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Posts from the "Highway trust fund" Category

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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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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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