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Dems Grudgingly Approve House Transpo Extension’s Disastrous Timeline

Yesterday, during the one-hour debate period over the House proposal to extend transportation funding through May 31, lawmaker after lawmaker stood up to condemn the bill. America needs a long-term transportation bill, they said. A short-term stopgap only creates more uncertainty.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer was one of just 10 Democrats to reject the House extension.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer was one of just 10 Democrats to reject the House extension.

And then they voted for it.

More Democrats than Republicans voted for it, in fact, despite standing up and declaring that “a short term solution is not enough” or that it’s “just another kick-the-can-down-the-road approach” or that it’s just “a little shuffling around of money so we can pretend… we’re not creating more debt.” But in the end, the Highway and Transportation Funding Act passed easily, with only 10 Democrats and 45 Republicans voting against it.

Peter Welch of Vermont was one of those no-voting Democrats. During the floor debate, he called the bill an “abdication of our responsibility.”

“Some folks are saying we need time to put together a long term bill,” he said. “We’ve had time. What we need is a decision.”

Earl Blumenauer is in favor of an extension, but only through the lame duck period after the election. He voted no as well, criticizing Republicans for failing to have a “deliberate, thoughtful process.”

“We have not had a single hearing on transportation finance in the Ways and Means Committee all year,” he said. “We didn’t have one the year before that. We haven’t had a hearing in the 43 months that the Republicans have been in charge.”

So here’s where things stand: The Senate Finance Committee has passed a largely similar bill, with the same amount of money coming out of slightly different funding sources.

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House, Senate Take Different Paths to Prop Up Transportation Funding

This morning, the House Ways and Means Committee passed its plan to prop up the Highway Trust Fund — which pays for transit and bike/ped infrastructure in addition to roads — until May 2015. A few hours later, the Senate Finance Committee approved a plan of its own, with no deadline attached.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the two top dogs on the Finance Committee, agreed on a bill that matches the dollar amount in the House bill — $10.8 billion. Wyden’s original proposal had the bill expiring December 31, but the final bill didn’t have any deadline in it at all. The fact that the Senate matched the House bill dollar for dollar, however, indicates that they’re leaving the door open to extend it all the way to May 31, like the House.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said she was grateful to the Finance Committee for agreeing on a “shorter-term patch” and still hoped to pass a long-term bill by December, though it’s unclear that’s what the Finance bill does.   

As I said yesterday, an extension through May would be a huge blow to Democrats, who would prefer to see the extension expire by the end of this year in hopes of forcing action on a long-term bill while Democrats still control the Senate.

The Senate bill adds in some of the House’s pay-fors too, including $2.7 billion raised from “pension smoothing,” which is generally viewed as a gimmick that doesn’t raise any actual money long term. The House plan takes $6.4 billion from pension smoothing, but Wyden wanted to reserve some of that money — fictitious though it may be — for other purposes. You can read the Senate’s full list of pay-fors here [PDF].

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House Proposes 8-Month Transpo Bill In Hopes for a Republican Senate in 2015

While a six-year Senate transportation bill languishes in partisan purgatory, the House Ways and Means Committee has proposed an eight-month patch that would backfill the Highway Trust Fund until May 31, 2015. That would punt the transportation bill debate until a new Congress takes over — one that’s expected to have Republican majorities in both chambers.

Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp wants to let the next Congress deal with transportation funding. Photo: ##http://camp.house.gov/photos/##Office of Dave Camp##

Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp wants to let the next Congress deal with transportation funding. Photo: Office of Dave Camp

Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp earlier proposed “business tax reform” to fund transportation — as did President Obama — but even those powerful champions on both sides of the aisle weren’t enough to get traction on that idea.

The new Ways and Means proposal abandons both that idea and the Republican scheme to use post office cuts to offset losses to the Highway Trust Fund (which also funds transit and active transportation infrastructure, by the way). Instead, it opts for a smattering of fiscal gimmicks and fees unrelated to transportation with a previous record of success in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is trying to get the full chamber to consider his extension bill, the PATH Act — that stands for Preserving America’s Transit and Highways — which has its own complex web of pay-fors.

While the Senate bill has been larded up with amendments that are unlikely to go anywhere, neither bill, at its core, includes any policy changes. Both are just stopgap funding fixes, and substantially similar ones at that.

The only substantive difference between the House and Senate proposals is the length. Wyden’s bill would require further action after the elections (as lawmakers agree is necessary) but before the new Congress is seated. Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp explained in a statement why he opposes that plan:
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Senator Pat Toomey Fights to Spare America From Safe Streets

You know the Senate is close to passing transportation legislation when someone introduces a hare-brained amendment to ban bike and pedestrian programs.

Sen. Pat Toomey's answer to the transportation funding crisis is to stop funding the most cost-effective projects. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/8565245671/##Flickr/gageskidmore##

Sen. Pat Toomey’s answer to the transportation funding crisis is to stop funding the most cost-effective projects. Photo: Flickr/gageskidmore

Sen. Ron Wyden, as promised, yesterday introduced a bill to extend MAP-21 and the Highway Trust Fund’s authority by three months. It also transfers some money from the general fund into the HTF to keep it afloat until December 31.

Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey saw that as his chance to attack bike and pedestrian programs. He inserted an amendment that he calls “To reserve federal transportation funds for national infrastructure priorities.” Those national priorities apparently don’t include safety, air quality, congestion reduction or public health. Here’s his amendment:

No funds distributed from the Highway Trust Fund established in Title 26, Sec. 9503 of the United States Code may be spent for the purpose of operating the Federal Transportation Alternatives Program.

The Transportation Alternatives Program is the tiny pot of money available for bike and pedestrian projects.

Toomey also introduced an amendment rescinding high-speed rail funds and another exempting infrastructure destroyed during a “declared emergency” from environmental reviews if they’re rebuilt in the same footprint.

Other amendments [PDF] include Wyden’s push for an expedited process to pass a long-term transportation bill (when the time comes) and a proposal from four Democratic senators to extend the transit commuter benefit at the same level as the parking benefit. 

Sen. Jay Rockefeller has an intriguing amendment to create an account within the Highway Trust Fund called the Multimodal Transportation Account. It would fund freight projects, intelligent transportation systems, and other works that don’t fit neatly into one modal silo or another.

Sen. Carper has his name on two amendments to raise the gas tax until it recoups the purchasing power it’s lost over the 21 years since it’s been set at 18.4 cents a gallon, and index it to inflation thereafter. There’s also an amendment to establish an Infrastructure Financing Authority and one to establish an American Infrastructure Fund.

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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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GOP’s Lunatic Plan for Funding Transportation Draws Nothing But Scorn

House Republicans announced on Friday the latest in a long line of hare-brained schemes for funding the Highway Trust Fund, which is projected to become insolvent in August. Their ingenious proposal is to pay for transportation by making cuts at the post office.

You wouldn't be seeing many of these on Saturdays if the GOP transportation funding plan went through. Photo: ##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Small_USPS_Truck.jpg##Wikipedia##

What does postal delivery have to do with transportation funding? Nothing, unless you’re a House Republican. Photo: Wikipedia

This idea didn’t come from some Tea Party fringe of the GOP. It came straight from leadership: House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.

In a memo to party members, they called the plan “the best way to ensure continued funding of highway projects in a fiscally responsible manner.” They say they can extend the current transportation bill by one year and offset the cost by reducing Saturday delivery. The proposal would save an estimated $10.7 billion over 10 years. Republicans have chided Democrats for offsetting MAP-21 — a two-year bill — with 10 years’ worth of savings, but now they seem prepared to do it themselves.

The other part of the GOP proposal would transfer funds from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund — also pillaged for MAP-21 — to the HTF. The LUST Trust Fund gets revenue from 0.1 cent of the 18.4-cent federal gas tax, but underground fuel storage tanks must be pretty leakproof lately because the fund is flush with money.

Altogether, the proposal would come up with between $14 and $15 billion to fill the gap between transportation spending and Highway Trust Fund receipts.

For the past few years, the idea of eliminating or reducing Saturday mail delivery has come up a number of times. But under those proposals, the savings would shore up the financially shaky U.S. Postal Service itself, which has lost $41 billion in the last six years — not transportation.

The Senate EPW Committee has unanimously passed a six-year transportation bill, though that committee has no idea how the bill would be paid for and is counting on the Finance Committee to come up with a solution. Just about everyone with a dog in the fight, including the reform coalition, is pushing hard for a long-term bill. A one-year extension, no matter how it’s funded, is a highly unpopular option.

The House GOP’s extension is especially unpopular because of the way it’s funded. Democrats have called it “strange,” “unworkable,” and a ”non-starter.” The mail carriers’ union said the proposal “would begin dismantling the Postal Service” and “wouldn’t even work if tried.” Even the Greeting Card Association has taken a stand, calling the plan “misguided.”

Looks like yet another GOP funding gimmick destined for the dustbin.

Not that Republicans have cornered the market on transportation funding gimmicks, of course.

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The House GOP’s Campaign Strategy: Do Nothing on Transportation

A Senate committee has unanimously approved a transportation bill. Three other Senate committees are holding hearings on the bill. But over in the House? Crickets.

Why is T&I Committee Chair Bill Shuster allowing the transportation bill to get lost in political maneuvering? Photo: ##http://shuster.house.gov/recent-photos/##Office of Bill Shuster##

Why is T&I Committee Chair Bill Shuster allowing the transportation bill to get lost in political maneuvering? Photo: Office of Bill Shuster

At a press conference last week, former transportation secretary — and former House Republican — Ray LaHood scolded his old colleagues for failing to take action.

He said there was “nothing happening in the House” on the transportation bill, The Hill reported.

“Nothing introduced, nothing debated, no discussion and we’re in a mess,” LaHood said. “We really are. The American people get it.”

LaHood is probably right. A few days after those remarks, Adam Snider reported in Politico that members of the House Transportation Committee, from both sides of the aisle, agree that the lame duck is the best — or even the only — time to work on a bill. Snider explained the reasoning:

Congress won’t be able to act on a long-term policy bill that could cost $100 billion in an election year. Next year is a new Congress with new members, making an immediate policy deep dive too difficult. But by the time everybody is up to speed in 2015, the presidential election cycle will be in full swing. And come January 2016, things will start all over with a new president and another new Congress and slate of lawmakers.

“If they try to talk about it now for six years, it will never get done,” said the Republican Snider talked to. “If they get to November and they have the guts to do something in the lame duck, that’s where the opportunity is.”

It’s a baldly political calculus for determining the future of the nation’s transportation systems, but that’s business as usual in Washington.

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Why the Senate Transportation Bill Will Devastate Transit

Transit officials lined up today to make clear that holding transit spending at current levels — as the Senate’s transportation authorization bill does — will put transit systems at risk of falling further into dangerous disrepair.

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are "woefully insufficient."

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are “woefully insufficient.”

The backlog for transit maintenance and replacement stands “conservatively” at $86 billion, according to the Federal Transit Administration. That backlog is expected to keep growing at a rate of $2.5 billion each year without a significant infusion of funds.

To put it another way, the country needs to spend $2.5 billion more per year – from federal, state and local sources – just to keep the state of the nation’s transit systems from getting even worse.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was determined to expose the shortcomings of the bill Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) recently shepherded through the Environment and Public Works Committee. While the bill’s transit title hasn’t been written yet, EPW has been clear about its intentions to keep spending at current levels plus inflation. That means no help toward the $2.5 billion boost needed to keep things from getting worse.

Menendez chaired a hearing today of the Banking Committee — the very committee tasked with writing the transit title within the framework established by EPW — to demonstrate the problem with the bill’s funding levels.

“By a simple yes or no,” Menendez asked the transit officials before him, “does anyone on the panel believe that current funding levels are enough to help you achieve a state of good repair?”

“They are insufficient,” answered Joseph Casey, general manager of Philadelphia’s SEPTA.

“Woefully insufficient,” added Beverly Scott, head of Boston’s MBTA and a nationally respected transportation visionary.

“No sir,” said Gary Thomas of Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Houston, Transit Paradise?

Welcome to a super-long extra-bonus episode of Talking Headways! We only took on two topics this week, but we got so enthralled by both of them we just couldn’t shut up.

First, we talked to Christof Spieler, a member of Houston Metro, about the “blank-sheet” bus overhaul he helped design. Instead of trying to tweak the current system around its edges, Metro decided to start again from scratch, planning routes and service that make sense for the way the city is now. Metro thought the upside would outweigh the downside, but the agency wasn’t prepared for this: There was almost no downside. By eliminating redundant and inefficient service, Metro could optimize routes without eliminating low-ridership routes that people depend on. And to hear Christof tell it, what they’re accomplishing is pretty amazing:

What we’re really doing is focusing on frequent service. We’re basically doubling the number of routes that offer frequent service, and we’re extending that frequent service to seven days a week. So: every 15 minutes, seven days a week, network of about 20 routes.

That puts a million people within walking distance of those routes; it puts a million jobs within walking distance of those routes. It is going to be one of the largest coverage areas of high frequency transit in the United States. And that is a huge deal for our existing riders, because currently only about 25 percent of our boardings are at stops that have all-week frequent service. This will take that up to 73 percent.

Once we tear ourselves away from Christof and his beautiful vision of the future of transit, we do a debrief on what’s going on with the transportation bill in Congress. The Senate bill isn’t all it could be, but in Congress nothing is ever all it could be, and this one at least stands a chance of passage — or it would if there were an actual, realistic funding stream attached to it. No such luck. Tune in for all the gory details.

Side note: Big thanks to all who have donated during Streetsblog’s spring pledge drive, especially those of you who specifically mentioned the podcast as why you’re giving. We appreciate you! There’s still time to get in on the fun: Please donate today!

As always, Talking Headways is available on iTunes or Stitcher or by signing up for our RSS feed, and this right here is where you leave your snappy comments. We welcome your backtalk and your sassy mouth.

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Mayor Chris Koos of Normal, Illinois: Gutting TIGER Hurts Small Towns

Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed its transportation bill. The bill is a blueprint for spending $265 billion on surface transportation over six years. It doesn’t include transit or rail provisions yet, and no funding source has been found for it. Streetsblog wanted to hear from a local official about how this bill would affect their community, so we spoke to Mayor Chris Koos of Normal, Illinois. Koos, who owns a bike shop in town, has served 11 years as mayor and is a member of Transportation for America’s advisory board.

Mayor Chris Koos of Normal, Illinois, says some measures in the EPW transportation bill will negatively impact small communities like his. Photo: ##http://www.wjbc.com/common/page.php?pt=Mayor+Koos+to+speak+on+transportation+before+US+House+panel&id=117984&is_corp=0##B. Corbin/WJBC##

Mayor Chris Koos of Normal, Illinois, says some measures in the EPW transportation bill will hurt small towns like his. Photo: B. Corbin/WJBC

As mayor, Koos has presided over big changes in Normal, including a revitalization plan that made Uptown Normal more walkable and anchored it around an Amtrak station.

I saw your panel here in DC in February, where you talked about the Uptown Normal Revitalization plan. And you said it couldn’t have been done without a strong federal partner. When you look at the bill that just passed the EPW committee, does that give you the strong federal partner you’re looking for?

I think it adds some things. We’re a community that’s too small to really take advantage of any TIFIA programs. And I don’t think it was in the bill, but anything that would give greater local input and control in terms of transportation dollars would be great.

In terms of TIFIA or in general?

In general.

You said Normal isn’t big enough to take advantage of TIFIA, but you have taken good advantage of TIGER. TIGER turns into Projects of National and Regional Significance in this bill, but the projects have to be $350 million or more. Remind me: How much was your revitalization project?

Well, the federal dollars we got — we got $22 million in a TIGER I grant, and we got about $7 million more in annual approps.

But what was the full project cost?

For Uptown Station? About $42 million.

Is there anything you can even imagine in your community that would meet the $350 million threshold?

No. The only thing I could see is a regional project. You know, when you get to dollars like that you’re pointing at highway or fixed-rail systems. I don’t even see that kind of money going to airports unless you’re O’Hare or LaGuardia or something like that.

Would that be a big loss, to see TIGER turned into something that had that such a high threshold?

Yes, I absolutely think so. If you look at the projects that have been funded over the past — what are we in, TIGER V now?

VI!

If you look at those projects, none of those projects would have qualified on that threshold as far as I can see. Most of the projects were smaller. The projects I’m aware of in Illinois and Michigan had to do with multimodal stations and rail upgrades — nothing anywhere near that threshold. A lot of smaller communities would not be able to benefit.

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