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Posts from the "Earmarks" Category

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Tales From the Post-Earmark Era: Pork Won’t Hog the Transpo Money

We knew it could happen, people! There had to be a better way to distribute federal dollars than Congressional earmarks. The FHWA just announced that 11 programs, funded at a combined $422 million, will be making discretionary grants for innovative projects. “These grants will support projects that work to improve safety, maintain a state of good repair, and make communities more livable,” the FHWA statement said. The money for most of those 11 programs used to be consumed almost entirely by earmarks.

This network of urban bike trails in Minneapolis is a project of National Scenic Byways - one program with available funds that won't be taken up by earmarks. Photo: Minneapolis Parks

The League of American Bicyclists is optimistic about these grants. “Bicycle and pedestrian projects are eligible for almost all federal-aid transportation programs,” writes the League’s Darren Flusche. He found potential for bike projects in some unlikely places, from the Ferry Boat program, which can grant money for bicycle racks, to the $98.5 million Public Lands Highways program, which, Flusche says, can fund pedestrian and bike projects that improve access to federal lands and facilities.

It’s encouraging to see the government using a more thoughtful method of allocation for these pots of money that used to be allocated mostly through earmarks. It’s a good sign that states and metro areas will have to compete to show that their projects are the most efficient and innovative — it will no longer be enough just to be on your Congressman’s good side.

There are many opportunities for advocates of transportation options to take advantage of these funds. Here’s the full list of programs that will fund this new round of grants:

There are some unexpected opportunities to fund transit and active transportation projects from these programs.

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$100 Million for HUD Sustainability Program Survives in This Year’s Budget

With multiple versions of two years’ worth of federal budgets flying around, some details are still emerging about what’s in and what’s out. At the end of last week we heard that the FY2011 budget, which has been sent to the president for his signature, includes $100 million for the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. According to HUD Sustainable Communities Director Shelley Poticha, the partnership was allocated $70 million for regional planning grants ($17.5 million is slated for regions with populations of less than 500,000) and $30 million for Community Challenge planning grants.

Chicago's GO TO 2040 plan to link transportation, land use, and economic development was awarded a $4.25 million Regional Planning grant from HUD last October. Image: CMAP

That’s still a significant reduction from the $150 million the partnership had last year, but in this time of shrinking budgets, it’s a lot more than some livability advocates feared. If the Sustainable Communities program had been killed in this budget, it would have been all the more difficult to revive it for inclusion in the upcoming reauthorization of the transportation bill.

The president wants to keep the partnership going, and indeed, within the administration and among reformers, the funding for the partnership is seen as a money-saver, consolidating duplicative agency programs, cutting through red tape, and using outcome-based metrics to identify and fund effective projects. Still, it’s an administration program labeled “livability” and was, therefore, extremely vulnerable to the GOP ax.

The Partnership for Sustainable Communities is the name for the coordination among DOT, EPA, and HUD to promote planning and infrastructure investment according to their six tenets of livability: transportation choices, affordable housing, economic competitiveness, support for existing communities, coordination of federal policies and investing in healthy communities. The two planning grant programs, which are funded and managed out of HUD, are a centerpiece of the entire partnership. The other main part of it, TIGER, is run through the DOT and also saw the bulk of its funding — the lion’s share of TIGER, if you will – preserved (perhaps somewhat surprisingly, in the current budget bill), suffering only a 12 percent cut.

Meanwhile, transit capital funding (the FTA’s New Starts program) was reduced by about a quarter, high-speed rail was zeroed out completely, Amtrak took about a 10 percent hit, and TIGGER (a greenhouse gas reduction program for transit) got cut from $75 million to $50 million.

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House Members Make Their Case for Transpo Investment (and Earmarks)

While House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan grabbed headlines with the release of a fiscal plan that would severely constrain the federal transportation program (more on that later), the theme of the day at the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was the desperate need to invest in infrastructure, as members of Congress provided their own proposals to the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

Committee members noticed that Rep. Blumenauer did not mention bicycling infrastructure in his testimony. "But I am silently advertising before you," he quipped.

In his opening remarks, Chairman John Duncan (R-TN) attempted to lay a framework for discussion that underscored his official stance that no new revenue streams for transportation should be considered. He asked representatives to present proposals that first considered the “more than 100 highway safety programs, many of which are duplicative or don’t serve a need” and provide ideas that “review and reform what we already have.” However, ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) cut straight to the revenue problem, calling American infrastructure “fourth-world in terms of the percentage of GDP that we are investing.” DeFazio was not optimistic that real solutions to the nation’s infrastructure funding crisis could exclude new funding sources.

About 20 representatives from both parties testified, and their recommendations ran the gamut from returning to a more earmark-centric funding scheme to selecting projects based on concrete performance measures. While not everyone mentioned pedestrian, bicycling and transit infrastructure, many did.

Members frequently made the case for specific projects in their districts, but rarely did this rise above a call to simply invest Congress with more power to allocate funding. (Alaska Republican Don Young took this stance to the extreme, calling for the elimination of state DOTs and a renewed priority on Congressional earmarks.)

One exception was California Democrat Judy Chu, who endorsed beefing up the TIFIA loan program, as outlined in the America Fast Forward [PDF] proposal. Such a proposal would specifically benefit Los Angeles’s 30/10 transit plan, but could also be generalized to help any metro region that passes a local tax measure to fund transportation. “Our region is too congested and polluted to wait 30 years for a 21st century transportation system,” said Chu. “We can do this in just a decade by boosting TIFIA by reforming six provisions.”

Another was Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer, who focused on picking projects based on their outcomes and switching the federal funding mechanism from the gas tax to a mileage-based model. He asked the committee to “reframe the regulatory debate [by asking] what is actually the outcome? Can we make this more performance driven?” The gas tax, he said, isn’t going to cut it anymore, because “using a fee based on consumption puts us on a downward spiral that cannot support our transportation needs.”

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In West Virginia, T&I Committee Kicks Off Field Hearings on Long-term Bill

Before crafting their $556 billion transportation proposal, Obama administration officials toured the country, holding a series of listening sessions to hear what people wanted in a long-term transportation bill. Now, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is doing the same thing — but don’t expect committee Republicans to come to the same conclusions as the administration.

Republican John Mica, left, and Democrat Nick Rahall hear testimony from West Virginia transportation officials. Photo: Register-Herald

Whether or not they are willing to back a large, ambitious, reform-packed bill, Republicans are hearing that action is needed urgently. That was the message at the first field hearing, held in West Virginia this Monday. Both GOP and Democratic members of the committee heard from officials representing the state DOT, a contractors association, two highway authorities and the Rahall Appalachian Transportation Institute (named for West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall, ranking member of the T&I committee and representative of the district where the hearing took place).

Rahall presided over the hearing, held in a small theater in Tamarack, which bills itself as a center for West Virginia artisans but could also be described as an overbuilt highway rest stop. Taylor Kuykendall, a reporter for the local Register-Herald, said the audience was sparse, as it was not an open town hall but rather a forum only for the committee’s invited guests. Kuykendall estimated there were about 20 people in attendance, and only four members of the committee were present – Rahall, Chair John Mica (R-FL), Rep. John Duncan (R-TN) and Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-HI).

Kuykendall summarized some highlights of the hearing in a report earlier this week:

[Paul Mattox Jr., Commissioner of Highways at the West Virginia Department of Transportation] supported progress with the “critical” highway authorization act. He also stressed the need for public transit.

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Obama Admin’s Bold Transpo Plan Leaves Funding Question to Congress

The president’s six-year transportation plan [PDF], included as part of the administration’s FY2012 budget proposal, weighs in at a hefty $556 billion and lays out several policy reforms that, if enacted, could help the nation transition to a more multi-modal, less oil-dependent transportation system.

The plan is a blueprint that Congress can use as a basis for its transportation reauthorization bill. It has a lot in common with then-Transportation Committee Chair Jim Oberstar’s bill from 2009. And, like Oberstar’s bill, it leaves unanswered the question of how to fund transportation investments. This time, however, it comes in the midst of an all-out Republican war on deficit spending.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says the president's proposal represents the administration's "big bold vision" for transportation. Photo: Tanya Snyder

How much of this plan will survive the GOP cutting machine is anyone’s guess. There’s a lot in the president’s proposal that’s worth saving. Some notable elements:

  • Transit funding is going up by 127 percent, while funding for roads and bridges is getting a 48 percent increase. That represents a significant shift in the highways-to-transit ratio, which will go from an 80-20 split to a 74-26 split.
  • The Highway Trust Fund is getting a long-overdue name change. The new Transportation Trust Fund will now have four accounts – the traditional highways and mass transit accounts and also new accounts for passenger rail and an infrastructure bank.
  • Some advocates are disappointed that the proposed infrastructure bank will be housed at DOT and not be formed as an independent entity, as many had hoped. Still, the shift to more discretionary, competitive grants is a huge victory for reformers.
  • The consolidation of 55 road programs into five means there will no longer be separate pots of money for bridges, for example, or trucker rest areas, according to Undersecretary Roy Kienitz. That money will be rolled into a larger pot of funding for highways that states and local governments will compete for. The five programs will be: the National Highway Program, Highway Safety Improvement, Livable Communities, Federal Allocation and Research, Technology, and Education.
  • The TIFIA loan program will go from a $120 million allocation to $450 million; TIGER, which has given out $2.1 billion in grants so far, will get $2 billion the first year in the president’s proposal.
  • The funding for livability programs – $28 billion over six years – will include bike and pedestrian improvements, but allocation decisions rest with the states.
  • While the new bill doesn’t have a line item for a new national freight policy or a new office overseeing freight movement, Kienitz said freight programs got the lion’s share of TIGER grants (pun not intended, I think) and will be well-positioned to get money from the infrastructure bank.
  • Amtrak funding will be split into two accounts: one for state of good repair and one for new system development. Read more…
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New T&I Rep. Richard Hanna: A Little Bit Upstate NY, A Little Bit Portland

Rep. Richard Hanna, recently named the vice chair of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, is one of 19 freshmen Republicans on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. (Duncan Hunter is the 20th new Republican on the committee, but he’s not a freshman.) He represents New York’s 24th District, which includes Cooperstown, Utica, Norwich and the Finger Lakes. He’s a licensed pilot, an NRA member, and the founder of a crisis fund for women. We caught up with him to talk transportation and asked him some questions from our readers.

Richard Hanna outside the old GE building in Utica. Image: ##http://www.uticaod.com/elections/x201793203/Hanna-running-for-Congress-again##Bryon Ackerman / Utica Observer-Dispatch##

Richard Hanna outside the old GE building in Utica. Image: Bryon Ackerman / Utica Observer-Dispatch

Streetsblog: [Yesterday] was your debut on the T&I Committee. I wanted to ask about your priorities for the reauthorization. Are you hoping for a six year bill?

Hanna: Yes, absolutely. And Chairman Mica has made it clear that that’s also his goal. So I think if we work together, hopefully we can put something together before the August recess.

SB: And you owned a construction company.

RH: Yes, maybe you heard what I said; I said I hope to add value at the intersection of practicality and what goes on here. So we’ll see if my world and this world have something in common.

SB: There’s some tension between building highways and building transit: which is more cost effective, what should we be focusing our time and scarce resources on – where do you come down on that?

RH: I’m going to wait and see. I think mass transit and high speed rail are interesting concepts. But you have to remember, we’re at a point in our history – it’s not like building the transcontinental highway or railroad – it’s a little different now. We’re really in a budget crisis and we have to be a little more thoughtful about where we spend money. But if something makes sense – if there are corridors that are dense enough that at some point they can break even or self-support mass transit between certain areas – I’d certainly be happy to look at it.

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What the GOP Spending Rollback Would Mean for Transportation

Back in September, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), now Speaker-elect, told Good Morning America he wanted to “pass a bill this month at 2008 spending levels – you know, before the TARP, before the bailouts, before the stimulus – and let’s put some certainty in the economy.”

He continued, “That in itself would save about 100 billion this year alone.”

Boehner told Good Morning America he wants to roll spending back to 2008 levels. Where does that leave transpo? Image: ##http://www.tvsquad.com/2010/09/08/john-boehner-deflects-questions-about-his-tan-on-gma-video/##TV Squad##

Boehner told Good Morning America he wants to roll spending back to 2008 levels. Where does that leave transpo? Image: TV Squad

Boehner didn’t get his wish of passing such a bill before the election. But he’s about to become Speaker of the House, and starting in January, it’ll be a whole lot easier to get his way.

The Pledge to America that Republicans signed onto during the campaign echoes Boehner’s spending-cut ethos:

With common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops, we will roll back government spending to prestimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone and putting us on a path to begin paying down the debt, balancing the budget, and ending the spending spree in Washington that threatens our children’s future.

In 2008 – the year Boehner mentioned to George Stephanopoulos – transportation spending levels were $41.6 billion for highways and $9.7 billion for transit. The TIGER program didn’t exist yet in 2008. High speed rail funding – already considered a likely first target for cuts – would be a goner for sure.

“If it’s going back to 2008 levels but the programs remain, that’s one thing,” said Will Schroeer, Policy and Research Director at Smart Growth America. “If it’s going back only to 2008 programs, then that would be much more problematic.”

Besides, if the Republicans want to roll spending levels back to 2008, they’re still going to be trapped in deficit spending.

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Deficit Commission Pushes For Anti-Sprawl Reforms

If political pandering and bad economic policies have encouraged sprawl and an autocentric transportation system, better incentives can start to correct past mistakes. Here’s one place to start: the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform report, released this Wednesday.

Sorry, your vacation home may no longer be eligible for a mortgage interest deduction.

Sorry, but under the deficit commission's recommendations, your vacation home may no longer be eligible for a mortgage interest deduction.

The report has plenty to make anyone squirm. As co-chair Alan Simpson said when he and co-chair Erskine Bowles released their co-chairs’ report last month, “We have harpooned every whale in the ocean and some of the minnows.”

Once unthinkable, even defense spending is recommended for massive cuts. Meanwhile, the rich would be in line for even bigger tax cuts than they’ve been enjoying these last few years.

Smart-growth advocates are most interested in the report’s recommendations on transportation funding and mortgage deductions. We reported last month that the co-chairs’ initial report floated the idea of eliminating the mortgage-interest deduction entirely. That would promote more compact and sustainable development by discouraging people from buying “as much house as they can,” but it would also cause significant pain for a lot of middle-income homeowners who calculated their domestic budgets based on that tax credit.

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