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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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Senate Transportation Bill Moves Forward With a Few Key Changes

The Senate’s proposal for the next transportation reauthorization took another step forward today with the unanimous approval of the Environment and Public Works Committee. The bill the members sent to the full Senate was slightly different from the one that was unveiled Monday night.

EPW Committee Chair Barbara Boxer said she's proud of the bipartisan bill the committee passed unanimously this morning.

EPW Committee Chair Barbara Boxer said she’s proud of the bipartisan bill the committee passed unanimously this morning.

The changes include [PDF]:

  • An amendment introduced by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) increasing the proportion of National Highway Performance Program funds that can be used for non-National Highway System bridges from 10 percent to 15 percent. That helps correct an error of MAP-21, in which all bridge funding went into NHPP but less than half the nation’s bridges went into that program, leaving the rest unfunded.
  • An amendment introduced by James Inhofe (R-OK) reducing the TIFIA loan program from $1 billion to $750 million a year and using the savings to fund research and development out of the Highway Trust Fund. Originally, the bill kicked research out of the HTF and left it to discretionary general funds, which left many worrying that it wouldn’t get funded at all. Inhofe’s amendment restores some certainty but also cuts funding levels for research almost in half.
  • An amendment agreed to by the top four members of the committee — Barbara Boxer, David Vitter, Tom Carper, and John Barrasso – weakened safety performance measures and reduced the consequences for worsening conditions.
  • An amendment introduced by Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that essentially classifies Vermont (and a handful of other states) as rural for the purposes of making it eligible for rural funds under the discretionary PNRS grant program.

All the senators present at the markup agreed with Boxer’s assertion that “this is truly a great day for our committee.” Many members specifically expressed their enthusiasm for the six-year duration of the bill after the disappointingly short two-year MAP-21.

“I’m proud we’ve stepped up in a bipartisan manner to develop and pass the legislation,” she said. “I hope it sends a powerful signal to our colleagues and to the public that we will address the looming funding crisis in the Highway Trust Fund.”

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Barbara Boxer’s Transportation Bill: Same As It Ever Was

The future of national transportation policy is pretty much like the present of national transportation policy, if the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has its way: underfunded and highway-centric.

This is your freight network, America. Enjoy. Photo: ##http://www.komu.com/news/licking-man-sentenced-for-arson-fires-at-truck-stops/##KOMU##

This is your freight network, America. Enjoy. Photo: KOMU

The bill released by Senator Barbara Boxer’s EPW Committee yesterday [PDF] rejects pretty much everything the Obama administration put forth in its bill, including permanent funding for TIGER and the elimination of red tape that prevents states from tolling interstates. The administration called for spending $302 billion over four years, while the EPW bill envisions a $265 billion budget over six years — although that figure does not include transit or rail.

And that’s part of the problem. The administration put forward a comprehensive, multi-modal transportation bill proposal. But in the Senate, the process is shepherded by EPW, and EPW only writes the highway component of the bill, then hands it over to the Banking Committee for the transit piece and the Commerce Committee for the rail and safety piece. And of course, nothing at all will happen unless the Senate Finance Committee can find a way to pay for it.

“It’s disappointing that the Senate is still operating under complete modal siloes and not thinking of this as a comprehensive system in any way, shape, or form,” said Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Boxer has long hinted that she doesn’t see much need to change the policies laid out in the current transportation bill, MAP-21, which was negotiated less than two years ago. And by that standard, she has delivered. While there are some updates to MAP-21, by and large, the EPW bill maintains the status quo right down to the level of funding, which is only adjusted for inflation.

Of the few changes included in the bill, the proposals are hit-or-miss. Here’s the rundown.

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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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Uh-Oh: Senate Finance Committee Draws a Blank on Transpo Funding

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is on the verge of releasing its proposal to reauthorize the federal transportation program until 2021. But it’s counting on the Senate Finance Committee to figure out how to pay for it. And that committee seems disturbingly far from an answer.

Sen. Barbara Boxer testified today before the Senate Finance Committee, asking members to come up with $18 billion a year for her spending plan.

Sen. Barbara Boxer testified today before the Senate Finance Committee, asking members to come up with $18 billion a year for her spending plan.

The Highway Trust Fund (yes, that’s still what it’s called) is projected to run out of money in August. U.S. DOT is planning to slow down reimbursements to states this summer and is hoping that Congress will act to prevent the agency from taking austerity measures in the next fiscal year. 

Without more cash, Joseph Kile of the Congressional Budget Office said, highway spending would have to decrease by more 30 percent over next decade and transit spending would drop by at least 65 percent.

The EPW Committee is getting ready to unveil its bill any day now, a six-year bill at current funding levels plus inflation. (That’s the same formula as the current bill, meaning transportation investment would be stuck at 2009 levels until 2021 without getting a raise, despite much angst over the nation’s diminishing performance in global infrastructure rankings.)

Current levels-plus-inflation is the middle ground between aligning spending with meager gas tax revenues and investing at the levels that would actually make a difference in the state of U.S. infrastructure. At least the committee is planning a long-term bill, which can give states and cities a little more assurance that they can plan around the federal contribution.

But as EPW Chair Barbara Boxer told the Senate Finance Committee this morning, her bill requires Finance to find $18 billion next year alone to fill the holes in the Highway Trust Fund. And the senators on the Finance Committee haven’t given any indication that they have any better idea than the rest of us where that money’s going to come from.

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How the GROW AMERICA Act Could Modernize Federal Transportation Policy

Yesterday, U.S. DOT did something it hadn’t done for a decade: submit a surface transportation authorization bill to Congress.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail is one of many game-changing, innovative projects that the TIGER grant program has helped create. Under U.S. DOT's bill, TIGER would become a permanently authorized program with $5 billion to spend over four years. Photo: ##http://www.urbanindy.com/2010/11/18/pedestrianizing-downtown-indianapolis/##UrbanIndy##

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail is one of many game-changing, innovative projects that the TIGER grant program has helped create. Under U.S. DOT’s bill, TIGER would become a permanently authorized program with $5 billion to spend over four years. Photo: UrbanIndy

And what a bill it is. The $302 billion, four-year GROW AMERICA Act has several major reforms that would shift federal policy in a more multi-modal direction. One big change that we’ve noted before is that transit would get a bigger slice of the pie, but there are several other new proposals worth a look.

Before our overview, a caveat: President Obama’s funding plan — although it may align with that of the head tax man in the Republican House — has already been dismissed as a political non-starter. And Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer has indicated she’s not in the mood for major policy changes this go-round. So, take this bill for what it is: a blueprint of the administration’s vision and a menu of options that, in an ideal scenario, Congress would pick and choose from in crafting the bill.

Here’s some of the best of what the bill does:

  • Changes the Highway Trust Fund into a multi-modal Transportation Trust Fund. The bill would replace the current system’s highway-centric orientation, which shunts transit funding off to the side, with a truly multi-modal trust fund. It would include not just highways and transit but also intercity rail (which has long been marginalized in a separate bill and funded with unpredictable general funds) and the popular TIGER grant program (which has a history of funding innovative, multi-modal projects). The TTF would also include the New Starts/Small Starts transit grant program, which has historically been funded with general funds, separately from the trust fund.
  • Allows tolling — including congestion pricing — on existing Interstate lanes. For highways that are part of the Interstate system, the rule has always been that tolling is only allowed on road expansions, which is one reason you often see agencies widen highways when they implement HOT lanes, for instance. But upkeep of existing highways is expensive and states have struggled to find ways to pay for it. Some states, like Pennsylvania, have been seeking expanded tolling authority for years, to no avail. In this bill, the administration proposes to allow the tolling of Interstates for the purpose of reconstructing them or — and this is the really exciting part — “for the purpose of reducing or managing high levels of congestion.” Each case would still need the sign-off of the U.S. DOT secretary. The bill also explicitly says that toll revenue can be used for transit and for environmental improvements along the highway corridor. ”One criticism of congestion pricing has been that it hurts low-income people,” says Kevin DeGood of the Center for American Progress. “Using toll revenues to subsidize transit within the corridor ensures greater equity while also improving performance for drivers and freight carriers.”
  • Makes TIGER permanent and creates a new competitive grant program. TIGER would get $5 billion total over four years and no longer have to fight for its place in an appropriations bill every year. The GROW AMERICA Act also calls for a new program called FAST (Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation). FAST seeks to spread what U.S. DOT considers to be “best practices,” including the integration of transportation planning with land use and economic development, as well as funding mechanisms that “convey the full social cost of travel decisions to users” and giving local governments the authority to raise funding for transportation — which some cities have struggled with for years. Indianapolis, for instance, had to fight hard to get authority from the Indiana legislature to go directly to voters for more transportation funding. The FAST program would further these best practices and be funded at $1 billion annually.

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Obama Administration Sends Transportation Bill to Congress

The Obama administration today sent Congress its proposal for a multi-year transportation bill, which it’s calling the GROW AMERICA Act. The bill, based on the budget proposal President Obama released two months ago, relies on corporate tax reform to raise $87 billion to fill the hole in the Highway Trust Fund. The four-year bill would cost $302 billion.

Sec. Anthony Foxx sent a transportation bill to Congress today. Photo: ##http://www.bizjournals.com/charlotte/blog/queen_city_agenda/2013/02/anthony-foxx-jerry-orr-share-a-happy.html?page=all##Nancy Pierce, Charlotte Business Journal##

Sec. Anthony Foxx sent a transportation bill to Congress today. Photo: Nancy Pierce/Charlotte Business Journal

It’s the first time Obama has sent Congress a transportation proposal. He received some criticism for not doing so before the current transportation authorization, MAP-21, passed.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the bill’s submission to Congress in a phone call today with reporters. Foxx recently wrapped up an eight-state bus tour, in which he talked to people about the infrastructure needs where they live.

“Failing to act before the Highway Trust Fund runs out is unacceptable — and unaffordable,” said Foxx. ”This proposal offers the kind of job creation and certainty that the American people want and deserve.”

The bill  includes $206 billion for the highway system and road safety over its four year duration, and transit gets $72 billion. That brings the current 80-20 ration for highways and transit to something closer to 75-25. Rail — a new addition to the transportation bill – gets $19 billion, including nearly $5 billion annually for high-speed rail. The proposal also sets aside $9 billion for discretionary, competitive funding, including $5 billion for the popular TIGER grant project.

Foxx noted that he has been “pleased” that members of Congress have already been working in a bipartisan fashion to craft a bill and that he looks forward to “supporting and building on the good work that’s already been done.”

Reporters on the call were most interested in the increased authority the administration seeks for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in investigating and penalizing automakers who fail to act quickly on vehicle recalls. The administration seeks to increase civil penalty limits nearly tenfold, to $300 million, so that they would be “more than a rounding error” in the company’s bottom lines.

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