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Posts from the "Federal Funding" Category

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Building Cloverleafs Won’t Inspire Americans to Pay More for Transportation

This post by Ben Ross was originally posted at Dissent.

The federal transportation fund is running out of money, threatening the country with potholes, stopped construction, and economic downturn. Congress, which has kept the program solvent with short-term patches for years, now finds itself unable to do more than buy a few months’ time.

Mainstream opinion pins the blame for this state of affairs on partisanship and anti-tax extremism. But the crisis has a deeper cause. In transportation, as in so many areas of American politics, the terms of debate are controlled by an elite that has lost touch with the rest of the country.

Voters on both the Tea Party right and the urban left have lost the desire to pay higher taxes for new roads. Yet powerful highway bureaucracies and their political allies insist that added revenues must go toward ever more cloverleafs and interstates. They keep searching for money to build what voters don’t want to pay for, a quest doomed to end in futility.

The roots of the congressional deadlock are best seen far from Washington.

When Texas Governor Rick Perry took office in 2000, he found himself caught between campaign contributors’ yearning to build expressways and conservative hostility to tax increases. He sought a way out with an aggressive program of toll-road building.

But when the highways opened, drivers rebelled against the stiff fees. Revenue fell far below forecasts, and grassroots activists launched an anti-toll campaign. At last month’s state Republican convention, the insurgents triumphed. The state party platform now calls for no new tolls (as well as no new taxes).

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Dems Grudgingly Approve House Transpo Extension’s Disastrous Timeline

Yesterday, during the one-hour debate period over the House proposal to extend transportation funding through May 31, lawmaker after lawmaker stood up to condemn the bill. America needs a long-term transportation bill, they said. A short-term stopgap only creates more uncertainty.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer was one of just 10 Democrats to reject the House extension.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer was one of just 10 Democrats to reject the House extension.

And then they voted for it.

More Democrats than Republicans voted for it, in fact, despite standing up and declaring that “a short term solution is not enough” or that it’s “just another kick-the-can-down-the-road approach” or that it’s just “a little shuffling around of money so we can pretend… we’re not creating more debt.” But in the end, the Highway and Transportation Funding Act passed easily, with only 10 Democrats and 45 Republicans voting against it.

Peter Welch of Vermont was one of those no-voting Democrats. During the floor debate, he called the bill an “abdication of our responsibility.”

“Some folks are saying we need time to put together a long term bill,” he said. “We’ve had time. What we need is a decision.”

Earl Blumenauer is in favor of an extension, but only through the lame duck period after the election. He voted no as well, criticizing Republicans for failing to have a “deliberate, thoughtful process.”

“We have not had a single hearing on transportation finance in the Ways and Means Committee all year,” he said. “We didn’t have one the year before that. We haven’t had a hearing in the 43 months that the Republicans have been in charge.”

So here’s where things stand: The Senate Finance Committee has passed a largely similar bill, with the same amount of money coming out of slightly different funding sources.

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House, Senate Take Different Paths to Prop Up Transportation Funding

This morning, the House Ways and Means Committee passed its plan to prop up the Highway Trust Fund — which pays for transit and bike/ped infrastructure in addition to roads — until May 2015. A few hours later, the Senate Finance Committee approved a plan of its own, with no deadline attached.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the two top dogs on the Finance Committee, agreed on a bill that matches the dollar amount in the House bill — $10.8 billion. Wyden’s original proposal had the bill expiring December 31, but the final bill didn’t have any deadline in it at all. The fact that the Senate matched the House bill dollar for dollar, however, indicates that they’re leaving the door open to extend it all the way to May 31, like the House.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said she was grateful to the Finance Committee for agreeing on a “shorter-term patch” and still hoped to pass a long-term bill by December, though it’s unclear that’s what the Finance bill does.   

As I said yesterday, an extension through May would be a huge blow to Democrats, who would prefer to see the extension expire by the end of this year in hopes of forcing action on a long-term bill while Democrats still control the Senate.

The Senate bill adds in some of the House’s pay-fors too, including $2.7 billion raised from “pension smoothing,” which is generally viewed as a gimmick that doesn’t raise any actual money long term. The House plan takes $6.4 billion from pension smoothing, but Wyden wanted to reserve some of that money — fictitious though it may be — for other purposes. You can read the Senate’s full list of pay-fors here [PDF].

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House Proposes 8-Month Transpo Bill In Hopes for a Republican Senate in 2015

While a six-year Senate transportation bill languishes in partisan purgatory, the House Ways and Means Committee has proposed an eight-month patch that would backfill the Highway Trust Fund until May 31, 2015. That would punt the transportation bill debate until a new Congress takes over — one that’s expected to have Republican majorities in both chambers.

Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp wants to let the next Congress deal with transportation funding. Photo: ##http://camp.house.gov/photos/##Office of Dave Camp##

Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp wants to let the next Congress deal with transportation funding. Photo: Office of Dave Camp

Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp earlier proposed “business tax reform” to fund transportation — as did President Obama — but even those powerful champions on both sides of the aisle weren’t enough to get traction on that idea.

The new Ways and Means proposal abandons both that idea and the Republican scheme to use post office cuts to offset losses to the Highway Trust Fund (which also funds transit and active transportation infrastructure, by the way). Instead, it opts for a smattering of fiscal gimmicks and fees unrelated to transportation with a previous record of success in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is trying to get the full chamber to consider his extension bill, the PATH Act — that stands for Preserving America’s Transit and Highways — which has its own complex web of pay-fors.

While the Senate bill has been larded up with amendments that are unlikely to go anywhere, neither bill, at its core, includes any policy changes. Both are just stopgap funding fixes, and substantially similar ones at that.

The only substantive difference between the House and Senate proposals is the length. Wyden’s bill would require further action after the elections (as lawmakers agree is necessary) but before the new Congress is seated. Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp explained in a statement why he opposes that plan:
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With No Transport Funding Fix, USDOT to Cut Payments to States Next Month

Click to enlarge. Next month, the Highway Trust Fund -- the funding mechanism for the nation's transportation system -- will become insolvent next month without Congressional action. Chart: FHWA

Click to enlarge. Next month, the Highway Trust Fund — the funding mechanism for the nation’s transportation system — will become insolvent unless Congress acts. Chart: FHWA

State transportation departments could see the federal funding they receive pared back as early as a few weeks from now if Congress doesn’t come up with a transportation funding solution.

A “cash management plan” to deal with the impending shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund — which actually pays for transit, biking, and walking projects in addition to roads — was outlined in a letter from U.S. DOT to state transportation officials yesterday [PDF]. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote that “as we approach insolvency, the Department will be forced to limit payments to manage the reduced levels of cash.”

Federal transportation revenues have been faltering for a long time, primarily because inflation has eaten away at the gas tax, which hasn’t increased in more than 20 years. Congress and the White House have floated many possible solutions of varying merit — a gas tax increase, an excise tax on oil, “business tax reform,” even canceling Saturday mail service. Lacking an agreed-upon revenue source, the Highway Trust Fund has been propped up with general revenues over the last few years. It is unclear whether Congress will extend that stopgap before funding starts to run dry in the next few months.

In his letter, Foxx indicated that if the issue isn’t resolved by August 1, around the time when revenues are expected to dip below current spending levels, U.S. DOT will dole out the available money based on existing funding formulas. In other words, the funding cuts will be shared among all the states, based on population and other factors.

In a speech yesterday in Washington, President Obama urged Congressional action to ward off funding problems, saying inaction would put 700,000 jobs at risk — or about as many people as live in Denver or Boston. He blamed Congressional Republicans for failing to act to resolve the issue.

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FHWA: Bike-Ped Investments Pay Off By Cutting Traffic and Improving Health

Marin County rebuilt an old railroad tunnel and created a 1.1-mile non-motorized path, expanding transit access and increasing biking by 95 percent. Photo: ##http://parisi-associates.com/projects/non-motorized-transportation-pilot-program/##Parisi Associates##

Marin County rebuilt an old railroad tunnel and created a 1.1-mile walking and biking path, improving access to transit and increasing biking 95 percent on the road leading to the tunnel. Photo: Parisi Associates

Nine years after launching a program to measure the impact of bike and pedestrian investments in four communities, the Federal Highway Administration credits the program with increasing walking trips by nearly a quarter and biking trips by nearly half, while averting 85 million miles of driving since its inception.

In 2005, the FHWA’s Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP) set aside $100 million for pedestrian and bicycle programs in four communities: Columbia, Missouri; Marin County, California; Sheboygan County, Wisconsin; and the Minneapolis region in Minnesota.

Each community had $25 million to spend over four years, with most of the funding going toward on-street and off-street infrastructure. According to a progress report released this week, about $11 million of that remains unspent, though the communities also attracted $59 million in additional funds from other federal, state, local, and private sources.

“The main takeaway is, we’ve now answered indisputably that if you build a wisely-designed, safe system for walking and biking within the context of a community that is aware of and inspired by fact that it is becoming a more walkable, bikeable place, you can achieve dramatic mode shift with modest investment,” said Marianne Fowler of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and an architect of the pilot program.

Columbia reconfigured a key commuter intersection to making walking and biking easier and safer, resulting in a 51 percent jump in walking rates and a 98 percent jump in biking at that location. In Marin County, the reconstruction of the 1,100-foot Cal Park railroad tunnel and construction of a 1.1-mile walking and biking path provided direct access to commuter ferry service to downtown San Francisco and reduced bicycling time between the cities of San Rafael and Larkspur by 15 minutes. Biking along the corridor increased 95 percent, and a second phase of the project is still to come.

The program helped jump-start the Nice Ride bike-share system in Minneapolis, which grew to 170 stations and 1,556 bicycles by 2013, with 305,000 annual trips. And in Sheboygan County, the ReBike program distributed bicycles to more than 700 people and a new 1.7-mile multi-use path was built, following portions of an abandoned rail corridor through the heart of the city of Sheboygan. “Sixty percent of the population of Sheboygan County lives in close proximity to that corridor,” said Fowler. “And the trail gives them access to almost anything in Sheboygan.”

FHWA could see the impact: At locations where better infrastructure was installed, walking increased 56 percent and biking soared 115 percent. Using a peer-reviewed model, FHWA also estimated changes in walking and biking throughout the four communities. The program led to a 22.8 percent increase in walking trips and a 48.3 percent increase in biking trips. Without the interventions, residents would have driven 85 million more miles since the program launched, according to FHWA.

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Senator Pat Toomey Fights to Spare America From Safe Streets

You know the Senate is close to passing transportation legislation when someone introduces a hare-brained amendment to ban bike and pedestrian programs.

Sen. Pat Toomey's answer to the transportation funding crisis is to stop funding the most cost-effective projects. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/8565245671/##Flickr/gageskidmore##

Sen. Pat Toomey’s answer to the transportation funding crisis is to stop funding the most cost-effective projects. Photo: Flickr/gageskidmore

Sen. Ron Wyden, as promised, yesterday introduced a bill to extend MAP-21 and the Highway Trust Fund’s authority by three months. It also transfers some money from the general fund into the HTF to keep it afloat until December 31.

Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey saw that as his chance to attack bike and pedestrian programs. He inserted an amendment that he calls “To reserve federal transportation funds for national infrastructure priorities.” Those national priorities apparently don’t include safety, air quality, congestion reduction or public health. Here’s his amendment:

No funds distributed from the Highway Trust Fund established in Title 26, Sec. 9503 of the United States Code may be spent for the purpose of operating the Federal Transportation Alternatives Program.

The Transportation Alternatives Program is the tiny pot of money available for bike and pedestrian projects.

Toomey also introduced an amendment rescinding high-speed rail funds and another exempting infrastructure destroyed during a “declared emergency” from environmental reviews if they’re rebuilt in the same footprint.

Other amendments [PDF] include Wyden’s push for an expedited process to pass a long-term transportation bill (when the time comes) and a proposal from four Democratic senators to extend the transit commuter benefit at the same level as the parking benefit. 

Sen. Jay Rockefeller has an intriguing amendment to create an account within the Highway Trust Fund called the Multimodal Transportation Account. It would fund freight projects, intelligent transportation systems, and other works that don’t fit neatly into one modal silo or another.

Sen. Carper has his name on two amendments to raise the gas tax until it recoups the purchasing power it’s lost over the 21 years since it’s been set at 18.4 cents a gallon, and index it to inflation thereafter. There’s also an amendment to establish an Infrastructure Financing Authority and one to establish an American Infrastructure Fund.

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“Rally for Roads” Demands Transportation Funding Fix

Finance Committee Chair promises: "Failure is not an option." Photo: ##https://twitter.com/RonWyden/status/476793885050802176##Twitter/Ron Wyden##

Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden: “Failure is not an option.” Photo: Ron Wyden/Twitter

This morning, the road construction industry rallied in front of the U.S. Capitol to demand that Congress invest in infrastructure. But some of the best-known transportation reformers in Washington were also on hand for an event that didn’t focus on one mode over others.

The overriding message of the day was simple: Don’t let transportation funding dry up. While the list of sponsors included mostly construction groups that want more money for their industry, many of them would be just as happy to build transit as roads. Kerri Leininger of the National Ready-Mix Concrete Association, one of the main organizing groups, said limiting the Highway Trust Fund to only highways, as some have suggested, is not their message.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer pushed for his bill increasing the gas tax by 15 cents over three years and indexing it to inflation. Rep. Peter DeFazio unveiled his new plan to replace the gas tax entirely with a per-barrel levy on oil companies.

Sen. Ron Wyden intoned, “When it comes to funding transportation, failure is not an option!” As chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Wyden is the person tasked with actually finding a way to fund transportation — and get it through both houses of Congress. He’s as aware as anyone of the looming possibility of failure.

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Why the Senate Transportation Bill Will Devastate Transit

Transit officials lined up today to make clear that holding transit spending at current levels — as the Senate’s transportation authorization bill does — will put transit systems at risk of falling further into dangerous disrepair.

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are "woefully insufficient."

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are “woefully insufficient.”

The backlog for transit maintenance and replacement stands “conservatively” at $86 billion, according to the Federal Transit Administration. That backlog is expected to keep growing at a rate of $2.5 billion each year without a significant infusion of funds.

To put it another way, the country needs to spend $2.5 billion more per year – from federal, state and local sources – just to keep the state of the nation’s transit systems from getting even worse.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was determined to expose the shortcomings of the bill Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) recently shepherded through the Environment and Public Works Committee. While the bill’s transit title hasn’t been written yet, EPW has been clear about its intentions to keep spending at current levels plus inflation. That means no help toward the $2.5 billion boost needed to keep things from getting worse.

Menendez chaired a hearing today of the Banking Committee — the very committee tasked with writing the transit title within the framework established by EPW — to demonstrate the problem with the bill’s funding levels.

“By a simple yes or no,” Menendez asked the transit officials before him, “does anyone on the panel believe that current funding levels are enough to help you achieve a state of good repair?”

“They are insufficient,” answered Joseph Casey, general manager of Philadelphia’s SEPTA.

“Woefully insufficient,” added Beverly Scott, head of Boston’s MBTA and a nationally respected transportation visionary.

“No sir,” said Gary Thomas of Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

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Sen. Bob Corker Sets Up for Gas Tax Increase, Yanks the Football

Last week — Infrastructure Week, as it happens — Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) sent an urgent plea [PDF] to the leaders of the Environment and Public Works Committee the day before they unanimously approved the committee’s transportation reauthorization bill and sent it to the full Senate. Corker also sent his letter to the top members of the Finance Committee, who are actually in charge of finding funding for the bill, since the Highway Trust Fund alone comes $100 billion short.

Sen. Bob Corker can't quite get behind a gas tax hike, though his entire argument points in that direction. Photo: ##http://www.corker.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Images.Display&ImageGallery_id=a36a3e1a-0103-b714-2285-f8fb90d613e1##Office of Sen. Corker##

Sen. Bob Corker can’t quite get behind a gas tax hike, though his entire argument points in that direction. Photo: Office of Sen. Corker

What Corker is calling for, in essence, is a pillaging of the U.S. budget to subsidize driving.

“In the last few years, Congress has allowed the [Highway Trust Fund] to become one of the largest budget gimmicks in the federal government,” he wrote.

So far so good — no one could argue with that. The gas tax is worth less than two-thirds of what it was worth in 1993, the last time it was raised, and Congress was forced to bail out the HTF three times between September 2008 and March 2010 — not to mention the $18.8 billion bailout in the form of MAP-21.

That’s a lot of taxpayer money spent on something that’s supposed to be funded with a user fee, which just about everyone in Washington holds as ideal. But when costs rise with inflation and revenues don’t, Congress has shoveled general funds into the HTF rather than buck up and raise the user fee.

Corker says these transfers make a mockery of the idea of “a self-sustaining ‘trust fund.’”

“These transfers are also causing highway program spending to look more and more like an appropriated discretionary program,” he wrote, “but without any of the budget oversight Congress can exercise over other spending bills.”

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