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Posts from the "Reauthorization" Category

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Obama to Propose Four-Year Transpo Bill Funded By “Business Tax Reform”

President Obama will unveil a proposal for a $302 billion, four-year transportation bill during a speech today in Minnesota, according to an announcement from the White House. A fact sheet from the administration indicates the proposal would increase dedicated funding for transit more than funding for highways.

Obama will appear in St. Paul, Minnesota today to announce a new transportation plan he says is part of his "year of action." Photo: PRX.org

Obama will appear in St. Paul, Minnesota today to announce a new transportation plan. Photo: PRX.org

The proposal would represent a 38 percent spending increase over the current $109 billion, 2-year law, known as MAP-21, and is the most concrete long-term transportation bill proposed by the Obama administration, which has never put forward a funding stream until now.

The $300 billion spending plan does not raise the gas tax. Instead, it calls for directing some $150 billion from “business tax reform” to help shore up the Highway Trust Fund, which is set to go broke late this summer. The White House has not released more information about how the funding stream would operate, but the press release calls it ”one-time transition revenue,” so the idea seems to be that in four years, a different revenue stream would have to be identified.

The White House announcement said Obama’s proposal “will show how we can invest in the things we need to grow and create jobs by closing unfair tax loopholes, lowering tax rates, and making the system more fair.”

Such a funding method would represent a major break from relying on the gas tax to pay for the national transportation program. The gas tax hasn’t been raised in two decades, and inflation and rising fuel efficiency have eroded its value. In 2012, the federal gasoline tax brought in $35 billion, but the feds allocated $54 billion in transportation spending, with other sources, including general tax revenues, making up the difference.

Obama will also announce the upcoming $600 million round of funding for TIGER, US DOT’s popular competitive grant program for local transportation projects, which has already been approved by Congress. The program has funded $1 billion in city transit projects, nearly as much for intercity rail, and $153 million in biking and walking projects since it was introduced in 2009.

More details about the president’s “vision for a 21st century transportation infrastructure” will be available after the speech today in St. Paul, which will take place inside the city’s restored Union Depot train station.

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The Next Transpo Bill: Can Congress Solve the Funding Problem?

From left to right, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Catepillar Group President Stuart Levenick, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Lawrence Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, testified before House transportation leaders today. The event kicked off a new transportation bill reauthorization process. Image: ##http://transportation.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=364867## House T&I Committee##

From left to right, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Caterpillar Group President Stuart Levenick, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, testified before House transportation leaders today. The event kicked off a new transportation bill reauthorization process. Photo: House T&I Committee

It’s that time again. Just 18 months after the passage of the latest federal transportation bill, known as MAP-21, Congress has to get serious about the next one. The first hearing on the bill that will replace MAP-21 took place today in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

With gridlock the order of the day in Washington, expectations for sweeping policy reforms are low. This round of legislating will focus mainly on how to pay for the federal transportation program. The speakers today, who represented interests ranging from the construction lobby to transit unions, all stressed the need for greater certainty and pushed for a funding mechanism to support a long-term, six-year bill.

Members of the committee heard testimony from Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Stuart Levenick of industrial manufacturer Caterpillar, and Larry Hanley of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Those who testified even went so far as to suggest an outright funding crisis would be preferable to another series of short-term extensions, like the endless foot-dragging that preceded MAP-21, which itself lasted barely longer than an extension. A scenario where lawmakers let funding for transportation totally run out would at least add a sense of real urgency to negotiations, the thinking goes.

Wisconsin Congressman Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) asked the panel which outcome they’d prefer, in the case of another stalemate between Republicans and Democrats in the House.

Reed responded, “I would err on the side of short-term pain.”

Those who testified pressed for bold solutions, including alternatives to the gas tax. ”What we need to do is have a conversation in this committee where we put all options on the table,” said Reed.

Hanley suggested Congress consider a tax on financial transactions, the so called “Robin Hood” tax, to fund a 100 percent increase in transit funding, which he said was warranted by growth in major cities and young people’s declining interest in driving.

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Eleven Things to Look for in the Passenger Rail Reauthorization

Will a new rail authorization find a way to help states make needed repairs to keep the whole Northeast Corridor running smoothly? Photo: NJ Transit via Second Avenue Sagas

Now that the surface transportation bill fight is over — at least for the moment — transportation reformers are eying the expiration date of another key piece of legislation later this year. The reauthorization of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) could be a chance to make some needed changes to jump-start progress in the passenger rail system. Or it could be the next partisan battleground, making it a process as unnavigable as the lead-up to the passage of MAP-21.

PRIIA shouldn’t be as contentious as the surface transportation bill for three reasons. First of all, no one’s expecting a seismic shift in rail policy to come with this bill. Second, reauthorizing the passenger rail title doesn’t necessarily require a big conversation about funding (though there are certainly those on both sides of the issue who would like to have one). And third, Rep. John Mica isn’t wielding the gavel anymore.

The new chair, Bill Shuster, headed the Rail Subcommittee before taking over the top job, so he’s likely to take a special interest in shepherding the legislation through. And he’s already proven to be a much more bipartisan — and bicameral — collaborator, so many Democrats are hoping for a less rancorous, more inclusive, process.

Even though PRIIA likely won’t bring a sea change in rail policy, insiders say there are a few areas to watch:

State of Good Repair. The Northeast Corridor Commission released a report in January on infrastructure maintenance backlogs on Amtrak’s most popular line. Speeds can’t increase on the corridor without addressing some choke points and repair needs.

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Suburban Voters Wisely Reject Proposals to Withdraw from Regional Transit

Job markets are regional. So in order to serve a metropolitan region’s workers and by extension the local economy, transit must also be regional, seamlessly serving both central cities and their suburbs, whose share of employment has grown. Almost everyone recognizes that.

Suburban voters in Ohio, Michigan and Maine showed their support for transit Tuesday. Photo: Toledo Blade

That’s why for decades, the nation’s cities have been combining agencies and expanding tax districts to create regional transit systems. It’s gotten to the point now where the only major city in the country that still lacks a regional transit system is Detroit — and officials from the Federal Transit Administration are leaning hard on state and local officials to remedy that.

Which is why a handful of Balkanizing ballot initiatives in suburban communities in Ohio, Michigan and Maine this election were so alarming. Voters in four suburbs in these states were asked if they wanted to opt out of regional transit systems in greater Toledo, Ohio; Grand Rapids, Michigan and Portland, Maine.

Luckily, voters saw through those proposals. All four of those communities rejected the proposals, choosing to remain a part of their regional transit systems — and all by fairly wide margins.

In Walker, Michigan, 73 percent of voters weighed in in favor of remaining in Grand Rapids’ bus system. A similar referendum in Falmouth, Maine failed, with 70 percent of voters electing to remain part of Portland’s METRO.

Meanwhile, in the Toledo, Ohio suburbs, Sylvania and Spencer Townships rejected the idea of withdrawing from regional transit by about a 60-40 margin. That was very good news for Toledo’s regional transit system, TARTA, which lost the suburb of Perrysburg to an identical ballot measure this spring.

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Will Transportation Investments Keep Up With the Way Americans Travel?

Phineas Baxandall is a senior analyst at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

It’s now common knowledge that annual changes in the volume of driving no longer follow the old patterns.

For 60 years, the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) rose steadily. Predicting more driving miles next year was like predicting that the sun would rise or that computer chips would be faster. The only direction seemed to be up.

Then, after 2004, per-capita VMT fell 6 percent, which has led to a decline in total VMT since 2007.

The most recent data are from July, traditionally America’s biggest month for driving. In July 2012, Americans clocked over 258 billion miles behind the wheel, a billion fewer miles than the previous July despite a slightly stronger economy and cheaper gasoline. In fact, you’d need to go back to 2002 to find a July when Americans drove fewer miles than July 2012.

Has America’s long increase in driving turned a corner or just taken a prolonged pause? The answer matters a lot. Consider four scenarios:

Graph: Phineas Baxandall, U.S. PIRG

  1. If the volume of annual vehicle miles traveled switches back to the average rate of increase between 1987 and 2005, then by 2025 VMT will be 27 percent greater than the 2012 level.
  2. If VMT changes at the average rate it sustained over the entire period between 1987 to 2012, then it will grow by almost 19 percent by 2025.
  3. If instead VMT changes at the average rate that has prevailed since 2004, then the number of miles driven will fall 2.3 percent by 2025.
  4. And if VMT changes at the average rate that has prevailed since 2007, then VMT would fall off by almost 8 percent by 2025

    Table: Phineas Baxandall, U.S. PIRG

The difference spanning these scenarios amounts to over a trillion vehicle miles per year. How we decide to invest in transportation should be very different, depending on which scenario we are planning for – especially since the roads, railways and other infrastructure we build today will be with us long past 2025. Continuing to build new highways at the current pace might arguably make some sense if driving were to return to pre-2005 rates of growth. But those outlays indisputably would be a colossal waste if more recent trends prevail.

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Will MAP-21 Require Thousands More Dangerous Stroads?

Shown in red are some of the arterial roads the Oregon Department of Transportation thinks will need to be upgraded to comply with MAP-21. Photo: Bike Portland

An obscure provision of the new federal transportation bill is sparking concerns that it could erode walkability and bikeability in communities around the country. The so-called “Enhanced National Highway System” provision would require all major arterial roads to be folded into the national highway system. That could provide greater pressure for local entities to comply with AASHTO’s often highway-inspired standards, like wide lanes and shoulders that encourage car capacity at the expense of pedestrian safety.

The provision will result in a near doubling of the number of roads that will be part of the national highway system. But what will it mean for livable streets? There are lots of different opinions out there.

Jonathan Maus, at Bike Portland, who broke this story, said:

The significance of these roadways becoming part of the National Highway System is that if PBOT engineers want to make any changes that deviate from FHWA design standards for “principal arterials”, they would have to go through a cumbersome process of applying for exceptions.

In the words of a source at ODOT, “this designation basically forces state and local governments to treat arterials like major highways… Speed will increase, certain designs, like bulb outs, won’t be allowed without an exception. So on and so on.”

Travis Brouwer, senior federal affairs adviser for the Oregon Department of Transportation, echoed those concerns to some extent. Brouwer said the state was racing to reclassify its major arterials, up to 600 miles of road, by October 1, when the new law goes into effect.

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Boxer Demands Restoration of MAP-21 Funding Levels

The MAP-21 transportation bill was just signed two months ago, and its funding levels, agreed to by a difficult and fragile compromise between warring political parties, are already under attack.

Sen. Boxer toured a BART construction project last month in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Office of Sen. Barbara Boxer.

In Congress, authorization and budgeting are two different processes, run out of different committees. And right now, House budgeters are looking to shave down the $52.6 billion a year MAP-21 allocated for transportation. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who presided over the passage of MAP-21, would like to see those authorized numbers stay sacrosanct.

Meanwhile, Congress is bound by the Budget Control Act, passed by Congress last summer as part of the debt ceiling deal, to cap overall funding levels at $1.047 trillion for next year. The House is working on a six-month continuing resolution to fund the federal government at that level for FY2013. (That’s the way Congress has been passing budgets lately – since they can’t agree on a real budget, they just pass continuing resolutions and agree to keep the previous year’s budget, sometimes with a little tinkering.)

The House’s continuing resolution would cut transportation funding half a billion dollars below MAP-21 levels.

In a letter sent yesterday to House Speaker John Boehner, Boxer reminded him that MAP-21 was “bipartisan legislation which passed the House of Representatives with an overwhelming vote of 373-52” and that it “included an inflationary adjustment for fiscal years 2013 and 2014” which the House bill “failed to protect.”

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Politico: Boxer Already Working on the Next Transportation Bill

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) confirmed she is already working on the next transportation bill — “two months to the day after President Obama signed MAP-21 into law and before the new policies even kick in on Oct. 1,” according to Politico, which broke the story this morning.

Sen. Barbara Boxer is already thinking about the next bill. Photo: flickr/JD Lasica

In an interview with Adam in Charlotte, Boxer said her “goal is to find a dependable funding source and to work in a bipartisan way to find that funding source. I really believe that the Highway Trust Fund should be funded through user fees.” That might include indexing the gas tax to inflation, but probably not a vehicle miles traveled fee, which raises privacy concerns for the California senator. Even a gas tax bump won’t be enough if vehicles keep getting more and more efficient.

Reformers have some ideas for the next bill, too. Making the Highway Trust Fund self-sustaining is a good goal, since a strapped fund leads to some really bad ideas, like jettisoning mass transit and even the tiny sliver of the pie allocated to active transportation. Putting national goals like emissions reductions and public health improvement front and center would help too — as long as real performance measures are attached.

In any event, that was a quick honeymoon period. If you thought you were going to have at least six months to rest on your laurels before getting back into the ring to fight for a better bill next time around: Surprise! It’s game time.

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September 1: Deadline for States to Opt Out of Recreational Trails Funding

The MAP-21 transportation bill in many ways made it tougher for cities and towns to provide safer streets for walking and biking. Projects to build bike lanes and sidewalks now have to compete harder for the tiny bit of funding they’re eligible for. And right now, states are deciding whether or not to “opt out” of the Recreational Trails Program (RTP). Instead of spending RTP money on bicycle and pedestrian trails — both urban and rural — states can “opt” to spend it on something else.

Even rail-trail-hating Gov. Sam Brownback says Kansas will use their Recreational Trails funding. Will he make the same promise of other bike/ped funds? Photo: Pitch

But the fact is that RTP made it out of the conference process more intact than some of its sister bike/ped programs. It kept its “dedicated” funding, although that dedication is awfully porous. Then again, it always has been.

MAP-21 put the Recreational Trails Program under the umbrella of the larger Transportation Alternatives program, but RTP retained $85 million of its own funding, with each state getting the same amount they were apportioned in 2009. While Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School lost their dedicated funds, RTP kept its money because it comes from a different source: a gas tax on off-road vehicles.

That unique funding source has more or less safeguarded a program that’s focused on recreation — albeit with many important urban connectors under its belt — while throwing more transportation-oriented programs under the proverbial bus.

RTP got off relatively scot-free in what was a bruising bill process for other bike/ped programs. “What can I say?” said Marianne Fowler, senior vice president of federal relations at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. “We’re really happy.” She also added that recreational trails built from this fund have another benefit: They’re not treated as federal-aid highways, since the facilities aren’t roadways. That means they don’t need to comply with the same onerous project reviews and contracting processes. Unfortunately, Safe Routes to School hasn’t had the same luck, meaning simple crosswalk projects can sometimes get tangled up in red tape.

All isn’t rosy with RTP, though. Governors can opt out of the program, meaning the money would go back into their total amount for Transportation Alternatives (which can then be squandered on road-building or anything else they like).

It used to be that there was only a “back door” opt-out, according to RTC’s Fowler. That back door is still open, but there’s a “front door” now too.

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Rep. Steve LaTourette Leaving Congress, Cites Disgust Over Transpo Bill

Rep. Steve LaTourette, that rare thing -- a moderate, urban Republican -- will be missed for his leadership on transportation. Photo: National Journal

We mentioned last week that transit advocates were losing one supporter in Congress: Russ Carnahan of Missouri. They’ll be suffering another grave loss come January: Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette.

It was clear that the romance was over last year when he called his own party’s freshmen members “knuckledraggers.” He announced two weeks ago that he had decided not to seek re-election.

LaTourette is one of a disappearing breed of moderate Republicans in Congress — and urban ones, at that. He co-sponsored Carnahan’s measure to help out struggling transit agencies and pushed for higher funding levels for transit. “How are we going to build America and put people back to work without robust funding in the transportation sector?” he said at a transit conference last year, exhorting agency officials to demand more from Congress. “If you don’t [ask for more funding], shame on you when your systems deteriorate.”

After once dismissing the job-creation potential of bicycle infrastructure, LaTourette was converted by cycling advocates and has since become a champion for federal bicycle and pedestrian funding, as well as Complete Streets legislation.

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