Forces Shutdown of Transportation Hearing

The Senate environment panel today was forced to prematurely shutter its latest hearing on the next long-term federal transportation bill after Republicans invoked a rarely-used right to close down committee work as part of their broader protest against the majority party's health care legislation.

2549087853_62635f6261.jpgSen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), center, with Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) at right. (Photo: NWF via Flickr)
The abbreviated hearing gave senators little time to discuss the next transportation measure's impact on energy and the environment, a significant issue for members of both parties. "It's a shame," committee chief Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said, "but we're caught up with something that has to do with health care."

Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) senior air-quality official, did get to outline the results of an report her agency released last month [PDF] at the request of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). The senator had asked the EPA to determine the maximum achievable reduction in pollution from the transportation sector -- which currently accounts for about 30 percent of total U.S. emissions -- by the year 2030.

For its emissions model, the EPA assumed that auto fuel-efficiency standards would continue rising in concert with the Obama administration's plan to reach an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. Other assumptions included a 60-percent improvement in the fuel efficiency of new freight trucks and the transit and land use reforms outlined in last year's Moving Cooler report.

What did the EPA find? Per McCarthy's testimony:

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House GOP Yanks Transportation Earmark Requests — For How Long?

When House Republicans voted recently to renounce all earmarks for this year, the move appeared to one-up Democrats' pledge to forgo earmarks to for-profit entities in 2010 -- a vow that would not extend to transportation projects.

large_steve_latourette.jpgRep. Steven LaTourette (R-OH) (Photo: Cleveland.com)
In fact, the congressional newspaper Roll Call reported today that GOP members of the House infrastructure committee have begun walking back their earmark requests for the next long-term federal transportation bill, leaving the panel's leaders with a smaller pool of local road, transit, and bridge projects to evaluate.

But the devil is in the details, as one Republican revealed to the newspaper (emphasis mine):

[The earmark removal] means that if a highway bill or water resources bill does move through Congress this year, House Republicans may be the only Members who can’t get a road widened or a drainage ditch dug in their district. ...

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), who submitted four dozen project requests for the highway bill, said Friday, “The [GOP] Conference, for the reason that they think the current system is broken, they’ve decided to take a little rest” from earmarks. But LaTourette said it seems unlikely the highway bill or the WRDA bill is going to pass this year anyway, and “next year we are going to put in place something that makes the people who think that earmarks in general are bad feel better ... and we will be back to earmarks with transparency.”

Few in the capital would dispute LaTourette's prediction that lawmakers' opposition to a gas tax hike and reluctance to pursue alternative financing options spell further delays in new federal legislation.

But if the GOP reinstates its earmark requests after this fall's midterm elections, just in time for the next transportation bill to come to a vote in spring 2011, the party's time-limited ban may well backfire by alienating its conservative base.

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Inhofe Questions Transit and Bike-Ped Investments in House Transport Bill

The senior Republican on the Senate environment panel today criticized the House's six-year transportation bill, lamenting that the measure "focus[es] very heavily on transit, bike paths, and sidewalks" and carves out a strong federal role in "decisions historically left to the state level."

Inhofe's concerns, raised at the latest in the environment committee's series of hearings aimed at marshaling consensus for a new long-term transport bill, suggest that the increased transit, bike-ped, and urban policy investments envisioned by the House measure could face resistance from rural senators who fear less of a federal emphasis on roads.

"We cannot grow the program in urban areas while ignoring the rural component," Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) said, describing rail and bike usage as "geographically and climatically prohibitive" in his state, currently the nation's least-populated.

Environment committee chief Barbara Boxer (D-CA) assured Barrasso that "I don't look at writing this bill as rural versus urban." Yet the House legislation offered by transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) would direct significant funding to urban infrastructure needs through a new metropolitan mobility program, a prospect that appeared to unsettle rural lawmakers.

"I don't feel like transit is a great option in our rural areas," said Oklahoma state senator Bryce Marlatt, an invited witness. After Inhofe questioned the Oberstar framework's emphasis on bike-ped and transit spending, Marlatt warned that the House plan could prevent rural areas from joining "the global economy" by boosting road spending.

Alternative perspectives were offered by John Robert Smith, president of the transit advocacy group Reconnecting America, and Scott Haggerty, a supervisor in California's Alameda County who appeared on behalf of the National Association of Counties (NACo).

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Is 2010 the Year for Federal Bike Aid? The Answer: A Big ‘Maybe’

This week's National Bike Summit culminated in an ambitious new campaign to recruit a million bike advocates and the unveiling of a new Google Maps bike feature. But in a Wednesday session dedicated to the outlook for federal bike investments, cycling advocates hesitated to declare that they could secure new commitments from Washington.

profile190.jpgRep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), founder of the Congressional Bike Caucus. (Photo: NYT)
"If Congress is going to act" on a new long-term transportation bill, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy president Keith Laughlin said, "it's definitely going to be our year. If we are ready."

Laughlin's phrasing was aimed at stoking cyclists' appetite for lobbying Congress in favor of pro-bike legislation, such as Rep. Earl Blumenauer's Active Community Transportation Act. But his caution also reflected the ongoing uncertainty surrounding how lawmakers plan to pay for a new long-term infrastructure bill expected to cost at least $450 billion.

Even if bipartisan support can bring the White House on board for a new bill this year, it remains to be seen whether bike advocates can secure the $2 billion in competitive federal grants that Blumenauer has proposed.

Tyler Frisbee, an aide to the Portland lawmaker who spoke to the Summit on her personal time, was careful to praise House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) as a friend of bicyclists. But Oberstar's transport legislation, Frisbee said, is "not the bill we want for another eight years ... cycling will be light years behind Europe [if it passes]."

Frisbee warned fellow bike advocates that Oberstar views the Blumenauer bill as an expansion of the Non-Motorized Pilot Program that directed $25 million to four trail projects in the 2005 transportation law. Describing her boss' legislation as separate from that spending, Frisbee said a Senate version would be introduced soon by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley.

Despite the hazy outlook for congressional action on transportation reform, Rails-to-Trails is continuing to push ahead with its long-term agenda. Laughlin said the group's 10-year goal is to help pay for bike trails within three miles of 90 percent of American residences, while doubling existing federal bike spending to $9 billion over six years.

"If the bill comes up for a vote, we have a fighting chance, but to win" requires sustained and increased focus on grassroots lobbying of lawmakers, he said.

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U.S. DOT Cagey on Funding New Transport Bill as Senators Seek Solutions

Senators began searching today for new strategies to connect local planners with an ever-dwindling pot of federal infrastructure dollars, even as a senior U.S. DOT aide declined to say whether the White House's upcoming principles for the next long-term transportation bill would include funding specifics.

villaraigosa_oath_inaug.jpgAntonio Villaraigosa is seeking a bridge loan from Washington to speed up L.A.'s 30/10 initiative. (Photo: LAist)

The star witness at the Senate environment committee's hearing was Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who sought congressional support for federal loans to expedite his city's ambitious 30/10 transit expansion project.

Environment panel chief Barbara Boxer (D-CA) threw her weight behind the 30/10 plan as the mayor pitched his approach -- reliant on voters' approval of higher sales taxes to pay for new infrastructure -- as a model for the rest of the nation.

"This is the third time the Los Angeles electorate has voted to tax itself for a better tomorrow," Villaraigosa said. "As a result, Los Angeles has been been able to make massive investments in public transit and our highway system."

But Villaraigosa's secondary message exposed the ongoing lack of Hill consensus on the way to pay for new investments that both Democrats and Republicans support. "Making sure that large metro areas get the majority of [federal transport] money makes a lot of sense," the mayor said, lamenting language in last year's stimulus law that routed most transportation aid through state capitals.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) echoed Villaraigosa, remarking that he could not "see a governmental apparatus" in place to effectively divert transportation funding to pressing local needs.

Whitehouse asked the Angeleno, who currently serves as vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, to work with his colleagues on "a truly transparent local mechanism to say, 'these are the projects we really need,' to get around the concern that this is earmarking, special dealing, but also get around the bureaucracy."

Before the mayor's testimony, U.S. DOT undersecretary Roy Kienitz admitted to senators that he is "not sure" if the Obama administration's planned list of principles for a new long-term transportation bill will include ideas for filling the  nation's massive funding gap. Congress envisions new legislation with a price tag of at least $450 billion over six years, but the federal gas tax is estimated to fall short of that mark by upwards of $200 billion.

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Could Transport Bill Inaction Hurt the White House’s Sustainability Push?

The White House's lack of interest in passing a new long-term federal transportation bill before next spring at the earliest is common knowledge in Washington, but the Obama administration has paid little political price so far for its approach to the issue. That began to change today, thanks to two lawmakers on the House panel that controls the U.S. DOT's purse strings.

picpic.pngReps. Tom Latham (R-IA), at right, and Steven LaTourette (R-OH). (Photo: AP)

During a hearing today on the White House sustainability effort, which aims to combine federal transport, housing, and environmental resources in support of walkable, transit-oriented local development, Reps. Tom Latham (R-IA) and Steven LaTourette (R-OH) questioned the wisdom of spending money and attention on new programs when the nation's infrastructure funding shortfall remains unresolved.

"Unless you change the tax incentives from where they've been since the Second World War, [encouraging Americans] to live in single-family homes, you're not going to be successful," LaTourette said. The giant mortgage guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, he noted, effectively require the continued popularity of suburban sprawl in order to keep the government's investment in them viable.

If the White House would tackle the problem of the highway trust fund's insolvency -- which affects bike-ped and road repair projects -- "I would not have a problem with" spending new money on sustainable development, added LaTourette. The Ohioan has vowed to "bring Republicans to the table" if the administration decides to pursue a new federal transport bill this year.

Latham, the senior GOP member of the House's transportation appropriations panel, was more cutting in his criticism of federal involvement in local land-use practices.

Referring to a "crisis" in federal transportation financing, Latham marveled at the administration's decision to focus on a "new boutique program" rather than crafting a replacement for the increasingly obsolete gas tax.

Roy Kienitz, the U.S. DOT's undersecretary for policy, did not dispute the two Republicans' assessment of a financing vacuum. "It was a great run for 45, 50 years, when you had a system whereby the amount of driving and gas people used grew along with the economy," Kienitz told the lawmakers. Now that relationship has unraveled, he explained, making the gas tax a poor revenue-raiser for transport projects.

But Kienitz had no answer for how the White House should solve the problem.

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Senate Starts Work on New Transport Bill, With House Version as a Guide

The Senate today took its first steps towards voting on a new long-term federal transportation bill, with environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) vowing to take up a successor to the 2005 infrastructure law before 2011 and indicating she would use the House's already-introduced version as a framework.

091109_inhofe_boxer_ap_297.jpgSenate environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), at right, with ranking Republican Jim Inhofe (OK). (Photo: Politico)
Boxer described today's hearing in her panel as "the kickoff" of the upper chamber's drafting of new legislation governing U.S. road, transit, bridge, port, and rail policy. "Our intention is to hold a series of hearings and write the bill while you are still here and while Senator [George] Voinovich [R-OH] is still here," she told Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO), who will retire at the end of the year.

Such willingness to consider a new infrastructure bill before the Obama administration's preferred timeframe of next spring could help thaw the frosty relations between Boxer's panel and the House transportation committee, where chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) has raged against upper-chamber inaction for months.

But lawmakers and industry lobbies have a long way to go before they can sing from the same hymnal on the next transportation bill. Boxer asked representatives of the four lobbies appearing today -- the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), the National Construction Alliance (NCA) and the Associated General Contractors (AGC) -- to parse Oberstar's bill "literally, with a pen" and let senators know which provisions they favored or disliked.

"We're going to take their bill and work from it," Boxer said of the House, which has proposed a $500 billion plan that streamlines 108 categories of formula-based federal transportation spending into four and includes dedicated funding for metropolitan area priorities.

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