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Transit Union Slams DRIVE Act

The Amalgamated Transit Union wants more protections for transit in the multi-year transportation bill. Photo: ##http://www.atu.org/media/multimedia/photos/national-transit-action-rally##ATU##

The Amalgamated Transit Union wants more protections for transit in the multi-year transportation bill. Photo: ATU

Yesterday, the Senate passed both a three-month transportation extension and a six-year reauthorization bill (albeit with three years of funding), which the Senate hopes to workshop with the House in the fall. The bill’s name itself — the DRIVE Act — raised the hackles of transit advocates. Looking deeper, it seems those advocates have more to worry about than just semantics.

The Amalgamated Transit Union summed up their top five concerns with the bill in a letter to the Senate before yesterday’s vote. The Union said that “people who care about public transportation” should vote against the bill because it:

  • Expedites New Starts grant funding for public-private partnerships, encouraging communities to get into deals with private entities. The ATU worries that this policy could lead to “bridges to nowhere” and calls it a “shameless, partisan, and unprecedented nearly $2 billion give away to private — mostly foreign — corporations that have a long history of providing low quality transit service all across the nation.”
  • Removes the requirement for metropolitan planning organizations to include transit agency representatives on their governing boards.
  • Seals information about truck and bus crashes, keeping the public in the dark. The ATU charges that many bus crashes are the result of underpaid and overworked drivers employed by non-unionized bus companies falling asleep at the wheel.
  • Fails to restore bus capital funding that was cut from $980 million to $440 million in MAP-21. The union says without proper funding, unsafe and antiquated buses stay on the road way past the end of their useful life.
  • Is the result of an undemocratic process, as Banking Committee Chair Richard Shelby “broke off negotiations and completed the public transportation title of the bill without reaching an agreement with Ranking Member [Sherrod] Brown.”

Meanwhile, Transportation for America criticized the Senate for missing a chance to give local communities more control over decisions that impact them. A bipartisan amendment from Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) to direct more funding to towns and cities was rejected, and the bill instead reduces the overall amount of funding controlled at the community level by nearly $200 million in the first year alone.

And of course, T4A and many other observers are disappointed that the bill is funded — well, half-funded — with gimmicks and shell games rather than a sustainable income source that the transportation sector can count on.

The DRIVE Act will be the Senate’s contribution to a compromise to be worked out with the House, which hasn’t passed a bill yet. Maybe they will, or maybe they’ll go to conference without one, like last time, and just hack away at the Senate’s bill. Either way, House Speaker John Boehner says he’s “confident” they’ll pass a multi-year bill in the fall.

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Congress Set to Pass Yet Another Short-Term Transpo Funding Patch

Who says there's gridlock in Washington? Congress manages to pass a transportation extension every two months, on average. Photo: ##https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gridlock##Wikipedia##

Who says there’s gridlock in Washington? Congress manages to pass a transportation extension every two months, on average. Photo: Wikipedia

The 35th transportation extension in the last six years is about to pass. The House had passed a five-month extension, the Senate insisted on moving forward with its six-year bill, then the House proposed a three-month extension, and somehow that sounded great to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

To win McConnell’s support for the short-term patch, House leaders had to pinky-swear that they would work on a long-term bill just as soon as they get back from August recess. Seven states have already halted construction projects valued at $1.63 billion because of uncertainty at the federal level.

The three-month extension isn’t funded with sales of oil from the nation’s strategic reserve and it doesn’t include an extension of the Export-Import Bank’s authority, both controversial issues that threatened to gum up the works.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer warned he could encourage Democrats to vote no on the three-month bill, but it seems clear lawmakers are going to do what they need to do to avoid a shutdown and then head home for recess. The House is planning to celebrate its success by adjourning a day early.

The patch expires October 29. See you all then — same time, same place, same insufferable paralysis.

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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 Banking Committee Slow to Take Up Transit Portion of Transpo Bill

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has unanimously passed the highway portion of a six-year transportation bill. The Commerce Committee has done its work on the rail and safety portion. The Finance Committee has the hardest job, the one that’s flummoxed Capitol Hill for six years now, but it’s held a hearing on transportation funding and Committee Chair Orrin Hatch says he’s confident they’ll get it done. But it’s the Banking Committee, with jurisdiction over transit, that’s the least far along with its work to complete a transportation bill.

Will the Banking Committee renew a yet-unused pilot grant program for TOD planning? Photo: Willamor Media/Flickr

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants the whole transportation issue to go away quickly and not come back until after the 2016 elections. Rather than take up the five-month extension the House passed earlier this week, McConnell has set up a Tuesday vote on a measure that will clear the way for the Senate to consider the bill, finished or not.

Banking Committee members have told the bill drafters their priorities for a bill, but no language has been released yet. If timing gets tight (and who are we kidding; it’s already tight), Committee Chair Richard Shelby could forgo committee consideration and bring his section of the bill directly to the floor. With transit defender Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio occupying the top Democrat seat on the committee, one hopes he’ll be able to help shape the bill.

The transit portion of MAP-21 included a $10 million transit-oriented development planning grant pilot program but has failed to award any funds so far. A pilot doesn’t do much good if it’s never utilized, so advocates hope the Banking Committee will extend the program to provide an opportunity to evaluate it (and that U.S. DOT will disburse the MAP-21 money already).

Another opportunity for TOD comes in the Commerce Committee bill, which included a provision to better use the underutilized Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program, authorized at $35 billion. The bill would allow local communities and real estate developers to access the funds directly to finance transit-oriented development, including commercial and residential development around passenger rail stations.

Another noteworthy aspect of the Commerce Committee’s portion that we failed to mention when it came out and all we could talk about was the proposed elimination of TIGER: It includes a rail authorization. Despite the fact that rail runs on the surface, it’s historically been excluded from the surface transportation bill. With the current rail authorization expired since 2013, the Commerce Committee has the opportunity to correct that mistake, and they’re taking it. So far, it doesn’t look like the rail authorizations alters current policy very much, but we’ll keep you posted if we uncover a big change.

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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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Senate Committee Passes DRIVE Act Unanimously After Some Tinkering

Given the bipartisan gushing that accompanied the release of the DRIVE Act on Tuesday, it came as no surprise that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the bill unanimously yesterday, with more gushing for good measure.

The insertion of a few little words will make the DRIVE Act a virtual complete streets policy for the entire National Highway System (except interstates). Photo: ##http://www.ca-city.com/complete_streets/fundamentals.html##Crandall Arambula##

The insertion of a few little words into the DRIVE Act may lead to safer designs for walking and biking on major streets. Photo: Crandall Arambula

None of the 30-odd amendments offered for the DRIVE Act passed, but the committee leadership did accept some changes in what’s called a manager’s amendment, a group of amendments agreed to by the chair and ranking member and inserted into the bill. By and large, these small changes improved upon some provisions that were already a step up from the current law, known as MAP-21.

Transportation Alternatives Program: The bill had already improved upon MAP-21’s version of Transportation Alternatives Program by giving all biking and walking money directly to local governments instead of giving half to the state. But in its original form, the DRIVE Act allowed states to take back half that money, making the “improvement” symbolic at best. The manager’s mark struck that part, meaning local communities will have the certainty that they can spend 100 percent of their biking and walking funds without fear of having some taken away.

Complete Streets: Inhofe and Boxer added the word “safety” in a key place: a provision requiring traffic engineers to consider “the access and safety” of non-automobile modes on non-interstate roads. According to Caron Whitaker of the League of American Bicyclists, “These two changes taken together come very close to a Complete Streets policy for the National Highway System.”

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Inhofe’s DRIVE Act — Not as Big a Disaster as You Might Think

Sen. Barbara Boxer unveils yet another stab at a long-term transportation authorization bill -- this time, as the minority party. Photo: ##https://twitter.com/AliABCNews/status/613351204559699972/photo/1##Ali Weinberg/Twitter##

Sen. Barbara Boxer unveils another stab at a long-term transportation authorization bill — this time as a member of the minority party. Photo: Ali Weinberg/Twitter

No, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s new six-year bill, obnoxiously named the DRIVE Act (Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy) [PDF], won’t usher in a more enlightened era of federal transportation policy. But neither would it be a significant step backward. And with the realization setting in that further extensions of current law might be impossible, the DRIVE Act could actually become the nation’s first long-term transportation authorization in a decade.

As Brad relayed in his post this morning, the “big takeaway” from the new bill, according to the League of American Bicyclists, is that it “is not a coherent vision of the future, or even of the present.” True that.

Note that this bill does not include the transit title — it’s up to the Banking Committee to draft that.

What the bill does, mainly, is continue existing policies related to streets and highways — meaning it’s not the nightmare you might have expected under the chairmanship of climate denying Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. When you look closely, the DRIVE Act actually makes some improvements at the margins. Here are a few examples:

Design Standards: The bill explicitly sanctions the use of the NACTO street design guide along with the old FHWA and AASHTO engineering manuals. The NACTO guide includes designs that are much more appropriate for city streets where people outside of cars need safe and reliable transportation option.

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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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4 Things to Know as Transportation Bill Negotiations Heat Up

Lawmakers in Washington are just beginning their latest attempt to craft the first long-term transportation bill in roughly a decade. The current bill expires in just a few months, on May 31, but in Congress that’s an eternity. While it’s a long way from go time, the contours of the debate are starting to become apparent.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster (center, in white) and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (right, in the red tie) held a Twitter town hall to promote a long-term transportation funding plan. Photo: Bill Shuster via Twitter

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster (center, in white) and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (right, in the red tie) held a Twitter town hall last week to promote a long-term transportation funding plan. Photo: Bill Shuster via Twitter

Here’s how things are shaping up.

The White House Transportation Proposal and Anthony Foxx’s “Grow America Tour”

The Obama Administration has unveiled the broad strokes of a six-year transportation proposal, the “Grow America” plan, that would dramatically increase federal funding for transit and include key incentives to reform how state DOTs spend their billions.

Transportation Secretary Anthony set out on a four-day tour of some Southern states yesterday to promote the Grow America plan. Foxx has been enlisting local leaders to help build a push for reauthorization.

The Fight Over Transit Funding

Pushing in the opposite direction, bolstered by Koch brothers money, is the Tea Party wing of the GOP, which wants to end federal funding for anything that’s not highways.

Last week, a group of rural Republicans raised the prospect of eliminating the portion of the Highway Trust Fund that supports transit. Since Ronald Reagan signed the policy into the law in 1983, 20 percent of federal gas tax revenue has gone toward the nation’s rail and bus systems.

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