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Budget Deal Is Good News for Transit

The House of Representatives is preparing to vote on that rarest of Capitol Hill treasures — a bipartisan budget deal. If both houses approve the deal, negotiated by Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, it will be the first time since 2010 that Congress has passed a budget.

Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray have reached a budget deal the House is expected to pass today.

Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray have reached a budget deal the House is expected to pass today.

The deal would erase some sequester cuts and split the difference between the House budget of $967 billion and the Senate proposal’s $1.058 trillion number. The final budget would come in at $1.012 trillion.

The deal would bring the discretionary budget to about $491 billion. If the modest increases are applied evenly across all non-defense agencies, it would mean that the Transportation and HUD (THUD) budget would still suffer a $1.58 billion cut from 2013 levels, according to David Burwell of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, but it’s $8 billion more than the House’s starvation bill of about $44 billion.

“This will allow all THUD programs to continue to operate with about a 2 percent cut from FY2013 levels,” Burwell said, “including TIGER, Amtrak, Transit New/Small Starts, etc.” A 2 percent cut starts to sound pretty good when you realize THUD was looking at a 7 percent cut before this deal materialized.

Given the fact that Senate Budget Committee chair, and co-author of this deal, Patty Murray also chairs the THUD Appropriations Subcommittee — and has “great affection” for the TIGER program, Burwell indulges the idea that “we may well get a strong TIGER in our stocking this Christmas, not a lump of coal.”

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Was TIGER Eliminated in the Shutdown Deal?

Soon after the government shutdown ended, we heard murmurs that the TIGER grant program for innovative transportation projects had been a casualty of the negotiations.

Congress's inability to do anything has meant a temporary de-funding of TIGER. Photo: Wikimedia

Under the rules of the Office of Management and Budget, any program that was de-funded in either chamber’s bill would be de-funded in the continuing resolution (the temporary budget) until it can be replaced by an approved appropriations bill. That’s to ensure compliance with the Anti-Deficiency Act, which basically says Congress shouldn’t allocate money to a program for a given year if it’s later going to say that program has no budget for that year.

The House, as usual, de-funded TIGER in its budget proposal, while the Senate dutifully allocated $474 million for the fifth round of TIGER grants and another $550 million for a sixth round. Neither chamber passed the budget on the floor, but the OMB rule that ended up de-funding TIGER only requires that the bill be voted out of committee, which it was in both chambers.

Thankfully, this CR only lasts through January 15, 2014. But then what? Congress has four options:

  1. Pass a 2014 budget. Outlook: negative. Congress hasn’t passed a budget since 2009. It’s nice of the Senate to even bother going through the motions these days, which they didn’t for a few years. If Congress did, miraculously, agree on a budget to send to the president, it’s anyone’s guess whether TIGER would be included.
  2. Pass another continuing resolution through the end of FY2014. That would reinstate TIGER funding at last year’s levels, since there would be no risk of a full-year bill violating the Anti-Deficiency Act. Technically, the House could insist on a rider to the CR zeroing out TIGER, but those sorts of things severely gum up the process and it’s unlikely they’d bother for something so small and low-profile.
  3. Pass another short-term CR for just a few weeks or months. TIGER and just about everything else would remain in limbo.
  4. Shut down the government. It could happen.

Even worse: On January 15, when a new budget or CR will have to come into effect to prevent yet another government shutdown, they’ll have to deal with a new round of sequester cuts. Luckily, much of the painful part is already over. Though the 2014 cuts look big — $109.3 billion — that’s the reduction from pre-sequestration levels, not 2013 levels. “Only” another $20 billion needs to come out of the budget this time around, and almost exclusively from defense. So the most vulnerable transportation programs like New Starts and Amtrak, which come out of discretionary, not mandatory, spending, needn’t suffer too much.

That won’t stop the House from trying, of course.

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The Dangerous Myth That States Give More Than They Get For Transpo

The states in red get the biggest federal transportation subsidies relative to the amount they contribute in gas taxes. The states in violet get less than 100 percent of their gas taxes back in transportation money. What, there are no states in violet? Exactly. Source: FHWA (Click to enlarge.)

There is a pernicious myth among some states that they give more to Washington in the form of gas taxes than they get back in the form of federal transportation funding. A recent rash of federal bailouts — $35 billion between September 2008 and March 2010 — ensured a windfall for every state in the union. And yet many still believe that federal bureaucrats are skimming off the top of their payments to give their hard-earned highway money to the liberal subway-riders in New York or something. It’s a dangerous lie with serious repercussions.

FHWA has published a comparison of each state’s highway payments and allocations for fiscal year 2012 [PDF]. Two years after the last federal infusion to the trust fund, states are still profiting. Alaska gets back 7.28 times what it sends to DC. DC itself gets back its gas taxes 10 times over (because of all the federal infrastructure the city maintains). Montana and North Dakota get back three times what they pay. Vermont, almost five times. And not a single state gets back less than 100 percent of what they pay in. Kansas draws the shortest straw of all, which is still a five percent boost from the gas taxes the state contributes.

Even more telling: Looking at the cumulative ratios going all the way back to 1956, only five states — Indiana, Michigan, North and South Carolina, and Texas — have recouped less than 100 percent of the gas taxes they’ve sent to Washington. And those only by the barest margins.

There are two dangers to the falsehood that states get back less than they give.

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Shutdown: Congress Prepares to Furlough One-Third of U.S. DOT Staff

Looks like we’re heading for a real, honest-to-goodness government shutdown tomorrow due to a childish Congressional food fight over budgets and health care. Already this year, thousands of government employees faced furloughs due to sequestration, and now they’re looking at an indefinite unpaid leave. It’ll last until Congress can play nice and make a deal on the budget and health care, and who knows when that will be.

Still reeling from a much more constrained sequester-related round of furloughs, federal employees now brace for The Big One. Photo: Office of Sen. Bernie Sanders

But when the government shuts down, not the whole government shuts down. “Essential” personnel will report to work, including those whose jobs are tied to safety functions, like air traffic controllers. And so will employees whose paychecks come from mandatory, not discretionary, spending — like those whose positions are funded from the Highway Trust Fund.

That has every last employee at the Federal Highway Administration breathing a sigh of relief. According to a U.S. DOT document [PDF] outlining furlough procedures in case of a shutdown (issued Friday, by which time they must have been pretty certain such a document would be needed), all 2,914 FHWA employees will report to work tomorrow, since those positions are all funded with contract authority. “All operations continue as normal.”

Same with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. All 1,102 employees will go to work as usual.

Well, bully for FHWA and FMCSA. The pain will be felt on the fourth floor of U.S. DOT — and at transit agencies around the country — when 91 percent of Federal Transit Administration workers go on furlough. The 21 workers assigned to Hurricane Sandy response work are excepted, as are the three working in the Lower Manhattan Recovery Office, which has been helping to rebuild the transit system there since 9/11. Four other unspecified employees have been deemed essential. The rest of the 501 agency workers are out of luck.

No New Starts transit grants will be issued, no cooperative agreements will be signed, no contracts will be honored. Transit agencies won’t be reimbursed for operations and construction projects. “October is typically a month where grantees request substantial reimbursements,” DOT notes. “In October of FY 2013 payments averaged about $200 million per week.”

This affects about 1,300 grantees around the country. Transit projects under development will stall. Safety oversight, a task newly given to FTA under the MAP-21 bill, will be curtailed. Research and technical assistance will grind to a halt.

It’s not for lack of money to pay these grants, DOT notes. It’s for lack of money to pay the people who sign the grant checks.

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Asphalt Industry Leader: “We’re Not Out Picking Fights” With Other Modes

Jay Hansen is executive vice president of the National Asphalt Pavement Association. He’s led the organization’s efforts to secure federal highway funding and even convinced the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to install a permanent asphalt pavement exhibit. He says he’s been reading Streetsblog Capitol Hill since it started publishing. I talked to him Friday after the association’s first-ever Washington “fly-in” to strategize about legislation and lobby Congress. T. Carter Ross, NAPA’s Vice President for Communications was also with us.

We began by discussing the current state of federal transportation funding before turning to the topic of how that money should be spent.

Tanya Snyder: I wanted to ask you about the fix-it-first policy. At this point there’s potentially money behind President Obama’s policy, because he has this $50 billion program. But money aside, in constrained times, as asphalt contractors, do you advocate for a fix-it-first model or would you advocate for concurrent expansion as well?

NAPA VP Jay Hansen. Photo: Better Roads

Jay Hansen: We advocate, definitely, a fix-it-first policy. We haven’t been continually investing in our roads to keep them smooth and perform well. And the reason for that is that there’s not enough money coming in the trust fund; we haven’t raised the gas tax in 20 years.

We need to expand the system where it makes sense, but we need to fix what we have as well. ASCE gives the roads a grade of D.

TS: Do you use ASCE’s numbers when you visited Congressional offices? Not so much the grades, but I think ASCE says it would cost three-and-a-half trillion dollars to bring the country’s infrastructure up to a state of good repair. Do you support those numbers?

JH: Sometimes I wonder if we’re grading the roads in a way that the members of Congress go, “If we’re investing all this money and we’re only getting the roads up to a D, we’re throwing good money after bad.” When you’re up on the Hill, you’re almost at the 30,000-foot level, even with state-by-state data. You need people like contractors to go in and say, “In our community, if we had the money, this bridge would get repaired. Right now it’s been posted, you can’t drive trucks over a certain weight limit over that bridge.”

It has to be brought down to that level; it’s a kitchen table kind of talk, as opposed to, “Here’s a 700-page report that says we need to invest more in highways.” We’ve been doing that for years and I don’t think it’s working.

We’re part of the Americans for Transportation Mobility coalition led by the U.S. Chamber with transit, and unions are part of that. We’re all on same page. The purpose of that coalition is to get the business community more involved.

TS: There have been moves in Congress, with the last bill and since, to make the Highway Trust Fund go farther by eliminating trust fund funding for non-highway expenditures — things like transit and transportation alternatives. Where do you come down on that?

JH: The departments of transportation are multi-modal and they support highways and transit. We’ve had the highway/transit fights back in the 70s and 80s. I think those fights are over.

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Why Are State DOTs So Afraid of Accountability?

Deron Lovaas is the federal transportation policy director for NRDC. A version of this article appeared on his blog this morning.

In this era of constrained resources, the country must move toward performance-based management and accountability for results in all sectors — including transportation. It’s a Culture of Consequences, in the words of the RAND think tank.  We need to use all the new tools and technologies at our disposal to ensure we get good bang from every buck.

Florida Transportation Chief Ananth Prasad has a message for U.S. DOT: When it comes to performance measures, we prefer the toothless kind. Photo: Joe Burbank, Orland Sentinel

Tell that to state DOTs.

Ensuring that reforms are effective requires setting clear goals. A few years ago, the Bipartisan Policy Center set out five goals for a sound transportation system: economic growth, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, energy security and environmental protection, and safety. If our transportation officials made sure every dollar they spent was in the service of those core goals, we would see immediate reforms.

In recent years performance management has become common practice in many fields, including education and medicine. And now it is coming to transportation. RAND found that tying performance to incentives is necessary to improve the performance of government bureaucracies. As RAND bluntly puts it, reformers should “make the rewards or penalties big enough to matter.”

So imagine my dismay when grantees of the national transportation program – state transportation departments – launched what appears to be a concerted campaign this week against accountability. Their target: one sentence in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s newly proposed strategic plan for 2014-2018.

Specifically, the state DOTs were up in arms about the modest bit of progress encapsulated in this line on page 28: “[DOTs will] Use the system performance information to drive programmatic and legislative linkages between system performance and Federal funding.” This is in the chapter about achieving a state of good repair, one of the two measures that DOT and states can most readily implement since they already collect a lot of data on it. (The other one is safety). Seems like a logical place to start connecting incentives to performance goals.

But the state DOTs weren’t having it. A flurry of seemingly coordinated responses started populating U.S. DOT’s website.

Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad posted the following “idea” on the DOT site: “Performance Measurement Must Not Be Linked To Funding.” Say what?

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Vitter: Sure, Raise the Gas Tax — Just as Long as You Don’t Raise More Money

Well here’s a sobering thought: Transit advocates, cyclists and the road lobby have the same talking points these days. All anyone is talking about is how to rescue the Highway Trust Fund from its own fiscal cliff.

Sen. David Vitter, the ranking Republican on EPW, is in favor of raising the gas tax only if it doesn't actually yield more revenue. Photo by T. Carter Ross, NAPA

I attended yesterday’s “Asphalt Fly-In,” the National Asphalt Pavement Association’s first-ever Washington legislative conference. If I went in expecting to hear outrageous things about starving out transit and bike/ped or eliminating the last remaining environmental safeguards, I came out disappointed. The only eyebrow-raising moment was the off-color joke some asphalt lobbyist opened with. It was, at least, extremely off-color.

While asphalt lobbyists want more cash to widen highways and build roads to nowhere, and reformers just want to make sure that limited funding doesn’t squeeze out things like transit and bike/ped projects entirely, it all comes down to the same demand.

House Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster told the asphalt industry representatives that while it’s hard for lawmakers to agree on anything when it comes to taxes, “when they talk about revenues, the one area of revenues that seems to brings them together, or at least makes them talk, are revenues when it comes to the transportation system.”

But that doesn’t mean finding a solution will be easy.

Sen. David Vitter, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he understands that the current limitations on the Highway Trust Fund are just “an accident of history” and need to be revisited — presumably by raising the gas tax.

“Somehow it’s a core conservative principle that whatever is there now as the current federal gas tax, that’s it and that’s written in stone that Moses brought down from the mountain,” Vitter said. He added that he’s “open to updating that financing system” but here’s the catch — it can’t be a “net tax increase for middle-class taxpayers.”

That means any gas tax increase needs to be “offset” by other tax reductions. So essentially what Vitter is arguing for is just another bailout — moving money around within the federal budget, beefing up one pot while shrinking another. Where would it come from? “That’s the $64,000 question,” he said. The only new revenue he would support without an offset would be from oil drilling — an option Shuster also highlighted in his remarks.

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Nine Days in September: Congress’s Chance to Break the Gridlock

I hope you all had a good Labor Day. Streetsblog is back to work today, and you probably are too. But Congress? Not until next week. Every time there’s a Monday holiday, Congress takes the whole week off, and they’re milking the last moments of their August recess.

Labor Day has come and gone, but for Congress, it's still the last week of August recess. Enjoy. Photo: KateNews2Day

It’s no wonder lawmakers are procrastinating. They have a lot of unpleasant business to tackle when they get back, and not a lot of time to do it.

The start of fiscal year 2014 is less than a month away, and there are only nine legislative days between now and then. In those nine days, Congress is going to have to make some decisions about spending — including transportation spending. In an ideal world, they’d also give some serious thought to passenger rail policy.

Here’s an overview of the major transportation issues Congress should be addressing.

First, the rail reauthorization

The five-year Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) expires September 30. This spring, Congressional Republicans confidently pledged that it would be reauthorized this year — and then promptly dropped the ball (though, according to a spokesperson for the House Transportation Committee, they are working on language for the bill and will continue to do so into the fall.)

The fact is, it would have been nice to have something new in place before PRIIA’s expiration, but it’s not actually necessary. The current bill will just keep rolling over until Congress actually bothers to pass a new one. It’s not like the surface transportation bill, which needs to be reauthorized or extended before it expires. (The transportation bill is funded with Highway Trust Fund money that doesn’t go through an appropriations process, and the contract authority for that money does need to be current in order for it to be spent.)

But lots of programs get appropriations every year without ever being authorized. (Think TIGER.) Amtrak was one of those for a long time — before PRIIA, there was no rail authorization in place for years.

“An authorization that doesn’t authorize sufficient funding and contains bad policies would be worse than no authorization,” said Malcolm Kenton of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. But a well-designed authorization — “if it gives Amtrak the resources it needs to grow and modernize without micromanaging the company or imposing too many specific mandates” — could be a huge boost for American passenger rail.

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Transportation Funding Bill Dies Unceremoniously in Both Chambers

A few short hours after the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a $594 billion defense spending bill, Republicans blocked the $54 billion transportation and HUD bill from coming to the floor for a vote. House Republican leadership had blocked its own THUD bill the day before.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell fought members of his own party to keep them from allowing a vote on the transportation spending bill yesterday.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Politico that Republicans had to quash the bill in order to “indicate we’re going to keep our word around here” — meaning that the Republicans would adhere to the automatic budget cuts triggered when Congress couldn’t agree on a solution to the debt ceiling crisis. Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, furious that the bill had been pulled, blamed the excessive austerity of the budget they were forced to work within. He called for the end of sequestration “and its unrealistic, ill-conceived, discretionary cuts.”

McConnell, on the other hand, displayed a singleminded determination to kill the Senate transportation spending bill. “He has never worked harder against a member of his own party than he did against me today,” said Sen. Susan Collins, the sole Republican to vote in favor of considering the bill. Collins, the top Republican on the Transportation Appropriations Committee, co-wrote the bill with Chair Patty Murray. According to Politico, other Republicans were prepared to vote in favor of the bill, but “when it became obvious the bill would not meet the 60-vote threshold, she told them they should vote no.”

The Senate leaves today for a five-week August recess and when they return after Labor Day, they’ll have just nine legislative days before the end of the fiscal year.

“So where does that leave us?” Appropriations Committee Barbara Mikulski said. “What is that, are we back to gridlock?”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer was equally frustrated with the Republican block. “We’re hurting the economy, we’re undermining the confidence of the American people,” he said on the House floor.

Hoyer said he wasn’t in favor of his chamber’s THUD proposal, which cut 15 percent from current funding levels, but he was also irritated with Republicans in both houses for blocking votes on the bills. “Nine days from tomorrow, nine legislative days from tomorrow, we’re going to have that issue of how we’re going to fund government and keep it running,” he said. “In both Houses, the Republican Party has abandoned the appropriations process.”

Rogers called the House bill’s prospects in September “bleak at best, given the vote count on the passage that was apparent this afternoon.” But the prospects of these bills have always been bleak, given how different they are and how impossible it would be to conference them into one compromise piece of legislation that the president would sign. So perhaps it’s no great loss. Next month, Congress will find a way to pass a continuing resolution. freezing current budget levels for yet another year.

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House Pulls Its Disastrous Transpo Spending Bill As Senate Moves Ahead

While the Senate continues to consider amendments to its transportation budget bill, expected to pass this week, House leadership has canceled a vote on its own version. The bill, which passed the full Appropriations Committee a month ago, was scheduled to hit the floor this week for a vote by the entire House.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says they don't have the time for a transportation vote before recess. Does he really mean they don't have the votes? Photo: Dennis Brack/Newscom via TPM

A spokesperson from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office said the schedule was too busy this week with more pressing items they want to bring to the floor before the August recess begins. He said the House would consider the THUD appropriations bill once they return. The bill provides a budget for Fiscal Year 2014, which begins September 30.

House Democrats unanimously voted against the bill in committee, calling it “grossly inadequate” and even suggesting that it forebodes “the twilight of the appropriations process.” It cuts 2013 spending levels by 15 percent, eliminates TIGER and high-speed rail funding, cuts Amtrak’s subsidy by a third, and slashes HUD’s Community Development Block Grants program.

Scheduling might not be the only problem, however. Six Republicans in the Senate voted with Democrats on that chamber’s bill, which includes $10 billion more in spending than the starvation-diet House bill, including funding boosts for some of the programs eviscerated by the House plan.

“I always expected they would have vote problems on this,” a Democratic aide told The Hill. Politico reporter Anna Palmer said on Twitter that rumor had it the Republicans didn’t have the votes to pass the bill. “Rough way to go out for August recess,” she said.

Immediately after hearing that the Republicans had pulled the bill, Nancy Pelosi’s office sent out an email with the subject line, “Will House GOP Leave Town with a T-HUD or a Whimper?” She said the Republicans were embarrassing themselves and should “stop trying to placate the Tea Party and other warring factions in their conference.”

Though the House may do as Cantor says and vote on the bill in September, the conventional wisdom is that a continuing resolution will be necessary anyway, since the House and Senate bills are so disparate that a compromise is nearly impossible before the September 30 deadline. That’s not such bad news — a CR freezes current spending levels in place, which includes funding for TIGER and would avoid some of the House’s harshest cuts.