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Posts from the "Federal Stimulus" Category

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What Has President Obama Done to Improve American Transportation Policy?

With the election just days away, it’s a good time to reflect on what the Obama administration has done with transportation policy – and what a Romney administration might have in store. Streetsblog does not endorse candidates. This is an overview of their respective records and a look back at what we know of these two men. We’ll start with President Obama in this post and move on to Mitt Romney in the next one.

High-speed rail could have been President Obama's signature achievement. Photo courtesy of Obama for America.

Perhaps the best thing President Obama did for transportation policy was to nominate Ray LaHood as U.S. DOT secretary. Sure, LaHood reportedly wanted to be Secretary of Agriculture, not transportation. And yes, Obama’s main motive for nominating the moderate Republican congressman was to make friends across the aisle, a goal that for the most part went woefully unmet. Nonetheless, LaHood has proven to be a genuine reformer.

We knew LaHood was a keeper when he stood on a tabletop and declared that bicycles were on an “equal footing” with cars, announcing “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

The administration’s creation of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities has created valuable new links between federal transportation, housing, and environmental policies, demonstrating how government can eliminate barriers between agencies. It’s a model that some state transportation agencies have begun to take note of, as they approach local governments to craft land use and transportation decisions that make sense in tandem.

Even the Republican House of Representatives’ ire toward the Partnership can’t destroy the essential piece of it: that agencies are breaking down siloes and communicating more effectively with each other. The smart growth ethic that infuses the Partnership has permeated the three agencies involved – and many more.

Another signature achievement of this administration has been the TIGER program. TIGER has awarded more than $3 billion to more than 200 transportation projects based on their ability to meet strategic objectives, bucking longstanding policies (which continue in the current transportation bill) that fund transportation based on formulas and a singular focus on making sure every state gets their piece of the pie. While TIGER has some geographic criteria and a set-aside for rural areas, it has rewarded cities, regions, and towns that are innovating, and the program has prioritized bike/ped infrastructure, streetcars, freight rail, maintenance of existing roads, and other measures that advance sustainable transportation and smart growth. And by the way, that rural set-aside isn’t a bad thing: It’s helped jump-start transit access in a lot of small towns and tribal areas.

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As Yet Another House Proposal Dies In Utero, Boehner Looks to Senate Bill

The original six-year House transportation bill had funding levels that were too low, so House leaders axed that and came up with a fairy tale bill in which oil drilling would pay for higher transportation spending levels. Then they decided to kick transit funding out of that bill, which didn’t fly. So they thought about replacing the whole kit and kaboodle with an 18-month bill, but no one liked that either.

As of this morning, Speaker John Boehner was supposedly trying to round up votes for another five-year bill. It looks like he couldn’t find them, according to Fox News reporter Chad Pergram, so now the House may take up something more like the Senate’s 18-month bill:

The five-year bill that Boehner tried and failed to get his GOP colleagues to pass yesterday preserved dedicated funding for transit, but it didn’t really solve any of the other contentious issues with the previous bills (except, thankfully, for the double-decker horse trailer issue.) It kept oil drilling, which Democrats oppose, and didn’t lower the $260 billion price tag, which conservatives bristle at.

Perhaps the bill’s downfall, however, was leadership’s commitment to keeping it earmark-free. Though many analysts would call that a noble route, it leaves members without specific projects in their districts that they can use to sell the bill to their constituents. Ironically, without some local pork thrown in, a federal transportation bill looks like a big hunk of Washington pork to many members of Boehner’s caucus.

No one in House leadership wants to vote for the Senate bill, but that appears to be their only option, as yet another internal proposal dies. The House could try to pass an 18-month or two-year extension, but Politico reports that such a measure would have a “rocky road to passage.” It would basically implement the Senate bill’s funding levels (or close to it) but without a way of paying for it, leaving the Highway Trust Fund vulnerable to insolvency before the extension even expired.

One way or another, it looks like an 18-month bill — basically a glorified extension — has a path to passage now.

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Is Transpo Funding Fundamentally a PR Problem? Five Ex-DOT Chiefs Discuss

How can you convince Americans that transportation is important enough to invest in?

That’s the question that brought together five former U.S. Transportation Secretaries this week at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

Former DOT Chief James Burnley took a swipe at Transportation Enhancements and the stimulus.

James Burnley was deputy secretary and then secretary under President Reagan. He took the position that “75 percent” of the public “gives the thumbs down to paying more for transportation” because we’re giving them the wrong argument about why it matters. He took a jab at President Obama’s stimulus program:

We have to stop treating transportation infrastructure as a short-term jobs program. It didn’t work by any conventional definition of what “working” means. We all knew –those of us who have expertise in the field – it would not work in terms of short-term stimulus.

Because it takes time – it takes years for that money to actually be spent and people to be hired. We need to convince the American people that we need to invest in transportation infrastructure because we need to invest in transportation infrastructure. If we sell that idea – not as a jobs program, but because it affects the ability of our economy to grow over time, our international competitiveness and all the other things that we believe it affects, then we’ve got a fighting shot at convincing the American people that the resources that we believe ought to be devoted to transportation should be devoted to it.

That’s a legitimate point, and Streetsblog has made the same argument – that selling transportation as a jobs program undersells the true value of transportation. But there are a few problems with what Burnley is saying. First, when asked to tax themselves at the local or state level for transportation improvements, 75 percent of voters say yes. So maybe the case isn’t so hard to make after all.

And second, most Republicans – and many Democrats – fault the stimulus for not investing enough in infrastructure. Not quite seven percent of the package was devoted to infrastructure, and many critics say that’s why the stimulus didn’t do more to create jobs. Certainly, the president’s desire for “shovel-ready” projects may have been naïve, which Obama himself has publicly admitted. But Burnley may have been over-simplifying things with his statement.

Meanwhile, Sam Skinner, who served under President George H.W. Bush, argued that too many bridges to nowhere have eroded public confidence. And it’s not just transportation, he said – government mishandling of Medicare and pensions and everything else leads to overall distrust that the government can handle anything at all, despite the fact that the transportation department has proven that it “actually can complete projects under budget and on time.”

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Stimulus-Backed Programs Struggle to Stay Alive After Funds Run Out

In an old supermarket space in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, a diverse community of bicycle aficionados are getting greasy. Young and old, Latino and white, they are truing wheels and replacing cables and adjusting brakes in L.A.’s newest, and completely unplanned, bike co-op.

Volunteers' meeting, Bici Libre. Photo: Jonny Green, LACBC Bike Wrangler

Bici Libre, as it’s called, got its start when the County Cycling Collaborative received a stimulus grant of $200,000 to spruce up “stray” bikes, with the help of volunteers gaining job skills. They rented the vacant grocery store to be just a warehouse to store the old bikes, but it quickly evolved into a hub of bicycle education, advocacy, and community.

But Bici Libre could disappear as quickly as it materialized. The stimulus grant that funds it runs out next March, and the CCC doesn’t know how – or if – it’ll be able to keep the new bike co-op alive.

Bici Libre is just one of many potential casualties of the boom-and-bust stimulus cycle. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act breathed life into countless worthy projects, including many planning and education programs that promote green transportation, but they can’t all last forever. Some, like Bici Libre, are now scrounging for future funding. Others may just close up shop.

In Portland, for example, the Bureau of Transportation expanded its Smart Trips program, where people can order information about transit that runs through their neighborhood, a bike kit, a walking kit, or information about carpooling. A customized packet of information is then delivered to them by bicycle, along with a calendar of events like group rides for seniors or women.

Eight hundred thousand dollars of stimulus money launched a Smart Trips program for new residents and helped augment the programs that worked with schools and businesses. But that money will be spent soon. “Smart Trips to School is probably going to disappear,” said Marni Glick of PBOT. “The New Resident Program will probably disappear. And we will try to find funding for the Smart Trips Business.”

A pot of stimulus money called CPPW (Communities Putting Prevention to Work), distributed through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, aims to reduce obesity through nutrition and physical activity. Another branch of its work focuses on smoking cessation. The money is granted to city and state public health departments, which then partner with local nonprofits to carry out the work.

Several active transportation projects got funded this way, including Philadelphia’s Safe Routes Philly program, which “promotes biking and walking as fun, healthy forms of transportation in Philadelphia Elementary Schools.” The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia joined forces with the school district, the health department and the Food Trust (a local nonprofit working on nutrition issues) to start a campaign for healthier schools, funded at $680,000 over two years, thanks to the stimulus.

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Senators Hammer LaHood for Specifics on Funding His Transpo Plan

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood played defense – and dodgeball – this morning as members of the Senate Budget Committee grilled him on how he proposed to pay for the administration’s new transportation agenda.

Ray_LaHood.jpgSecretary Ray LaHood indicates how many details he’s going to give Congress on how to fund the transportation budget proposal (Photo: AP)

On Valentine’s Day, the Obama administration released its budget proposal for next year. It included significant cuts to some programs, like heating assistance for the poor, and modest increases in others, like education and energy. But the president saved his biggest doozy for transportation – $556 billion over six years, about twice the current spending levels.

LaHood immediately grew impatient with the inevitable question – “How are you suggesting we pay for this?” Right away, he threw that hot potato back to Congress, saying it was up to the legislative branch to figure it out.

He could have started that process this morning, when he appeared before the Senate Budget Committee, but he again seemed impatient with the very question. (And this was the Budget Committee, after all – of course their primary concern is going to be the financial piece.)

The Senate, remember, is still controlled by Democrats, so he had an easier time there than he’ll have in the House. But everyone in Washington is focused on reining in deficit spending, although they may differ on how and how much.

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said he was “flabbergasted” by the size of the president’s budget request – a 62 percent increase for the USDOT “at a time when all of us know we’ve got to contain spending and do something about the surging debt we’ve got.”

Indeed, LaHood’s persistent refusal to engage on the funding question – at a time when Congress is obsessively trying to cut spending – is beginning to sound tone-deaf. Every time anyone presses him for specifics on how to make this plan work, he returns to soundbites about how bold the plan is.

Well sure, Mr. Secretary, we like bold, but we like possible even more.

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SGA: Transportation Funding Pays Big Dividends Only If Invested Wisely

In just the last month, several reports have quantified, in various ways, how investing in transportation infrastructure pays off in jobs and economic health. Now Smart Growth America is out with new research showing that it’s not enough to plunk down a bunch of money and expect miracles. You’ve got to do it right.

Portland, Oregon used $1.3 million of their stimulus funds to repair damaged roads and install new bus stop pads in downtown. Photo: flickr / Thomas Le Ngo

Doing it right, SGA says, consists of the following recipe:

  • Preserve existing roads and bridges
  • Build public transportation

In its report, “Recent Lessons from the Stimulus: Transportation Funding and Job Creation,” released Friday, SGA found that on average, road repair produced 16 percent more jobs per dollar than new road construction. And public transportation beat that handily, creating 31 percent more jobs per dollar than new road construction.

SGA also suggests building connections between existing transportation hubs and regional centers. And it says that focusing on areas hard hit by unemployment will create a bigger bang for your buck.

Looking at how different states invested the $26.6 billion in stimulus money for transportation, SGA picked some winners and losers in the game to use stimulus dollars most effectively:

  • Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maine, New Jersey, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont used 100 percent of their stimulus allocations for roads on repair and maintenance, rather than new capacity.
  • Texas, Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas, and Kansas went for new capacity instead of maintenance.
  • Read more…

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NTPP: Infrastructure Investment Will Only Boost the Economy If Done Right

At the federal level, we’re nearly flat out of transportation money and spending most of what’s left to stimulate highway construction jobs. It’s a double whammy that could present a bleak future for federally-funded transportation projects.

Photo credit: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/mvjantzen##M.V. Jantzen##

Photo credit: M.V. Jantzen

A new report by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) challenges the country to envision a national transportation policy based on clear-cut, objective long-term criteria. With tight federal budgets and the end of stimulus money, NTPP says this is the perfect time to revisit the direction of transportation policy and spending.

Notably, the report is authored by Martin Wachs of the RAND Corporation and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a top economist in the President’s Council of Economic Advisers under both Bushes and a policy advisor for the 2008 McCain-Palin campaign. It’s encouraging to see a Republican stalwart coming under an explicitly bipartisan umbrella to find common ground on infrastructure spending.

The report’s main recommendations are three-fold:

  • Balance the selection of quick, easy “shovel ready” projects with those producing long-term economic benefits.
  • Revise transportation policies to focus on economic growth and sustainable job creation.
  • Stop borrowing money to finance transportation spending and short-term job creation.

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GOP Demands a Stop to Stim Spending. What Will It Mean for Rail Projects?

The top Republican currently on the Appropriations Committee wants to take back stimulus funds promised to states and localities for much-needed infrastructure programs, including more than $6 billion in transportation funding. High-speed rail projects would take an especially big hit under the plan.

California high speed rail could be especially at risk if Republicans rescind stimulus funds. Image: ##http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/gallery_statewide_01.aspx##CA High Speed Rail Authority#

California's high speed rail program could be especially at risk if Congress rescinds stimulus funds. Image: CA High Speed Rail Authority#

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) has introduced H.R. 6403, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Rescissions Act, a bill to rescind the stimulus dollars that haven’t been obligated yet. Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA), set to take the helm of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation and HUD, is a proud co-sponsor.

According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, $16 billion of those unobligated funds are for infrastructure, including about $6.3 billion for transportation. In total, 16 percent of stimulus dollars remain unobligated, and 14 percent of transportation funds.

As Ken Orski of Innovation Briefs notes, the $1.2 billion of rail grants to Wisconsin and Ohio could be added to that sum if the governors-elect of those states move forward with their plans to kill rail projects there. Orski adds, “Some of the $24 billion in ARRA transportation dollars that have been obligated but not yet paid out, including some TIGER grants, could also be candidates for rescission.”

Only 67 percent of stimulus funds have been paid out so far – but that’s not by accident. It was supposed to be a three-year plan, and it hasn’t been quite two years since it was enacted. So they’re right on schedule.

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Bike-Ped Funding Dips as Stimulus Spending Slows

Via the League of American Bicyclists, new information is out about how much the feds are spending on bike-ped  projects. While federal funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects is down a bit from last year’s all-time high, it still comes in at more than a billion dollars. A third of the money is from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which begs the question of what will happen to bike-ped funding once the stimulus funds dry up. We got some somber foreshadowing last week of what could happen to bike-ped funding if Republicans cut the transportation bill to the “core program.”

Bike-ped funding dropped off some after a bonanza year in 2009, but it still tops $1 billion. Bike League

Bike-ped funding dropped off some after a bonanza year in 2009, but it still tops $1 billion. Bike League

The League of American Bicyclists says we’re already getting a sense of what could happen, as the drop from last year to this year reflects the push to spend stimulus money quickly, followed by a cooler period. The League’s response to this year’s figure:

The $1 billion spent on biking and walking projects is a great and welcome step. It is being used to create miles of bicycling facilities, countless bike parking spaces, hundreds of safer routes to schools for children, recreational trails, and other needed projects. However, it is still a drop in the overall transportation-bucket. Bicycling and walking make up 12 percent of all trips and yet receive less than two percent of federal transportation funding. To put the billion dollars in perspective, the amount of federal money spent on bicycle and pedestrian projects, nation-wide, in FY 2010 is equal to the cost of just one bridge in the Port of Long Beach.

You can also see the FHWA funding breakdown by year, by program, and by state.

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Republicans Line Up to Oppose Obama’s Transportation Proposal

The critical multi-year transportation bill, which lawmakers have sidelined since last summer as they’ve quarreled about how to pay for it, looks to be back on the agenda after President Obama’s pugnacious Labor Day speech, in which he called on Congress to ramp up investment in transportation. The broad outline of Obama’s plan calls for rebuilding 150,000 miles of roads, constructing 4,000 miles of rail, and rehabilitating 150 miles of runway over the next six years.

Florida GOP representative John Mica

Florida GOP representative John Mica supported a long-term transportation bill in 2009, but quickly came out against the President's infrastructure plan this week. Photo: PBS/Blueprint America

While that may look like a lot of road spending compared to rail, transportation reformers see cause for optimism in the use of the word “rebuild” — which implies that the emphasis will be on fixing existing roads instead of constructing sprawl-inducing new highways. The outline also calls for “significant new funding” for the creation of new transit projects, and for ramping up investment in “safety, environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness, and livability.” Those criteria have all been hallmarks of the US DOT’s TIGER program, which distributes competitive grants to local transportation agencies from what has been a relatively small pot of money.

Congress typically authorizes a major transportation spending bill every six years, but political gridlock over raising the gas tax or securing other funding streams has stalled the reauthorization of the bill since it expired in 2009. In the interim, lawmakers have passed a series of stopgap spending measures to keep the transportation system functioning, even as Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has lobbied hard for Congress to take up the full bill.

Monday’s proposal represents the first serious effort from the President to tackle America’s transportation policy inertia, which is preventing any significant progress from the highway-oriented status quo. Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, are undoubtedly eager to pass a bill that will show voters they’re doing as much as possible to address high unemployment, which is making a Republican rout in the mid-term elections look increasingly likely.

Predictably, the GOP does not look willing to lend a hand. Republicans have already lined up against Obama’s proposal, and another protracted and nasty fight over a major White House initiative looks likely. Immediately after the announcement, House Minority Leader John Boehner released a statement opposing the plan, and on Tuesday he released another one calling the plan an “exercise in futility.”

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