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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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EPW Big Four Announce Plan to Maintain Status Quo for the Next Transpo Bill

Sen. Barbara Boxer, together with Sens. Carper, Vitter and Barrasso, announced their agreement to maintain the status quo with the next bill. Screenshot from press conference.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, together with Sens. Carper, Vitter and Barrasso, announced their agreement to maintain the status quo with the next bill. Screenshot from press conference.

Last year, while the House flailed in partisan misery, the Senate passed a transportation bill 74 to 22. When the bill was signed into law, it was considered one of the few real achievements of a deeply divided Congress. Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer got tremendous credit for enacting legislation three years in the making. And yet, it left a lot of good provisions on the cutting-room floor. While MAP-21 included some modest reforms, lawmakers missed an opportunity to prioritize transit, biking, and walking – modes that are gaining popularity and help achieve national goals like congestion mitigation and air quality improvement.

History appears to be repeating itself. This morning, Sen. Boxer (D-CA) joined with the rest of the “Big Four” of the EPW Committee — Ranking Republican David Vitter (R-LA), Transportation Subcommittee Chair Tom Carper (D-DE) and Subcommittee Ranking Republican John Barrasso (R-WY) — to announce that they had reached agreement on a set of principles to guide the next bill.

While it’s good news to hear the senators are working together and making progress, they’re not proposing any solutions to the nation’s dysfunctional transportation policy, which funnels billions of dollars to wasteful road expansions ever year. Below is a look at the guiding principles (verbatim, in bold) and what they mean:

  • Passing a long-term bill, as opposed to a short-term patch. You won’t find anyone who says they want a short-term bill. There is unanimous agreement that a two-year bill was inadequate and that the next bill must last five or six or even 10 years. The challenge has always been to find enough funding to pay for such a long bill. MAP-21 pulled coins out of the proverbial cushions to piece together a somewhat illusory pay-for to get MAP-21 passed. Even President Obama’s proposal for the next bill is just four years.
  • Maintaining the formulas for existing core programs. Ouch. A primary goal of transportation reformers is to tie more money to performance and merit instead of giving states no-strings-attached funding that tends to get wasted on highway expansion. Reforming the existing formulas could force states to prove that they’re spending money well, using a benefit-cost analysis in their decision making, and thinking smart about the future.

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Shuster “Encouraged” By Obama’s Transportation Funding Announcement

Bill Shuster is still digesting yesterday’s twin funding proposals from President Obama and Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp, but he’s “encouraged” by what he’s heard. Both proposals rely on corporate tax reform to plug the hole in the highway trust fund. Camp’s proposal would raise about $125 billion; Obama’s, $150 billion. Neither has yet released details on how their plans would work.

T&I Chair Bill Shuster wants to "build on" the reforms in MAP-21. Photo: ##http://www.heraldstandard.com/election/shuster-supports-romney-in-gop-primary/article_ba7064fe-de09-5e42-b291-e95983b33a45.html##Herald-Standard##

T&I Chair Bill Shuster wants to “build on” the reforms in MAP-21. Photo: Herald-Standard

“I never thought some of these other ideas were ever going to be in the cards,” the House Transportation Committee chair told reporters this afternoon.

Speaking today at the annual Washington meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), Shuster said he was hoping to get a surface transportation reauthorization bill done this summer. Sen. Barbara Boxer has put her committee’s timeline at mid- to late-spring, using August as a deadline, when federal highway funds are expected to run out. The current MAP-21 bill expires September 30, and Shuster is using that as his deadline.

Shuster told AASHTO that he’s committed to a “fiscally responsible” bill that doesn’t engage in deficit spending, and that he hopes to “build on the reforms in MAP-21,” some of which haven’t even been implemented yet.

“He kind of implied that we’re done with reform,” commented Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation after Shuster’s remarks. “I don’t think we’re done with reform by a long shot.”

Schank’s primary objection to the status quo is that too much money is distributed by formula and not by merit. And funding transportation with corporate tax reform could potentially open the system up to more discretionary grant programs, Schank said, which would be a positive development. The most innovative transportation work — TIGER, New Starts — happens with general fund money, he said.

“The problem with destroying the user-pay model is that you potentially put funding in jeopardy all the time and you constantly have to go back and find new sources of funding,” Schank said. “But the benefit is, I think there’s a much better chance of reforming how we spend it — making it more multimodal in distribution — if it’s not just coming from highway users.”

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Will Obama and the GOP Align on Plan to Fund Transpo With Tax Reform?

Today, both President Obama and Republican House Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp unveiled plans to pay for transportation with corporate tax reform. Few details have emerged about exactly how Camp plans to do this, but Politico has heard from Capitol Hill staffers that it would push $100 billion to $125 billion to transportation over an unspecified time frame.

While the revenue stream is still a mystery and appears to be extremely gimmicky, Obama’s spending plan looks good. It would raise the federal investment in transit by 70 percent annually, and also beef up intercity rail and the TIGER program. The Obama plan also calls for an increase in funding for state DOTs, but an outline released by the White House said “fix-it first” protections would be attached to make sure that this goes primarily toward road maintenance, not highway expansion.

The main talking point of Camp’s plan, meanwhile, is that it cuts the top corporate tax rate from 36 percent to 25 percent. The details of how that is going to shake down into a windfall for transportation are still hazy.

While it would seem to be a good sign that both the Democratic president and Republican Ways and Means chair agree on a mechanism to fund a long-term transportation bill, it’s far from a done deal. Sen. Max Baucus, who was gung-ho about tax reform, has left the Finance Committee and the Senate to become ambassador to China. His replacement, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, is very progressive on transportation but not so keen on tackling tax reform just yet. Insiders say that even House Republicans may be hesitant to embrace Camp’s tax reform plan when it has so little chance of going anywhere in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Obama just announced his plan at an event at St. Paul’s Union Depot, where DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx also announced the sixth round of TIGER funding, for $600 million.

Obama’s proposal is progressive and thoughtful — as are all of the transportation proposals he’s put forward in the past five years, all of which have gone nowhere. This plan tacitly acknowledges some of those failures: It renamed the High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program (which has been belittled for not being high-speed enough) “high performance and passenger rail programs.” Instead of more ambitious Obama priorities such as a National Infrastructure Bank, it leaves funding for the TIFIA loan program at $1 billion a year, where Congress set it in MAP-21.

The president says corporate tax reform would yield $150 billion for a one-time infusion into the Highway Trust Fund — twice what’s needed to ward off insolvency — to help fund his four-year, $302 billion plan. Though the size of the infusion is good news, it gives advocates pause. It’s still a one-time fix and not a real solution to the mismatch between transportation revenues and transportation needs. It totally severs the relationship between the revenue source for transportation investment and what the revenue is spent on.

And it’s all because practically no one on Capitol Hill is willing to call for anything that could possibly sound like a tax increase, even as the economy rebounds.

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Live-Blogging Obama’s Transportation Announcement

obama3:59 p.m.: Obama says funding for these projects is going to be in jeopardy unless Congress passes a new transportation bill. Doesn’t go into details. “God Bless the United States of America,” and we’re out.

3:56 p.m.: People go wild for new Metro green line, which will run through Union Depot. Obama says he just got a look at those “spiffy new trains.” “You’ll be able to get from one end of town to another in 30 minutes. And here’s the best part: Not only have you made a more efficient transportation system… this Depot has also helped to boost economic development. Just across the street, the old post office building is becoming apartments and shops.”

3:54 p.m.: Obama: Infrastructure shouldn’t be a partisan issue. But some Republicans in Congress — it’s not that they don’t like roads; they just don’t want to pay for ‘em. “While Congress is trying to decide what to do next, I’m going to do what I can to create good jobs. And that’s why I came to St. Paul. Because [Union Depot] symbolizes what’s possible.”

3:53 p.m.: Obama: I’m going to send Congress a budget with a four-year transportation budget to pay for investments by simplifying tax codes.

3:49 p.m.: Obama: Put America back to work by repairing America’s infrastructure. Housing bubble burst, construction workers were hit hard. Unemployment in that sector has been cut in half but still too high. 100,000 bridges old enough to qualify for Medicare. Minnesota winters mean potholes.

3:48 p.m.: “We can’t wait. We gotta move.” Obama reiterating new plan to bypass Congress where they move too slow.

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