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Posts from the "Federal Funding" Category

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Paul Ryan’s New Budget Seeks to “Murder” Amtrak

Just four months ago, the country was hailing a bipartisan budget deal negotiated by Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray and her House counterpart, Paul Ryan. It was a respite from the deeply partisan posturing over spending that has gridlocked Washington for years. Even better, it was a two-year budget resolution, meaning it seemed the next fight would be a long way off.

Rep. Paul Ryan released an unnecessary budget proposal just to show off how badly he'd destroy transportation. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/5446900144/##Gage Skidmore/flickr##

Rep. Paul Ryan released an unnecessary budget proposal to show off his deficit hawk bona fides.
Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Not long enough.

This week, Ryan unveiled a new “Path to Prosperity,” the title he puts on all of his attempts to starve the federal government.

Ryan didn’t have to release a budget this year, but as USA Today reports, “Republicans have long emphasized the importance of outlining the party’s philosophical priorities, even if [it] stands no chance of becoming law.” In an election year, Ryan appears eager to play up his deficit hawk bona fides and put his cooperative work with Democrats behind him.

No one could accuse Ryan of cozying up to Democrats this time around.

“This proposal takes a partisan jackhammer to our transportation infrastructure at a time when we need to be working together to find ways to rebuild it,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, in a statement. “This is budget déjà vu. Just like last year, this proposal is another road to ruin, not a ‘path to prosperity.’”

While this week’s budget plan technically fits within the broad outlines of December’s bipartisan agreement, the details Ryan fills in would never have been passed by the Senate or signed by Obama.

Ryan acknowledges that “efforts need to be made to find a long-term solution to the [highway] trust fund’s financial challenges,” and asserts that he places a priority on keeping it funded with user fees. But he has never supported a gas tax increase, and he doesn’t do so here. Instead, Ryan merely slashes spending — the same unimaginative and destructive plan Rep. John Mica had a few years ago that was booed off the stage.

According to Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, Ryan’s new plan would cut surface transportation funding by $172 billion over the next 10 years.

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Moody’s: Future Is Bright for U.S. Transit Sector

Yes, federal funding for transportation is expected to go negative before Congress is even due to pass a new bill. And yes, transit systems had a tough few years, cutting service and raising fares as the recession took a bite out of revenues. But guess what? In a credit outlook report released this week, Moody’s credit rating service says the outlook for the transit sector is positive.

More riders and higher sales taxes make for a sunny financial outlook for transit. Photo: ##http://www.newsday.com/long-island/lirr-commuters-pack-trains-a-week-after-sandy-1.4188094##Newsday##

More riders and higher sales taxes make for a sunny financial outlook for transit. Photo: Newsday

APTA’s release of new transit ridership numbers, showing that the number of transit trips has reached a level not seen since 1956, was the impetus for the report. “Strong ridership is credit positive for US mass transit authorities,” Moody’s notes.

Moody’s credit outlook reports are available only to subscribers.

Still, high ridership doesn’t guarantee strong financial footing for transit. The farebox covers only 36.5 percent of transit operating expenses nationwide. During the recession, rising ridership was actually a stress on the system, since it coincided with plummeting sales tax revenues as consumer confidence fell. But the stars seem to be aligning now.

Sales tax revenues are healthier, growing about 5.5 percent last year. Some agencies are restoring service they were forced to cut. Voters continue to approve transit funding measures by a large majority. There’s a flurry of activity on transit expansion and renovation.

Most U.S. transit systems issue bonds secured by sales tax revenues, though some are backed by net operating revenues. Both of those are in pretty good financial shape right now, said Nick Samuels, vice president and senior analyst at Moody’s. While Moody’s doesn’t issue a rating for the transit sector overall, the average rating of the 42 agencies that issue bonds backed by sales taxes is an AA2 — the third highest possible rating.

Rising ridership has financial benefits outside of just farebox recovery, too. “If more people in the city are utilizing a system, the city at large has more of an incentive to keep the system running,” Nowicki said. “If a city has a heavy reliance on transit that only gets heavier, the political environment would favor it. Any proposed tax increases are more likely to be approved by a tax base that actually uses the system than one that does not.”

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Shuster “Encouraged” By Obama’s Transportation Funding Announcement

Bill Shuster is still digesting yesterday’s twin funding proposals from President Obama and Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp, but he’s “encouraged” by what he’s heard. Both proposals rely on corporate tax reform to plug the hole in the highway trust fund. Camp’s proposal would raise about $125 billion; Obama’s, $150 billion. Neither has yet released details on how their plans would work.

T&I Chair Bill Shuster wants to "build on" the reforms in MAP-21. Photo: ##http://www.heraldstandard.com/election/shuster-supports-romney-in-gop-primary/article_ba7064fe-de09-5e42-b291-e95983b33a45.html##Herald-Standard##

T&I Chair Bill Shuster wants to “build on” the reforms in MAP-21. Photo: Herald-Standard

“I never thought some of these other ideas were ever going to be in the cards,” the House Transportation Committee chair told reporters this afternoon.

Speaking today at the annual Washington meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), Shuster said he was hoping to get a surface transportation reauthorization bill done this summer. Sen. Barbara Boxer has put her committee’s timeline at mid- to late-spring, using August as a deadline, when federal highway funds are expected to run out. The current MAP-21 bill expires September 30, and Shuster is using that as his deadline.

Shuster told AASHTO that he’s committed to a “fiscally responsible” bill that doesn’t engage in deficit spending, and that he hopes to “build on the reforms in MAP-21,” some of which haven’t even been implemented yet.

“He kind of implied that we’re done with reform,” commented Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation after Shuster’s remarks. “I don’t think we’re done with reform by a long shot.”

Schank’s primary objection to the status quo is that too much money is distributed by formula and not by merit. And funding transportation with corporate tax reform could potentially open the system up to more discretionary grant programs, Schank said, which would be a positive development. The most innovative transportation work — TIGER, New Starts — happens with general fund money, he said.

“The problem with destroying the user-pay model is that you potentially put funding in jeopardy all the time and you constantly have to go back and find new sources of funding,” Schank said. “But the benefit is, I think there’s a much better chance of reforming how we spend it — making it more multimodal in distribution — if it’s not just coming from highway users.”

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Live-Blogging Obama’s Transportation Announcement

obama3:59 p.m.: Obama says funding for these projects is going to be in jeopardy unless Congress passes a new transportation bill. Doesn’t go into details. “God Bless the United States of America,” and we’re out.

3:56 p.m.: People go wild for new Metro green line, which will run through Union Depot. Obama says he just got a look at those “spiffy new trains.” “You’ll be able to get from one end of town to another in 30 minutes. And here’s the best part: Not only have you made a more efficient transportation system… this Depot has also helped to boost economic development. Just across the street, the old post office building is becoming apartments and shops.”

3:54 p.m.: Obama: Infrastructure shouldn’t be a partisan issue. But some Republicans in Congress — it’s not that they don’t like roads; they just don’t want to pay for ‘em. “While Congress is trying to decide what to do next, I’m going to do what I can to create good jobs. And that’s why I came to St. Paul. Because [Union Depot] symbolizes what’s possible.”

3:53 p.m.: Obama: I’m going to send Congress a budget with a four-year transportation budget to pay for investments by simplifying tax codes.

3:49 p.m.: Obama: Put America back to work by repairing America’s infrastructure. Housing bubble burst, construction workers were hit hard. Unemployment in that sector has been cut in half but still too high. 100,000 bridges old enough to qualify for Medicare. Minnesota winters mean potholes.

3:48 p.m.: “We can’t wait. We gotta move.” Obama reiterating new plan to bypass Congress where they move too slow.

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Obama to Propose Four-Year Transpo Bill Funded By “Business Tax Reform”

President Obama will unveil a proposal for a $302 billion, four-year transportation bill during a speech today in Minnesota, according to an announcement from the White House. A fact sheet from the administration indicates the proposal would increase dedicated funding for transit more than funding for highways.

Obama will appear in St. Paul, Minnesota today to announce a new transportation plan he says is part of his "year of action." Photo: PRX.org

Obama will appear in St. Paul, Minnesota today to announce a new transportation plan. Photo: PRX.org

The proposal would represent a 38 percent spending increase over the current $109 billion, 2-year law, known as MAP-21, and is the most concrete long-term transportation bill proposed by the Obama administration, which has never put forward a funding stream until now.

The $300 billion spending plan does not raise the gas tax. Instead, it calls for directing some $150 billion from “business tax reform” to help shore up the Highway Trust Fund, which is set to go broke late this summer. The White House has not released more information about how the funding stream would operate, but the press release calls it ”one-time transition revenue,” so the idea seems to be that in four years, a different revenue stream would have to be identified.

The White House announcement said Obama’s proposal “will show how we can invest in the things we need to grow and create jobs by closing unfair tax loopholes, lowering tax rates, and making the system more fair.”

Such a funding method would represent a major break from relying on the gas tax to pay for the national transportation program. The gas tax hasn’t been raised in two decades, and inflation and rising fuel efficiency have eroded its value. In 2012, the federal gasoline tax brought in $35 billion, but the feds allocated $54 billion in transportation spending, with other sources, including general tax revenues, making up the difference.

Obama will also announce the upcoming $600 million round of funding for TIGER, US DOT’s popular competitive grant program for local transportation projects, which has already been approved by Congress. The program has funded $1 billion in city transit projects, nearly as much for intercity rail, and $153 million in biking and walking projects since it was introduced in 2009.

More details about the president’s “vision for a 21st century transportation infrastructure” will be available after the speech today in St. Paul, which will take place inside the city’s restored Union Depot train station.

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Why Is It Still So Hard to Find Out How States Are Spending Transpo Money?

Summary of Nationwide Findings for Bicycling and Walking Projects by Project Type. Image: Advocacy Advance

Based on available information, 88.7 percent of all state transportation projects include nothing for walking and biking. Image: Advocacy Advance

You would be lucky to get half as much information about a $5 million transportation project in your state as you can get from a toothpaste tube about how to brush.

That sad comparison comes from a new report by Advocacy Advance (a project of the League of American Bicyclists and the Alliance for Biking and Walking). The report — “Lifting the Veil on Bicycle & Pedestrian Spending: An Analysis of Problems & Priorities in Transportation Planning and What to Do About It” [PDF] — compares bike/ped spending in State Transportation Improvement Programs, the spending plans state DOTs have to publish at least once every four years.

Advocacy Advance took a look at bike/ped spending in all 50 states. Here's part of Ohio's scorecard. The state got two As, a B- and a D for data transparency. Image: Advocacy Advance

Advocacy Advance took a look at bike/ped spending in all 50 states. Here’s part of Ohio’s scorecard. Image: Advocacy Advance

While toothpaste directions average six sentences, the average state DOT project description is just one sentence.

And when trying to decipher how your state is spending millions of dollars on a given transportation project, you shouldn’t be surprised to come across something like this: “SH 28, SALMON SB, SHARED USE PATHWAYS, PHS I.” That’s all Idaho tells the public about how its transportation dollars are being spent.

“Generally, state advocates know about the STIP but they don’t see it as a useful place to put their time because there are so many issues with it,” said Ken McLeod, the author of the Advocacy Advance report. “It’s hard to produce data from it that’s actionable for them or their constituents. So there’s some frustration at the state and local level, knowing that there’s this document with great potential that’s unrealized.”

McLeod dug deep to determine what projects involved bike/ped spending. He separated out bike-only, ped-only, and bike-and-ped projects, and then separately categorized larger road projects with a bike/ped element. And he looked beyond DOTs’ “bike/ped” coding to determine for himself when a project invested in infrastructure for walking and biking.

Advocacy Advance used the data to produce scorecards for each of the 50 states. (Since the District of Columbia isn’t a state and so doesn’t have to produce a STIP, it was left out of the analysis.)

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New Partnership Brings Together “Strange Bedfellows” For Active Transpo

The gospel of active transportation has spread. Thanks to a number of concurrent crises, from obesity to climate change to the “silver tsunami,” it’s become clear to more and more people that the simple act of walking and biking can have a major impact on averting some of the biggest problems America faces. So over the past several years, several different sectors have joined traditional biking and walking advocates in taking up the mantle of active transportation. And now those relationships have been consecrated into a new union: the Partnership for Active Transportation.

DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton helped introduce the new Partnership for Active Transportation today on Capitol Hill. Photo: Tanya Snyder

DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton helped introduce the new Partnership for Active Transportation today on Capitol Hill. Photo: Tanya Snyder

Some of the biking and walking groups you might expect to see in a coalition like this are notably absent, because the convening organization – the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy – didn’t want to fill it up with the usual suspects. Instead, they brought in organizations that aren’t obvious allies: the American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the LOCUS project of Smart Growth America that represents real estate developers. AARP is a key player in the new partnership too, though they haven’t quite said “I do,” yet.

“We’ve been making the public health argument for years,” said RTC president Keith Laughlin, “but we are bike advocates. We don’t have the right initials after our names.”

That’s where this partnership comes in. All the groups involved will more or less keep doing the same work they’ve always been doing, but now they can show the formal participation of people “who have all the right credentials” and can make a compelling argument from the point of view of the health or real estate sector that walking and biking are critical components of the transportation system. Showing lawmakers that active transportation has support from these sectors could help broaden the base of support for these programs on Capitol Hill.

The groups launched the partnership this morning on Capitol Hill, in one of the House office buildings, under the banner “Safe Routes to Everywhere,” a spin on Safe Routes to School. Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI), a longtime bike advocate and chair of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) made some opening remarks cheering on the group. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) stopped by later and gave his congratulations.

Susan Polan, there representing the American Public Health Association, acknowledged that it’s unusual for her group to sit down with real estate developers and agree on anything. “It’s a strange bedfellows coalition,” she said, “and that’s one of the reasons why it works.” She said this year is “the year of health,” with the rolling out of the health reform law, and that supporting communities to walk and bike more fits right in with that mandate.

The message the partnership will take to Capitol Hill has three parts:

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T&I Chair Bill Shuster Complicates Matters With Push for VMT Fee

All options may be on the table for funding transportation, but Bill Shuster has chosen his.

Rep. Bill Shuster’s choice to bring more transportation funding may be the most effective long-term, but in the short term, its prospects are dim. Photo: Bloomberg

Rep. Shuster, head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, hasn’t been willing to commit to any one proposal for funding transportation until now. And his choice may make things complicated.

At a Bloomberg Government event yesterday, Shuster came out in favor of a plan to tax drivers not per gallon but per mile.

It seemed that after years of being too gun-shy to raise the gas tax, which hasn’t gone up for 20 years, there was beginning to be some resignation to the idea that it was necessary. In addition to the usual chorus from industry, a bipartisan group of governors recently urged Congress to act. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and his new co-chair at Building America’s Future, former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, are promoting a 10-cent tax hike.

Lawmakers who had previously declined to go on the record were starting to line up behind various proposals, with Rep. Earl Blumenauer suggesting a gas tax hike and Sen. Barbara Boxer offering a wholesale fee on oil.

After all, the bitter reality is this: U.S DOT’s new Highway Trust Fund web ticker says the Highway Account will go dry in August of this year, with the Transit Account staying solvent through the end of September, though just barely.

At the same time Shuster announced he was for a vehicle-miles-traveled fee, he also brought the hammer down on the idea of a gas tax hike.

“Economically, it is not the time” to raise the gas tax, he told the audience. “I just don’t believe the American people have the will out there, in the public or in Congress; even our president has said we’re not going to do that. We’ve got to figure out a different way at this point in time.”

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The Next Transpo Bill: Can Congress Solve the Funding Problem?

From left to right, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Catepillar Group President Stuart Levenick, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Lawrence Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, testified before House transportation leaders today. The event kicked off a new transportation bill reauthorization process. Image: ##http://transportation.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=364867## House T&I Committee##

From left to right, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Caterpillar Group President Stuart Levenick, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, testified before House transportation leaders today. The event kicked off a new transportation bill reauthorization process. Photo: House T&I Committee

It’s that time again. Just 18 months after the passage of the latest federal transportation bill, known as MAP-21, Congress has to get serious about the next one. The first hearing on the bill that will replace MAP-21 took place today in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

With gridlock the order of the day in Washington, expectations for sweeping policy reforms are low. This round of legislating will focus mainly on how to pay for the federal transportation program. The speakers today, who represented interests ranging from the construction lobby to transit unions, all stressed the need for greater certainty and pushed for a funding mechanism to support a long-term, six-year bill.

Members of the committee heard testimony from Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Stuart Levenick of industrial manufacturer Caterpillar, and Larry Hanley of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Those who testified even went so far as to suggest an outright funding crisis would be preferable to another series of short-term extensions, like the endless foot-dragging that preceded MAP-21, which itself lasted barely longer than an extension. A scenario where lawmakers let funding for transportation totally run out would at least add a sense of real urgency to negotiations, the thinking goes.

Wisconsin Congressman Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) asked the panel which outcome they’d prefer, in the case of another stalemate between Republicans and Democrats in the House.

Reed responded, “I would err on the side of short-term pain.”

Those who testified pressed for bold solutions, including alternatives to the gas tax. ”What we need to do is have a conversation in this committee where we put all options on the table,” said Reed.

Hanley suggested Congress consider a tax on financial transactions, the so called “Robin Hood” tax, to fund a 100 percent increase in transit funding, which he said was warranted by growth in major cities and young people’s declining interest in driving.

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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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