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Obama to Sign Transpo Bill Today at 4:55

Not everyone will be smiling along with the president at his photo op today. These folks are demanding a veto. Image: Transit Riders for Public Transportation

The last thing the president will do during this hot, lazy recess week is to sign the transportation bill. He’ll be surrounded by construction workers, as this bill was always as much about jobs as it was about setting policy, and by college students, since the bill was combined with a provision keeping student loan rates low. You can watch it live on C-SPAN.

The group Transit Riders for Public Transportation is calling on President Obama to veto the bill. While countless organizations have strongly criticized the bill — at times, even risking their relationships with key lawmakers by doing so — this is the only one I’ve seen actually demand a veto.

In its statement, Transit Riders for Public Transportation tries to hold Obama to President Clinton’s 1994 executive order on Environmental Justice, which the group says is violated by the new bill:

Known as the “highway bill,” this legislation threatens public health and the environment in communities of color and systemically blocks transit riders from benefiting from the majority of this federal funding. This new version unfortunately perpetuates the 80/20 split in funding (80 percent for road infrastructure and 20 percent for mass transit) and fails to allow transit agencies the flexibility to use those limited dollars to maintain service, despite desperate need. At the same time, this bill blatantly guts the National Environmental Policy Act, which offers the only meaningful opportunity for communities to have a voice in major capital construction projects that will directly impact their lives.

They make a decent point, but you can still expect to see the president sign the bill this afternoon at 4:55.

When the House and Senate passed the bill last Friday, they also enacted a one-week extension to allow the 600-page bill to be “enrolled” on parchment. (You didn’t expect the president to take his special signing pen to ordinary 20 pound white copy paper, did you?)

Once Obama signs it, MAP-21 becomes law for the next 27 months. According to transportation reformers, the work on crafting a new and better bill begins right about now.

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Civil Rights Groups to Build Toward 2014 Transportation Bill Reauthorization

Wade Henderson is the President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national civil rights and human rights organizations.

The long-overdue passage of the federal transportation bill attracted bipartisan congressional support, but it was not the hallmark legislative advancement for civil and human rights that it could have been. Still, the work that led up to the bill’s passage proved to be a small but significant step for our movement and one that establishes a pathway toward achieving greater transportation equity when the bill is reauthorized in 2014.

The entwined histories of civil rights and transportation didn't begin and end with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Photo: Courtesy of the Library of Congress

This current Congress is the most hyperpartisan and least productive that I’ve seen in decades. But with billions of dollars and millions of jobs at stake, passage of a transportation bill was an imperative, particularly since it was coupled with an important measure to keep interest rates on student loans from doubling.

Some considered our work on transportation policy a bit unusual, but it is actually a natural extension the civil and human rights movement’s founding principles. Historically, transportation has played a key role in the struggle for equality – be it in the Montgomery Bus Boycott against segregated transit or in the fight against displacement of poor communities by interstate highways – because we’ve understood how mobility can affect our economic future.

Then, as now, we had a lot at stake in this debate. Decisions about transportation investment have often excluded or inadequately addressed the needs of low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, seniors, and many people in rural areas, resulting in policies that don’t benefit all populations equitably.

About 560,000 people with disabilities are housebound due to transportation difficulties. And low-income communities, people with disabilities, and communities of color are less likely than other communities to have equitable access to transportation, making it harder for them to get to work or access schools, hospitals, and grocery stores.

The financial meltdown and the slow economic recovery have also wreaked havoc on many of the nation’s affordable and job-creating public transit systems. Since 2010, 79 percent of transit agencies have made or considered service cuts, fare increases, or both.

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Buck Up, Reformers: Despite the Hard Knocks, This Bill Is a Step Forward

David Burwell is the director of the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was also co-founder and CEO of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and a founding co-chair and president of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a national transportation policy reform coalition. 

There is much despair in the transportation reform community about the mugging we took in the MAP-21 conference committee negotiations. And, yes, it was a mugging. It was also unnecessary and unfair — we worked hard for a good bill, got it, and then saw much of our effort left on the cutting room floor. Complete streets, rail, freight, state of good repair, transparency and accountability — all these took hits.

On defense, the TIFIA loan program lost a lot of its performance screens. We lost big chunks of the review process conducted under the National Environment Policy Act, which guards against ill-advised highway projects. Plus we saw the diminishment of separate funding for bike/ped programs, Safe Routes to Schools, and the Recreational Trails Program, which collectively lost about 34 percent of their set-aside funding — cut from about $1.2 billion to about $800 million annually. The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program is also more porous — but at least we still have the rule that CMAQ can’t be used to build new highways for single occupancy vehicle use.

While this is going to be hand-to-hand combat, we now have the “boots on the ground” to prevail. That’s our new campaign.

Many of these reforms were lost despite the fact that the House didn’t offer a bill with conflicting language — the conferees just rewrote the Senate language to serve their own objectives. If reports are true, many of these losses were in return for dropping Keystone XL from the bill — a rider that was both non-germane and basically a “House hold.” It will be back on any other Senate bill the House leadership wants to hold up until its terms are met, whether or not it has an opposing bill to offer. This is not negotiation, it is extortion.

Our best response? We need to get over it. This is hardball politics over a bill that distributes over $50 billion annually to all the state DOTs and regional transit agencies, backed by major construction industries. Federal transportation bills have historically been a fight over money, not policy, and members of Congress are naturally going to look to their own state officials for guidance on how to allocate program funds, and for what purposes. State DOTs want maximum flexibility to use the funds as they see fit, with the fewest possible federal conditions on their use. We are fighting to bend the arc of transportation history away from a food fight over money to focus on policy — meaning outcomes. It is a worthy and essential goal for a program that determines the physical fabric of our country and our communities.

Based on what we are up against, we did okay. Transportation Enhancements survived — and 50 percent of the money, about $400 million, is directly delegated to metropolitan planning organizations in urbanized areas with populations over 200,000 for project selection and oversight. The rest is still controlled by state DOTs but is up for grabs — if we can convince governors not to opt out of the program.
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Under New Bill, America’s Transpo Loan Program Ignores National Goals

In the highly polarized and antagonistic transportation bill negotiations, dragged out over the course of almost a year, there was one thing that Democrats and Republicans could agree on: vastly expanding the TIFIA loan program. The Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program has, since 1998, provided federal credit assistance at favorable interest rates to surface transportation projects of national and regional significance.

San Francisco's Transbay Transit Center got a $171 million TIFIA loan in 2010. Will new rules make it harder for visionary projects like this to compete? Image: Archithings

Under the new bill, however, it appears any old highway plan will do.

MAP-21, the transportation bill that is now on its way to the president for his signature, turned TIFIA from a $122 million program to a $1 billion program – and at the same time, made it completely useless as an instrument to reward and enable innovation.

The bill eliminated all project selection criteria from the TIFIA program. It’s now first-come-first-served.

“By removing those selection criteria, they’ve basically turned the federal government into a bank,” said Sarah Kline, director of policy for Reconnecting America, “instead of an entity with national policy in mind.”

TIFIA used to employ the following criteria to evaluate potential loan recipients:

  • national or regional significance (including livability, economic competitiveness, and safety) — 20 percent
  • private participation — 20 percent
  • environmental sustainability and state of good repair — 20 percent
  • whether the loan would help accelerate project delivery — 12.5 percent
  • creditworthiness — 12.5 percent
  • use of technology — 5 percent
  • consumption of budget authority — 5 percent
  • whether the loan would reduce the need for federal grants — 5 percent

Under the new bill, creditworthiness now accounts for pretty much the full 100 percent.

Projects will still need to be approved by the U.S. DOT credit council. “They’re not rubberstamping things that come through,” said Kerry O’Hare, vice president of Building America’s Future and a former FHWA administrator.  “There’s a real financial analysis that’s done. People don’t just willy-nilly say, ‘We’re going to sign off on this.’”

But the credit council is looking only at the ability to repay loans. Not sustainability, not significance, not economic competitiveness.

“The federal government essentially has no control over what kind of projects get built,” Kline said. “As long as you come in with an application that is technically eligible and meets the credit-worthiness, it’s not clear to me that the federal government can say, ‘No, this is not the kind of project we want to fund; we’re looking for things that are innovative; this is not innovative.’”

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A New Bill Passes, But America’s Transpo Policy Stays Stuck in 20th Century

The House of Representatives approved the transportation bill conference report this afternoon by a vote of 373 to 52. [UPDATE 4:00 PM: The Senate has also approved the bill, 74-19.] This is a bill that’s been called “a death blow to mass transit” by the Amalgamated Transit Union, “a step backwards for America’s transportation system” by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, “a retreat from the goals of sustainability and economic resiliency” by Reconnecting America, “a substantial capitulation” by Transportation for America, and “bad news for biking and walking” by America Bikes.

Remember the empty highways that symbolized the House Republicans' vision of America's transportation system? The final transpo bill might as well have the same unfortunate cover.

After more than 1,000 days of waiting since the last transportation bill expired, the nation’s new transportation policy is a grave disappointment to people seeking to reform the current highway-centric system.

The fact that the House GOP tried and, for the most part, failed to reverse the progress made under presidents Reagan and Bush the elder offers a small degree of consolation. “Some of the worst ideas pushed initially by House Republicans went nowhere – funding the highway system with new oil drilling revenues, taking transit out of the highway trust fund, de-federalizing transportation funding – to mention some of the most radical proposals that were seriously being put forward,” wrote Deron Lovaas of NRDC this morning. “But… that pretty much exhausts the good news.”

So what does the bill actually do? Overall, it doesn’t change a whole lot, and the most significant changes tend not to benefit livable streets or sustainable transportation. Here’s a breakdown.

Length and funding. The bill lasts a year longer than the Senate bill would have, expiring at the end of September 2014. That gives states, cities, and the construction industry substantially more stability and allows them to move forward on projects that have been delayed for years because of the uncertainty surrounding federal funding. It maintains funding levels at around $54 billion a year, as did the Senate bill, which is roughly current levels plus inflation.

While some have criticized the complex funding mechanisms that prop it up and its departure from a user-pays model, the Congressional Budget Office reported this morning that the bill actually reduces the deficit by $16.3 billion.

Everyone seems to understand that Congress won’t be able to pull this kind of magic for long and will soon have to deal with the long-term insufficiency of current Highway Trust Fund revenues to cover the nation’s transportation needs. However, the gas tax was not raised, and at the same time the House passed this bill, it also approved an appropriations bill that prohibits even studying the possibility of moving toward a VMT fee.

Non-transportation-related items. The Keystone XL pipeline and the EPA’s ability to regulate coal ash as a hazardous substance, introduced into the transportation negotiations by the House Republicans, were stripped out of the bill. The RESTORE Act to spend BP oil spill fines on Gulf Coast restoration is included.

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Advocates: Transpo Bill Ignores Trends, Shrinks From 21st Century Challenges

According to Bikes Belong, only 13 percent of Americans want to see the amount of federal money spent on biking and walking reduced. But apparently those folks are overrepresented in the halls of Congress.

National transportation reform groups released a collective groan yesterday, as the details of the two-year transportation bill agreement hashed out in committee were made available. While many acknowledged the bill could have been worse, it’s still something of a kick in the shins for anyone who cares about safer streets and smart transportation policy. Here’s a round-up of what people are saying.

Caron Whitaker at America Bikes noted that the bill’s erosion of dedicated funding for safer streets is diametrically opposed to Americans’ clearly expressed preference for more transportation options:

Across the country, people are biking and walking more, and vehicle miles traveled are decreasing. Young people are delaying getting their driver’s licenses and the real estate market shows that people want to live and work in areas where they can walk and bike safely. Yet this new bill ignores current trends and includes drastic and disproportionate cuts to biking and walking.

As Andy Clarke at the League of American Bicyclists added, cutting bike/ped funding won’t be the big deficit-slayer that House GOP leaders made it out to be:

These drastic cuts to biking and walking funding do not save the federal government any money. Rather, it keeps current levels of funding and directs funds away from street safety projects.

In fact, as Deb Hubsmith at Safe Routes to School pointed out, it will likely cost Americans more in the long run:

The annual cost to hospitalize children for injuries due to bicycle and pedestrian collisions is more than the entire amount of Transportation Alternatives funding in the new transportation bill, and Safe Routes to School will only get a fraction of those dollars.

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Conference Bill Preserves Transit Funding, Wastes Opportunities For Progress

In H.R.7 – the transpo bill so backwards even the House couldn’t pass it — the roads-only crowd threw transit riders under the bus, as it were, eliminating dedicated funding for transit, which was left to fend for itself off scraps from the general fund.

The transpo bill offers no assistance to transit agencies struggling not to cut service or raise fares. Photo: Gothamist

The best thing one can say about the bill issued by the conference committee last night is that it doesn’t include that draconian measure. But it sure doesn’t do anything to move transit forward in this country.

The bill maintains current funding levels at a time when more Americans are turning to transit but cities can barely maintain their existing services. Ridership has been growing steadily for countless economic and social reasons. But transit agency budgets haven’t grown with it, and Congress, with this bill, is surrendering its chance to help struggling cities and move toward a future where Americans have more transportation options.

The New Starts grant program for transit agencies is maintained, but suffered nearly a $50 million cut in funding. New Starts funding helps build new rail lines and busways. This is where the money to expand transit systems comes from, and it stays flat in this bill. A new subcategory of New Starts will help agencies maintain their existing stock of buses, trains, track, and other capital assets, as long as a 10 percent capacity increase will result from the investment, so there will be some added flexibility in the new bill. But that’s hardly what you’d call progress in an era of rising gas prices and intensifying demand for walkable, transit-oriented places.

The Senate bill had also thrown a life-preserver to struggling transit systems by allowing them to use federal grants to maintain service during periods of high unemployment — when agency budgets typically take a beating. In a previous incarnation, the operations flexibility was unconditional, but by the time the Senate had its way with it, the flexibility was only available when the community’s unemployment rate rose above seven percent. But by the time the conference committee had its way with it, the bill had shed even this modest protection for struggling transit systems.

Another major disappointment is the elimination of parity between the tax benefits commuters can get for parking and the benefits available for taking transit. Under the 2009 stimulus bill, the two were temporarily equalized, with $240 in commuting costs being tax deductible per month, but the transit benefit then reverted to its former level of $125 a month. The Senate sought to codify equality between the parking benefit and transit benefit but that, too, was stripped out of the conference bill.

For these reasons and many more, the 500 organizations in the Transportation for America coalition had this to say:

We are encouraged that Congress will avoid a shutdown of the program. Unfortunately, this last-minute, closed-door deal does little more than that. The bill ultimately looks and feels like what it is: A stopgap that is the last gasp of a spent 20th century program. It doesn’t begin to address the needs of a changing America in the 21st century.

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Transpo Bill Cuts Bike/Ped Funding, Lets States Spend It on Left-Turn Lanes

NOTE: The facts are even worse than they seemed when I wrote this article. States can flex TA money, not just to CMAQ, but to anything they want. See “The Awful Truth About the Transpo Bill’s Bike/Ped Loophole,” for more.

In the transportation bill agreed to yesterday by Barbara Boxer, John Mica, and other Congressional leaders, the program that allocates federal transportation dollars to local street safety projects like bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks has morphed into a much more general fund for anything that can be considered an air quality improvement strategy at all. States have great leeway to shift funds around, and bike/ped projects will have to compete with road projects and much more.

Who needs sidewalks and bike lanes when you have these? Photo: By Chance Lansdale

The “Transportation Alternatives” section of the bill says it reduces total funding to 2009 levels for the Transportation Enhancements program for each state. But Caron Whitaker at America Bikes tells Streetsblog that’s actually an error in the bill. In reality, she said in an email, “The funding goes from 1.2 billion [total for Enhancements, Recreational Trails and Safe Routes to School] in FY 2011 to 700 – 750 million under TA.” That’s a drop of up to 42 percent. [UPDATE: The final number is $808 million for 2013 and $820 million -- a 33 percent cut.]

“Transportation Alternatives” has also absorbed the Safe Routes to School and Recreational Trails programs, which used to have their own dedicated funding. And, inexplicably, it can be used to fund “planning, designing, or constructing boulevards and other roadways largely in the right-of-way of former Interstate System routes or other divided highways.”

The bill sets the total funding for the Transportation Alternatives program at two percent of total highway funding out of the Highway Trust Fund (not including the Mass Transit account). Then it splits that amount in half, with one part going to local agencies (which are likely to put it to good use) and the other part going to states for them to allocate through a competitive process.

Unless the state doesn’t feel like it.

This opt-out provision is especially damaging to street safety in states where the DOT doesn’t prioritize walking and biking. Starting in the next fiscal year, states that haven’t spent their “Transportation Alternatives” dollars on TA projects can use them for anything else that can be interpreted as improving air quality.

That’s right: The “opt-out” provision for states isn’t use-it-or-lose-it. States that sit on their TA money long enough can use it for things like truck stop electrification systems, HOV lanes, turning lanes, and diesel retrofits [or anything else they like].

Yes, the tiny sliver of federal transportation funding reserved for healthy and environmentally sound transportation choices can be squandered on left turn lanes.

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Complete Streets Provision Eliminated From Final Transpo Bill

Transportation for America, the big-tent coalition for transportation reform, tends to be careful about the statements it puts out. Its folks are diplomatic, since they work with both sides on the Hill and a wide variety of coalition members. Yesterday, as details of the conference report were leaking out, they wanted to read the whole bill before weighing in publicly. Now that they’ve absorbed it all, they’ve come out swinging.

Language requiring accommodation to nonmotorized users was struck from the final bill. Photo: Charlotte DOT via National Complete Streets Coalition

“Senate Capitulates to House Demands,” today’s statement reads, “Eliminates Critical Provisions in Transportation Bill.”

T4A goes on:

Despite initial rumors that negotiations would lead to some real progress on essential transportation needs, the ‘compromise’ undoes progress from previous bills and provides little vision for the future.

We’ll have details throughout the day on the significant provisions in the bill and how they differ from current policy.

Yesterday we mentioned the watered-down funding provisions for street safety projects compared to the Senate bill. Turns out that isn’t the only way that the final bill weakens biking and walking.

Indeed, the complete streets provision that passed with bi-partisan support in the Senate was eliminated from the final bill. “It was included in the Commerce committee’s freight title, which had come under fire from House Republicans for unrelated reasons,” said Barbara McCann of the National Complete Streets Coalition in a statement this morning.

The street safety (or “complete streets”) amendment [PDF] introduced by Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) ordered the Secretary of Transportation to “establish standards to ensure that the design of Federal surface transportation projects provides for the safe and adequate accommodation, in all phases of project planning, development, and operation, of all users of the transportation network, including motorized and non-motorized users.”

McCann did note a silver lining: the Highway Safety Improvement Program language in the report includes a new, more comprehensive definition of street users that is based on Complete Streets language.

Meanwhile, the Chair of the Banking Committee, which wrote and negotiated the transit title of the bill, just released a statement that barely mentions transit. Jobs, safer highways, student loans, flood insurance: check. Transit: not so much. More to come.

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Mica: Transpo Bill Lasts Through September 2014

I was not expecting this: Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) just released a statement saying “the tentative agreement establishes federal highway, transit and highway safety policy and keeps programs at current funding levels through the end of fiscal year 2014.” That’s a full year longer than the Senate bill allowed for.

A loose interpretation of the "three day" rule will set the clock ticking before midnight tonight, and the House will vote Friday morning. Photo: NYSUT

This will no doubt please states, local governments, and the construction industry, which have long complained that a short bill wouldn’t do enough to give them the certainty they need to move big projects.

Still, given the contortions the Senate Finance Committee had to perform just to get the bill funded through September 2013 — the expiration date of the Senate bill — it’ll be very interesting to see what had to happen to finance this thing for a whole extra year without the Highway Trust Fund going bust.

It’s not just that the clock is starting so much later than the Senate bill (an outline of which was drafted nearly a year ago). Money from the bill will be used retroactively to pay for the amount the country has been overspending the HTF as it continually extended the current transportation program without paying for it, according to a Capitol Hill aide.

An aide to the committee told Streetsblog he expects the full text of the conference report to be available sometime tonight. We’ll bring you more details as we have them.

Mica says he plans to have everything wrapped up by 9:00 tonight so that conferees can vote on the final report sometime between 9:00 and 11:00. Due to an extremely creative interpretation of the three-day rule, a vote tonight allows the full House to vote on the report early Friday morning. (The three-day rule derives from Republican indignance at being asked to vote on the health care bill without enough time to read it. At the time, three days meant 72 hours.