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Posts from the "Highway trust fund" Category


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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Congress Indulges in Crazy Talk About De-Funding Transit and Taxing Bikes

The House is a dangerous place these days. You want to have a fruitful conversation about how to solve the transportation funding crisis and you end up ruminating about whether to tax bikes.

Watch out, Robert Poole, if you sit too close to that guy in the audience with the bike pin, you might start to have progressive thoughts about transportation!

That’s what happened to Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). He requested that the Budget Committee hold a hearing on the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund, but guess who controls the agenda? Not Earl Blumenauer! Committee Chair Paul Ryan controls the agenda. And he invited Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation and Richard Geddes of Cornell University and the American Enterprise Institute as the Republican witnesses.

Ryan didn’t stick around past his opening statement – he had other business to attend to – but guess who he passed the gavel to? Rep. Scott Garrett of New Jersey – the guy who keeps sponsoring a bill to diminish the federal role in transportation funding and pass it along to the states. This hearing was clearly going to be a doozy.

Highways only and forever

The hearing started off crazy and just got crazier. Poole got right to the point: Let’s stop funding anything but highways out of the Highway Trust Fund. There’s plenty of money in it if we only spend it on highways – and not just any old highways either, only the ones with a role in interstate commerce. You know, the ones that are “truly federal.”

Not only that, let’s move the Federal Transit Administration out of U.S. DOT and into the Department of Housing and Urban Development – “That would be consistent with the increasing emphasis at FTA on smart growth, community economic development and so forth.” Essentially, let those woolly urban liberals go crazy over at HUD — we weren’t using that agency anyway. Let’s keep DOT clean of all that livability junk.

Oh, and let that new HUD FTA fight for general funds every year, instead of having guaranteed income from a trust fund.

Some more tolling could be helpful, too, Poole said; some public-private partnerships, some private activity bonds, TIFIA, and let’s talk about switching to a mileage-based user fee, or VMT tax – but really, the red meat here is highways and only highways.

Thanks, Robert Poole. Next up, Richard Geddes wanted to talk about the insustainability of any funding mechanism that depends on the burning of fossil fuels and the benefits of a VMT fee — a decent start. But the part of his talk that Rep. Garrett homed in on was the mention of a “permanent” public trust fund (basically a Highway Trust Fund, but invested in the stock market). Garrett speculated that Washington would get its mitts on that “permanent” fund and “use it for different things – highway beautification, bike paths – ooh, great things” but not what highway money should be used for.

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How MAP-21 Pushed Transit to the Edge of Its Own Fiscal Cliff

You want to talk about a fiscal cliff? Here's your fiscal cliff. Source: AASHTO via "MAP-21 and Transportation's Fiscal Cliff" report

Congress has seven weeks to come to some sort of agreement on the so-called “fiscal cliff,” with two of those weeks devoted to photo ops and turkey dinners. The consequences are real: Transportation programs paid out of general fund transfers to the Highway Trust Fund, rather than gas tax receipts, are not exempt from the automatic spending cuts that are part of the fiscal cliff. Non-Trust Fund programs (Amtrak, New Starts, TIGER) are also vulnerable, and are expected to get a 7.6 to 8.2 percent cut taken out of them, according to Larry Ehl at Transportation Issues Daily.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that transportation is set up for a more precipitous fall. The steadfast refusal on the part of political leaders to deal with reality is bankrupting the Highway Trust Fund. Thankfully, Jack Schenendorf, a former chief of staff of the House Transportation Committee, just wrote a report, “MAP-21 and Transportation’s Fiscal Cliff,” to remind us of this fact [PDF].

Schenendorf writes that MAP-21, the recently-passed transportation bill, makes many positive changes, but:

MAP-21 does not, however, address the long-term financial viability of the Highway Trust Fund. As a result, transportation is facing its own fiscal cliff, a looming crisis that the next Congress will have to address, possibly in the context of tax reform or the so-called “grand bargain.”

In the chart above, which Schenendorf references in his report, you can see that the Trust Fund’s Mass Transit Account is due to become insolvent by the end of Fiscal Year 2014, by the CBO calculation of MAP-21′s impacts. The Highway Account goes bankrupt the following year.

Of course, these time estimates are all speculative. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that before MAP-21 passed, the Highway Account was due to fall into insolvency first. What happened?

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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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Highway Builders to Party Leaders: The Future Is “More Than Just Roadways”

Over the past two weeks, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association has sent letters to the Republican National Committee [PDF] and the Democratic National Committee [PDF], asking them to consider inserting a plank in their platforms about transportation. And they were clear in their letter that, despite being major cheerleaders for road-building, the future they see is multi-modal.

ARTBA reminds Republicans that the Transcontinental Railroad was their idea -- and a good one, at that. Image: Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco

They also made a strong argument for transportation as a federal responsibility. To many, this is a no-brainer. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) likes to remind people of the example of the Kansas Turnpike, built in 1954, when transportation was left to the states. Oklahoma ran out of funding for the project — “So for the next 18 months, the turnpike ended in Amos Switzer’s field at the Kansas/Oklahoma border,” DeFazio said. “For months on end, Amos was left to fish drivers out of his field until the start of the interstate system that finished this badly needed roadway.”

Conservatives in Congress have been arguing the unthinkable: taking the country back to a state-based system where there’s no federal role in transportation. “We settled that debate with Dwight David Eisenhower,” DeFazio said.

ARTBA wants to settle this argument once and for all with a little founding-father-speak — always popular with the right. Here they bring out the big guns — George Washington himself — who in 1785 said, “The credit, the saving, and convenience of this country all require that our great roads [and by this I'm sure he also meant light rail, bullet trains, and the national bike network] leading fromone public place to another should be straightened and established by law… To me these things seem indispensably necessary.” Not to mention that the federal responsibility for “post roads” is written into the constitution.

Writing to the Democrats, ARTBA celebrates Thomas Jefferson, who authorized funding for the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois; Woodrow Wilson, who signed the Federal-Aid Roads Act; Franklin D. Roosevelt, from whom infrastructure building was a key strategy out of the Great Depression; and other Democrats right up to 2008. Take note, straphangers and complete streets advocates: Tailoring your message to butter up your audience is a lobbying strategy well worth stealing from these guys.

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Buck Up, Reformers: Despite the Hard Knocks, This Bill Is a Step Forward

David Burwell is the director of the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was also co-founder and CEO of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and a founding co-chair and president of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a national transportation policy reform coalition. 

There is much despair in the transportation reform community about the mugging we took in the MAP-21 conference committee negotiations. And, yes, it was a mugging. It was also unnecessary and unfair — we worked hard for a good bill, got it, and then saw much of our effort left on the cutting room floor. Complete streets, rail, freight, state of good repair, transparency and accountability — all these took hits.

On defense, the TIFIA loan program lost a lot of its performance screens. We lost big chunks of the review process conducted under the National Environment Policy Act, which guards against ill-advised highway projects. Plus we saw the diminishment of separate funding for bike/ped programs, Safe Routes to Schools, and the Recreational Trails Program, which collectively lost about 34 percent of their set-aside funding — cut from about $1.2 billion to about $800 million annually. The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program is also more porous — but at least we still have the rule that CMAQ can’t be used to build new highways for single occupancy vehicle use.

While this is going to be hand-to-hand combat, we now have the “boots on the ground” to prevail. That’s our new campaign.

Many of these reforms were lost despite the fact that the House didn’t offer a bill with conflicting language — the conferees just rewrote the Senate language to serve their own objectives. If reports are true, many of these losses were in return for dropping Keystone XL from the bill — a rider that was both non-germane and basically a “House hold.” It will be back on any other Senate bill the House leadership wants to hold up until its terms are met, whether or not it has an opposing bill to offer. This is not negotiation, it is extortion.

Our best response? We need to get over it. This is hardball politics over a bill that distributes over $50 billion annually to all the state DOTs and regional transit agencies, backed by major construction industries. Federal transportation bills have historically been a fight over money, not policy, and members of Congress are naturally going to look to their own state officials for guidance on how to allocate program funds, and for what purposes. State DOTs want maximum flexibility to use the funds as they see fit, with the fewest possible federal conditions on their use. We are fighting to bend the arc of transportation history away from a food fight over money to focus on policy — meaning outcomes. It is a worthy and essential goal for a program that determines the physical fabric of our country and our communities.

Based on what we are up against, we did okay. Transportation Enhancements survived — and 50 percent of the money, about $400 million, is directly delegated to metropolitan planning organizations in urbanized areas with populations over 200,000 for project selection and oversight. The rest is still controlled by state DOTs but is up for grabs — if we can convince governors not to opt out of the program.
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A New Bill Passes, But America’s Transpo Policy Stays Stuck in 20th Century

The House of Representatives approved the transportation bill conference report this afternoon by a vote of 373 to 52. [UPDATE 4:00 PM: The Senate has also approved the bill, 74-19.] This is a bill that’s been called “a death blow to mass transit” by the Amalgamated Transit Union, “a step backwards for America’s transportation system” by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, “a retreat from the goals of sustainability and economic resiliency” by Reconnecting America, “a substantial capitulation” by Transportation for America, and “bad news for biking and walking” by America Bikes.

Remember the empty highways that symbolized the House Republicans' vision of America's transportation system? The final transpo bill might as well have the same unfortunate cover.

After more than 1,000 days of waiting since the last transportation bill expired, the nation’s new transportation policy is a grave disappointment to people seeking to reform the current highway-centric system.

The fact that the House GOP tried and, for the most part, failed to reverse the progress made under presidents Reagan and Bush the elder offers a small degree of consolation. “Some of the worst ideas pushed initially by House Republicans went nowhere – funding the highway system with new oil drilling revenues, taking transit out of the highway trust fund, de-federalizing transportation funding – to mention some of the most radical proposals that were seriously being put forward,” wrote Deron Lovaas of NRDC this morning. “But… that pretty much exhausts the good news.”

So what does the bill actually do? Overall, it doesn’t change a whole lot, and the most significant changes tend not to benefit livable streets or sustainable transportation. Here’s a breakdown.

Length and funding. The bill lasts a year longer than the Senate bill would have, expiring at the end of September 2014. That gives states, cities, and the construction industry substantially more stability and allows them to move forward on projects that have been delayed for years because of the uncertainty surrounding federal funding. It maintains funding levels at around $54 billion a year, as did the Senate bill, which is roughly current levels plus inflation.

While some have criticized the complex funding mechanisms that prop it up and its departure from a user-pays model, the Congressional Budget Office reported this morning that the bill actually reduces the deficit by $16.3 billion.

Everyone seems to understand that Congress won’t be able to pull this kind of magic for long and will soon have to deal with the long-term insufficiency of current Highway Trust Fund revenues to cover the nation’s transportation needs. However, the gas tax was not raised, and at the same time the House passed this bill, it also approved an appropriations bill that prohibits even studying the possibility of moving toward a VMT fee.

Non-transportation-related items. The Keystone XL pipeline and the EPA’s ability to regulate coal ash as a hazardous substance, introduced into the transportation negotiations by the House Republicans, were stripped out of the bill. The RESTORE Act to spend BP oil spill fines on Gulf Coast restoration is included.

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