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Posts from the Highway trust fund Category

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Senate Transpo Bill Sinks Under the Weight of Its Own Chicanery

Last night, the Senate voted to proceed with the consideration of the transportation bill Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Barbara Boxer had worked out. It was just a day after the body had voted to block progress, objecting that they hadn’t had time to even look at the bill.

The policy elements of the bill are largely untouched from what we’ve already seen: the Environment and Public Works Committee’s DRIVE Act and the Commerce Committee’s section on rail and safety. Much of that was largely untouched from MAP-21.

A threat to eliminate TIGER was eliminated. A new formula-based multi-modal freight program is included. Some good language on Complete Streets appears to be gone. Advocates will feel better when the transit section gets fleshed out, and the Banking Committee is still MIA. This bill just doesn’t include earth-shaking policy changes.

But truly, the uproar over it has never been about policy. It’s all about funding. You know this because you haven’t been living under a rock for the last five years.

Because of the unreasonable and unyielding refusal on the part of just about everyone in the Washington political machinery to raise the gas tax, they’re left with a grab-bag of gimmicky pay-fors, or offsets, taken from other pieces of government programs. Here is the sad summary:

Image: ##http://crfb.org/blogs/senate-transportation-bill-finds-offsets-three-years-funding##CFRB##

Table: CFRB

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Senate Preserves TIGER Program While House Punts on Long-Term Bill

Advocates successfully mobilized to prevent the Senate from eliminating the multi-modal TIGER grant program in its long-term transportation bill, but that bill appears to be on hold for at least another five months after the House passed another short-term extension of the current law.

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The TIGER program helps cities access federal funds to support projects like this riverfront greenway in Waterbury, CT. Image: Naugatuck Valley COG

Transportation for America reports that Senate Commerce Committee Chair John Thune struck the language eliminating TIGER after receiving 1,700 messages of support for the program.

However, another extension appears inevitable. While James Inhofe claims the Senate is just days away from passing his committee’s DRIVE Act, the House passed a five-month patch yesterday rather than take up the Senate’s bill.

Here are a few things to know:

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A Quick Guide to the State of Transpo Policy on Capitol Hill

public-transportation-tram-bus-seats

Coming back to Streetsblog after a few months away, I needed to get up to speed on the latest with transportation-related legislation, and I thought some of you might too. Here’s what you need to know:

Appropriations

House Republicans passed a pretty terrible Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (THUD) appropriations bill last week, decimating the TIGER grant program, cutting $200 million from New Starts for transit, and reducing Amtrak’s budget by $240 million. Some amendments proposing even more extreme spending cuts were stripped out, thankfully.

The president has threatened to veto the bill. In days gone by, the Senate could be counted on to check the excesses of the House, but with the upper chamber now under GOP control, it’s unclear what kind of bill they’ll produce. The Senate hasn’t produced one yet. It seems possible that some of the House bill’s most painful cuts — particularly to TIGER — might be reversed, but many of them will remain. Look for a Senate proposal in the next couple of weeks.

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Transpo Bill Update: Congress Tees Up Two More Months of the Same

Can anything spur Congress to overhaul a federal transportation policy that lets states run amok building highway expansions while the rest of our infrastructure goes to seed? Don’t hold your breath — the cycle of extending the status quo transportation bill is starting all over again.

Senators Boxer and Inhofe say they have a six-year bill. But we don't see it until after the current one expires. Photos: Wikipedia

Senators Boxer and Inhofe say they have a six-year bill. But we won’t see it until after the current one expires. Photos: Wikipedia

Last Monday, the Obama Administration began warning state departments of transportation that their funding could be cut off if lawmakers do not reach an agreement by month’s end.

On Wednesday, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-California) and James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) announced that they would be presenting a six-year transportation bill, but that discussions wouldn’t even begin until after the May 31 deadline. “We can no longer wait on Congress,” said the senators in a joint statement, as though they are somehow separate from Congress. (During the nine months since the last short-term extension, Boxer and Inhofe, along with everyone else in Congress, never got around to introducing a long-term transportation bill.)

Now there’s only two weeks left until that extension expires. So late Friday, House Republicans announced that they would put forward another short-term extension of the current transportation bill, giving Congress through the end of July to come up with a long-term plan.

What has Congress been up to in the past nine months? Well, they haven’t been figuring out how to get state DOTs to stop wasting billions of dollars on highway expansions. Instead, lawmakers devoted most of their energy to coming up with ridiculous new ways to raise revenue without raising the gas tax.

And they couldn’t even agree on something. So House lawmakers instead settled for having the extension expire soon enough to avoid having to enact a source of additional revenue.

As for the Senate, Boxer has said she grudgingly backs a plan from Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) to generate revenue with a temporary tax holiday on overseas business profits — an idea with so many problems it’s worse than just bailing out the transportation program with general fund revenues.

Speaking of which, as the size of those bailouts keeps getting bigger, so does the subsidy for roads. The way things stand, the nation’s transportation program will need an infusion of $10 billion to cover current spending levels through the end of the year without raising the gas tax.

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Is Raising the Gas Tax Really the Answer?

Cross-posted from the Frontier Group

In the 1920s, Great Britain debated the future of its Road Fund – a pot of money raised from vehicle excise taxes and devoted exclusively to road repair. Then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill opposed the fund, arguing that, if drivers paid taxes dedicated solely to roads, “It will be only a step from this for them to claim in a few years the moral ownership of the roads their contributions have created.”¹

Who pays and who "owns" the roads? Photo: Richard Masoner

Who pays and who “owns” the roads? Photo: Richard Masoner

Here in the United States, we have long been under the misimpression that the taxes paid by drivers – most notably the gas tax – cover the cost of building and keeping up our roads. And is there any doubt that those contributions have come with a claim of moral ownership? For decades, transportation policy has been shaped by the idea that drivers do their “fair share” to maintain the infrastructure they use, while other transportation users – those who ride transit, ride bicycles or walk – are little better than freeloaders.

If you’ve ever wondered why some people get enraged at the so-called “diversion” of small amounts of gas tax revenue to transit, or are apoplectic over the dedication of a small amount of roadway space to bike lanes, or perceive efforts to make communities more walkable as a “war on cars,” it all comes down to the deeply ingrained belief that roads have been built solely by and for the exclusive benefit of motorists.

A new report we at Frontier Group have co-authored with U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Who Pays for Roads?, explodes the “users pay” myth. Nearly half of the money now used to build, maintain and operate highways now comes from ordinary taxpayers – you and me – regardless of how much we drive.

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Boxer and Inhofe Say Transportation Bill Almost Ready, Funding Still TBD

Two leading Washington lawmakers assured reporters Wednesday that a long-term transportation bill is coming, but provided little in the way of details.

Senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, respectively, held a press conference Wednesday featuring a line-up of construction and labor leaders demanding “action on transportation.” The event is shown in the above video in its entirety.

Inhofe told reporters a draft six-year bill is almost ready. Just six weeks remain before the current extension of MAP-21 expires, and the Highway Trust Fund is set to run out of money in July — potentially threatening the construction season.

A critical hurdle for lawmakers is settling on a funding source to replace the declining gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993. Just yesterday a bipartisan group from the House asked Congress to raise it.

But little was said about funding at the press conference. Boxer said while she is supportive, there isn’t much appetite for an increase in taxes on gasoline or crude oil. “I will do almost anything to fill that trust fund,” she said.

Boxer said she would be “dropping a bill” with Rand Paul to generate revenues by “repatriating” overseas profits on U.S. corporations hiding out overseas to avoid taxes.

“I’m hopeful that this type of reform can bring us together and unite us,” she said. The Hill reports lawmakers are divided on whether to make that 5 percent tax on corporate profits overseas voluntary or mandatory. Paul and Boxer say the repatriation tax bill could bring $2 trillion in revenue.

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Ranking the Sad Parade of Federal Transpo Funding Ideas From Worst to Best

The Highway Trust Fund is on a losing trajectory. But no one can agree on how to fix it. Image: Congressional Budget Office via America 2050

America’s transportation funding system is broken, and no one in charge has good ideas about how to fix it.

The problem seems simple enough: The federal transportation program is going broke because Washington has allowed the gas tax to be eroded by inflation for more than 20 years.

As obvious as raising the gas tax may be, America’s political leaders won’t touch it. Yesterday, The Hill reported that Congressman Bill Shuster, chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is ruling out a gas tax increase or any additional fees on driving to fund transportation.

Apparently, anything that might make driving a little more expensive is no longer politically palatable. Instead, President Obama and members of Congress have trotted out a series of proposals that range from one-off gimmicks to total fantasies that wouldn’t solve anything.

It can be hard to keep them all straight, so here’s our ranking of ideas to fix federal transportation funding, from worst to best.

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Koch-Funded Groups: Cut All Federal Funding for Walking, Biking, Transit

The Highway Trust Fund is going broke, but a group of conservatives is pretending that the problem is "squirrel sanctuaries." Image: Brookings

As inflation eats away at the gas tax, the Highway Trust Fund is going broke. But a group of conservatives is pretending that the problem is transit and “squirrel sanctuaries.” Image: Brookings

You know it’s time to fight over the federal transportation bill when the fossil fuel-soaked elements of the conservative movement start agitating to stop funding everything except car infrastructure.

Yesterday, a coalition of 50 groups, several funded by the Koch brothers, sent a letter to Congress arguing that the way to fix federal transportation funding is to cut the small portion that goes to walking, biking, and transit [PDF]. The signatories do not want Congress to even think about raising the gas tax, which has been steadily eaten away by inflation since 1993.

The coalition membership includes many stalwarts of the Koch network, including Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners, and the Club for Growth. The Koch brothers recently went public with plans to spend nearly $900 million on the 2016 elections.

The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card. Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is “regressive” because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can’t afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.

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Eno: Stop Obsessing Over the Gas Tax and Change How We Fund Transpo

U.S. drivers pay far lower gas taxes than in peer countries. They also get less national transportation investment. Image: Eno

Of these six peer nations, America has the lowest gas tax and is also the only one that uses the gas tax exclusively for transportation spending. Table: Eno Center

Twenty years ago, Japan’s electoral reform redistributed power, giving urban constituencies a greater voice. One result: Japan eliminated its version of the Highway Trust Fund, which urban voters saw as satisfying the interests of the construction lobby, not their own.

If city-dwellers had a greater voice in the United States, would the same thing happen?

The Highway Trust Fund has more problems than just its 1950s-era name. Funded by the federal gas tax, the trust fund is becoming obsolete over time, as efficiency gains and declining miles-traveled sap its size. The Eno Center for Transportation says it’s time to rethink the entire system.

In a new report [PDF], Eno compares the U.S. method of funding transportation to that of five peer countries. Ours is the only one that still pretends to rely on a “user-pay” system. (Yes, pretends: The last six years of constant last-ditch infusions from the general fund, totaling $65 billion, have exposed that particular myth.)

It’s important to note that in all five of the countries examined — Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, and the UK — drivers and truck companies actually pay far more for the use of the roads than they do in the United States. The idea of making people pay to use infrastructure is not the problem — the problem is assuming that those user fees will go to nothing but infrastructure, and that infrastructure will be funded by nothing but user fees.

As the chart above demonstrates, all the countries Eno looked at charged far higher national gas tax rates than the U.S. does. This graphic from The Economist in 2011 shows that a broader cross-section of countries makes the point even more strongly:

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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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