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Posts from the "Highway trust fund" Category

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Congress Hits the Snooze Button on Transpo Funding Until May

Someone had to cave and last night, it was the Senate.

Closed for the summer. Photo: ##http://www.capitol.gov/html/EVT_2010061578974.html##Capitol.gov##

Closed for the summer. Photo: Politic365

The upper chamber had fought as long as it could to adjust the House transportation bill so it wouldn’t expire when the GOP controls both chambers of Congress. But senators were never willing to actually let the Highway Trust Fund go broke. U.S. DOT would have started cutting back on reimbursements to state DOTs as of today in the absence of an agreement.

After the House rejected the Senate’s amendment yesterday, hours before representatives were due to return to their home districts for the five-week August recess, it seemed the Senate had no choice. Then, news broke that the House was going to stick around a little longer to keep fighting about the border crisis.

Could the Senate have taken advantage of the House’s presence to toss the football back to them, on the assumption that the last team holding it will get blamed for the fumble? Maybe. Maybe the House would have been the one to cave, then. Maybe they would have sent the transportation industry into a tailspin. In a recent poll, 85 percent of transit agencies said they would implement service cuts if that happened.

At least we were spared that. But perhaps not for long. Former U.S. DOT official Beth Osborne, now at Transportation for America, noted that each extension seems to be getting harder. “The easy ways to pay for the program are gone,” she said. “It’s going to get harder doing this with bubble gum and band-aids.”

Who cares?

Last night on Twitter, Cap’n Transit paid me the backhanded compliment of my life by saying:

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Time’s Up: 6 Things to Know About Today’s Transpo Showdown (UPDATED)

UPDATE 2:40 p.m.: The House has rejected the Senate amendment, as expected.

Today is the House of Representatives’ last day in session before departing for an August recess full of photo ops and electioneering in their districts. The Senate will stick around DC for one more day before going home. Before that happens, the two houses have to come together on a plan to keep the Highway Trust Fund going. If not, U.S. DOT will have to take drastic measures.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker disagrees with the House GOP on when the bill should expire and how to pay for a new one.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker disagrees with the House GOP on when the bill should expire and how to pay for a new one.

Both the House and the Senate have voted on not entirely dissimilar plans to keep the fund going. But the differences between them have set up a high-stakes showdown that has to be resolved by tomorrow.

Here are the key points:

    1. The timing: The House is expected to vote on the Senate bill today at about 3:00 p.m. and is expected to refuse to budge. Then they’ll leave town, meaning the Senate can either cave or be blamed as the Highway Trust Fund goes dry before August recess ends and transportation works grind to a halt. Meanwhile, Sec. Anthony Foxx has warned state DOTs that federal payments will slow down August 1 — that’s tomorrow — if Congress doesn’t take action to keep the Fund from going insolvent.
    2. The numbers: The House is gloating that the Senate’s bill contains a $2 billion technical error — which is true; it comes up with just $6.2 billion of the $8.1 billion needed — but Senate Democrats say it can be easily fixed.
    3. The urgency: Since summer is the high season for construction, the real pressure on the Highway Trust Fund is between now and the end of the year, when states will need to get reimbursed for the work that’s going on now. That’s why there’s not a huge monetary difference between the House proposal that lasts till May and the Senate proposal that ends in December. There’s just not a lot of cash going out the door at U.S. DOT between January and May.
    4. The conflict: The House and Senate disagree on what budget gimmicks to use to “pay for” the transfer into the trust fund, but more fundamentally they disagree about how long the patch should be. As we’ve reported before, Boxer prefers a December deadline, saying it’s unfair for this Congress to fail to fix a problem that occurred on its watch and instead kick it to the next Congress. What she means is that she wants her six-year bill to pass and that won’t happen after the end of this year if the GOP wins a majority in the Senate and she loses the chairmanship of the EPW Committee. That’s precisely why the House is gunning for a May deadline.
    5. The breakdown: The Senate Republicans aren’t as enthusiastic as the House about having to take this up when they’re in charge. Thirteen Rs joined the Ds in pushing for a December sunset, including Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who wants to raise the gas tax and be done already. “Wouldn’t it be great to finish 2014 actually solving one issue; taking one issue off the plate next year?” he said yesterday at a WSJ press breakfast. Only one Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, voted no on Boxer’s date-change amendment. Notably, David Vitter, the ranking member on the EPW Committee, who has shown great bipartisan unity with Boxer, broke with her on this and voted to essentially flush their six-year-bill down the toilet. His predecessor, James Inhofe, voted in favor of Boxer’s December 19 deadline.
    6. The fallout: If the GOP does win the Senate in 2014, the conventional wisdom says they’ll lose it again in 2016. Will the Republicans really want to take on a tax increase of any kind during the only two years when they’ll get the lion’s share of the blame? Of course not. The prognosis is that if there’s no long-term bill this term, it’ll be another three years. Three more years of patchwork funding gimmicks is nothing to look forward to.
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Jon Stewart on the Transportation Funding Crisis: “This is So Stupid”

Jon Stewart devoted eight minutes to the Highway Trust Fund funding problem in last night’s episode and, in our humble opinion, he NAILED it.

If this doesn’t make you want to pound your head against the nearest hard object, you might want to check your pulse.

Stewart concludes that lawmakers’ response to this easily fixable problem is basically summed up as: “F*** it, we’ll probably all be dead in ten years anyway.” Lawmakers just put a solution off again for another eight months.

This video makes great explainer for all your aunts, uncles and co-workers that are dying to get up to speed on one of the most frustrating and long-running problems in transportation in the United States.

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And So Begins the Long Slog to the Lame Duck

The Highway Trust Fund is projected to run out of money a month before MAP-21 expires, but a real solution is still a long way away. Image: ##http://www.dot.gov/highway-trust-fund-ticker##U.S. DOT##

The Highway Trust Fund is projected to run out of money a month before MAP-21 expires, but a real solution is still a long way away. Image: U.S. DOT

The push for a long-term transportation bill is slowly giving way to the reality of an utter lack of consensus around a funding mechanism. The chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which is charged with finding that consensus, indicated today that the job just isn’t possible right now. The Hill reports that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has a bill in the works for a short-term extension to keep MAP-21 alive and funded, at least, until the end of the year.

The Highway Trust Fund (20 percent of which goes to transit) is expected to run out of money in August, well before the bill expires September 30.

Wyden’s plan would transfer $9 billion from the general fund to keep MAP-21 going until December 31. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously passed a six-year transportation bill last month, but the bill lacks a funding source. The House hasn’t taken any action, except for floating a scheme to pay for transportation by reducing Saturday mail delivery.

The Hill’s Keith Laing notes that Wyden has spoken against temporary transportation funding measures, saying it would be a “tragic mistake” for lawmakers to fail to pass a long-term package. But there is not yet a critical mass of lawmakers lining up behind any of the funding proposals on the table: a 12- or 15-cent fuel tax increase, President Obama’s corporate tax reform proposal, an upstream per-barrel oil fee, or the GOP post office plan. Wyden himself hasn’t come out in favor of any particular idea.

Wyden’s three-month extension would push big decisions about funding into the lame duck period, between the November Congressional elections and the start of the next Congressional session. Several lawmakers have indicated that the lame duck is the best — or only — chance for passing a long-term transportation bill.

Of course, SAFETEA-LU was extended for three years before MAP-21 passed, and lawmakers failed in every season to gather up the guts to address the funding shortfall in a sustainable way. Another series of extensions or short-term funding gimmicks remains a strong possibility, even after the lame duck.

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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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Senate Delays Bill as Metro Businesses Plead For Transportation Investment

Tampa riverwalk

The latest extension of Tampa’s Riverwalk is now under construction, thanks to TIGER — among the transportation investments that the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s CEO supports. Photo: Apalapala/Flickr

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee once again delayed the release of its six-year reauthorization bill, a follow-up to the MAP-21 bill that expires September 30. Committee Chair Barbara Boxer had initially promised to unveil the legislative text early this week, then today, and now is promising to release the bill next Monday, with a markup scheduled for next Thursday.

Meanwhile, key interest groups are already trying to improve the bill-to-be, which promises to largely maintain the status quo as far as federal funding levels and formulas go. Yesterday, a long list of local Chamber of Commerce executives, representing business leaders in metropolitan areas from Mobile to Youngstown to Brooklyn, sent a joint letter to their members of Congress and to EPW leadership. The letter urges Congress “to address both the federal funding shortfall and the impediments to empowering metropolitan regions to advance locally-driven innovative solutions to our transportation challenges.”

The chamber executives, all members of the Metro Cities Council at the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, join a long list of others, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Obama administration, in advocating greater federal transportation spending. Their letter points out that municipalities and states are “stepping up to identify sources of additional transportation revenue,” but need “a strong federal partner” to keep up with critical transportation needs.

The bill the EPW Committee will reveal on Monday does not have any funding stream attached to it — that’s the Finance Committees’s job – nor does it raise investment levels over the previous bill, which, in turn, recycled numbers from the bill before that.

In a Commerce Committee hearing yesterday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx dodged a question about whether the administration had ruled out a gas tax increase, answering only that he would “listen to Congress.”

“That’s what your predecessor said,” retorted ranking Republican John Thune, “except he ruled it out.” Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller needled Foxx on his evasiveness: “You’re better than that, Mr. Secretary.”

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2013: Another Year of Falling Per-Capita Driving in U.S.

This post was originally published on the blog of the Frontier Group, where the author is a senior policy analyst.

The number of miles driven in the United States continues to stagnate, even amidst economic recovery, according to just-released figures from the Federal Highway Administration.

According to the agency’s December 2013 Traffic Volume Trends report, the number of vehicle-miles traveled on U.S. highways increased last year by approximately 0.6 percent – a rate of increase a tick slower than the 0.7 percent rate of population growth in the United States during 2013.

To put this in the context of longer-term trends:

  • The total number of vehicle-miles traveled in the U.S. remains about 2 percent below its 2007 peak. The number of miles driven in 2013 was lower than that of the 12-month period ending February 2005 – a nearly nine-year period of stagnation in total vehicle travel unprecedented in modern U.S. history.
  • The average number of vehicle-miles traveled per capita in 2013 was about 7 percent below its 2004 peak and was the lowest since 1996 – a roughly 17-year span of stagnation in per-capita vehicle travel.

Looking forward, continued stagnation in per-capita vehicle travel would have major implications for public policy:

  • Growth in traffic volumes would be insufficient to justify highway expansion projects in all but the fastest-growing areas.
  • Congestion in most areas would grow only slowly, and could largely be addressed through measures to improve the efficiency of the current transportation system (including by expanding access to public transportation and through the use of information technology and possibly pricing), rather than through costly capacity additions.
  • Revenue from fuel taxes would continue to decline as increases in driving fail to make up for improvements in vehicle fuel economy (and for the impacts of inflation in places where gasoline taxes are not indexed).
  • Increasing highway “user fees” – gas taxes, tolls, VMT fees – to recover that lost revenue would likely further depress vehicle travel by increasing the cost of driving.

With Congress on the hook for reauthorizing the nation’s transportation law this year – and with the Highway Trust Fund only months away from going broke – the latest evidence of continued stagnation in driving demands that our nation’s leaders plot a different course for our transportation future that recognizes changing trends in how Americans travel and focuses scarce resources on addressing America’s 21st century transportation priorities.

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Sen. Boxer Calls For Solution to Highway Trust Fund Insolvency

Senator Barbara Boxer brought together transportation industry representatives this morning to highlight the damage that would be done to the economy if Congress doesn’t come up with a solution to the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund. New CBO estimates, released this week [PDF], project that the fund will be zeroed out by the time MAP-21 expires at the end of Fiscal Year 2014. Boxer says she doesn’t intend to wait until the last minute to act.

From one shorty to another, Senator, I love that little stepstool. Photo by Tanya Snyder.

While members of Congress are beginning to accept the need for additional revenues, very few are willing to get behind any one solution. Boxer herself wasn’t willing to support any particular option. And that’s been the problem: No one wants to be first.

Boxer said there are “dozens of options,” and while there might be a few she particularly favors, they’re all on the table. She said she didn’t want to “get out in front” of her colleagues on the committee on this issue.

She also indicated that Sen. Max Baucus of the Finance Committee and Rep. Dave Camp of the Ways and Means Committee were working hard on tax reform, and they’re committed to including a fix for the trust fund. “This committee doesn’t put in place user fees,” she explained, but also said EPW wasn’t just going to leave the conversation up to others. The committee is planning to hold a hearing on the issue in September, and Boxer is hoping they can start getting specific about the various options.

Boxer emphasized that she does believe in user fees, not general fund transfers, and that while she’s a “strong supporter” of a vehicle-miles-traveled fee, she doesn’t think her colleagues are. She also said she would only support a VMT fee if it was on the honor system and didn’t involve a “black box” tracker in the car. She is “unalterably opposed” to that. She alluded to “our proposal,” which involves doing away with the gas tax, but it’s unclear what proposal she’s referring to.

She said a move away from the gas tax would be fairer, since people like her, who drive electric vehicles, don’t pay anything. If everybody were paying in, she said, some people could end up paying less than they do now at the pump. (Her math doesn’t compute, though: Hybrid cars represent only 3 percent of the U.S. market, and electrics are still barely a blip. Additional income from those drivers won’t come anywhere close to equalling a 10-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax across the board, which the CBO says would be needed to cover the shortfall in 2015.)

Still, that’s one of Boxer’s answers to concerns, like those raised at Tuesday’s House hearing on the subject, that struggling families can’t cope with higher gas taxes. Her other answer is simply that if the economy hemorrhages nearly three million jobs, working families will suffer a lot more than if they were simply asked to pay an extra 10 cents a gallon. Such an increase would cost the average driver about $60 more a year.

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A Few Wacky Ideas Persist as Congress Moves to Accept Funding Realities

There are five stages of mourning, and Congress is moving through them as they begin to face the inevitability of increased revenues for transportation. Lawmakers been through denial, anger, and bargaining, and now they’re pretty solidly in the depression phase. That leaves just one more: acceptance.

“I’m going to give you an idea that’ll work,” says Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX). Oh brother. Photo: Cahnman's Musings

But today’s hearing in the House Transportation Committee was still pretty depressing. Members are still thrashing around trying to find a solution that they like better than the only realistic option, which is raising the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon.

Kim Cawley of the Congressional Budget Office was called in to deliver the sobering news: “To avoid the projected shortfall we see in 2015, the Congress could eliminate all highway and mass transit spending in 2015, or raise the tax on motor fuels by about 10 cents per gallon, or transfer about $15 billion from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund.” New CBO figures estimate that the Highway Trust Fund will be completely out of money by the start of 2015 [PDF].

(And by the way, 2015 isn’t quite as far away as you think: the federal government’s fiscal year starts October 1 of the prior year.)

The road to acceptance is a bumpy one, of course. A few holdouts are still in the denial phase. Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI) accused gas tax advocates of treating it as a “sin tax” and worried it would hurt the trucking industry. (Actually, the American Trucking Associations support a 12-cent hike.)

And then South Carolina Republican Tom Rice was somewhere between the phases of anger and bargaining. He said Americans living paycheck to paycheck can’t handle another tax increase. And it’s true: An increase in the user fee will hurt some people more than others, and efforts should be made to mitigate the pain for people with low incomes. But Rice’s proposed solution showed just how far he is from accepting reality. “If there was a way that perhaps we could bring the fuel costs down,” he said, “it might not be as much of a hardship to raise the gas tax a few pennies.”

It’s been a while since I’d heard a Republican accuse President Obama of raising the price of gas, and I’d almost forgotten the complete lack of understanding among some in Congress about how global oil prices are set — or the fact that U.S. gas prices are actually pathetically low, and it shows in our inefficient, auto-centric transportation system.

Clearly, Rice’s heartfelt compassion for the down-and-out is blurring his vision a little. After slamming the president for shutting down some coal-fired power plants, saying that would drive utility costs up, he let loose this doozy: “If we would use the tools we have and the resources God’s given us, it wouldn’t be so hard.” Maybe someone should remind Rep. Rice that we have a finite quantity of those resources and are up against the extremely serious consequences of overusing them.

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Obama’s Budget Would Save the Transpo Trust Fund. If Only It Were Real.

The CBO's projection of the HTF transit account's tumble into insolvency, from February 2013. Image: CBO

President Obama’s transportation budget proposal can give you a contact high if you stand too close. The prospect of budget surpluses — in the near-term, at least — is intoxicating. And the source of those surpluses — from Overseas Contingency Operations — is a hallucination.

The Congressional Budget Office, in its invaluable “just-the-facts” way, released its analysis Friday of the implications of the president’s budget proposal for transportation [PDF]. The long and the short of it is this:

  • The fund gets a long-awaited name change to Transportation Trust Fund.
  • Instead of falling into insolvency in fiscal year 2015, the highway account would go broke in 2021. The transit account stays solvent under Obama’s proposal through at least 2023 — the last year the CBO contemplates.
  • A rail account is added to the trust fund for the first time, bringing Amtrak into the fold of the surface transportation program.
The president’s budget actually spends less over the next two years on highways (but not transit) than MAP-21 envisions [PDF], because under his proposal, there would a separate, tremendous infusion of supplemental funds from his fix-it-first initiative, paid for by the general fund. But starting in 2016, the president would spend more — eventually, far more — than the MAP-21 budget allows for.

Under the president’s proposal, both highway and transit spending would decline after 2021, when the surplus money runs out.

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