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How State DOTs Got Congress to Grant Their Wish List

Bike and pedestrian funding got slashed. Federal assistance for transit operations was rejected. Even the performance measures – arguably the high point of the recently passed federal transportation bill – are too weak to be very meaningful. For Americans who want federal policy to support safe streets, sustainable transportation, and livable neighborhoods, there were few bright spots in the transportation bill Congress passed last month.

AASHTO Director John Horsley is thrilled with the new transportation bill, which gave state DOTs just about everything they wanted. Photo: International Transport Forum

But state transportation departments are celebrating. They scored victory after victory, getting a bigger share of federal funding with fewer rules and regulations attached.

In the Senate, advocates were able to work some reforms into the bill and mobilize grassroots support for amendments like the Cardin-Cochran provision, which put funds for street safety projects in the hands of local governments, not state DOTs. But the House never managed to pass a bill of its own, and the opaque conference committee process was an exercise in horse-trading that advocates found difficult to penetrate.

The final product, which included measures like raising the federal contribution for certain highway expansions, seemed finely tailored to benefit DOTs in several ways. “This is a bill written by and for the benefit of state DOTs at the expense of both federal oversight and regional and community outcomes,” wrote David Burwell, director of the climate change program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an email shortly after the bill passed. He said the policy changes “are too elegantly crafted and specific in their effect to have been written, or even conceived, by members of Congress or their staff.”

For state DOTs, access to lawmakers is a given. “We worked very closely with the House and Senate to craft those measures,” AASHTO Director John Horsley confirmed to Streetsblog in an interview yesterday. He said that while AASHTO offered recommendations, no text written by AASHTO made it into the bill verbatim, as far as he knows.

According to Horsley’s account, AASHTO followed a pretty standard script when it came to advocating for their interests on the Hill. Every stakeholder and special interest under the sun had its lobbyists knocking on lawmakers’ doors, offering their two cents – everyone from gravel producers to equipment manufacturers to environmentalists to free market fundamentalists. It’s just that the state DOTs seemed to get everything on their wish list.

Horsley said AASHTO had been laying the groundwork for many, many months before conference started, working with Republican House Transportation Committee staffers as well as aides of both parties in the Senate. (He didn’t mention working with House Democrats, who were shut out of the process from day one.)

The House is where the magic happened for AASHTO. “We’ve been very pleased with where the Senate bill started,” Horsley said. “And we were even more pleased when the House and the Senate in conference agreed to incorporate a lot of the House provisions that were even better for states.”

What were those House provisions? Horsley went through the list:

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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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What Libertarians Talk About When They Talk About Transportation Reform

There’s more than one way to approach transportation reform. One is to believe that an ideal transportation policy promotes the use of modes that are environmentally sustainable and which foster livable cities, while those that perpetuate overdependence on automobiles do neither.

Moderator Anne Korin (center) and participants at Thursday's Mobility Choice Roundtable. (Photo: Johanna Moss/IAGS)

Then there is another camp, which approaches transportation from a micro, rather than macro, perspective. In this camp, America’s transportation choices are seen as a market where providers compete across the various modes for the privilege of meeting each individual’s transportation needs. A good transportation policy, in this view, is one that makes such a market function as efficiently as possible, keeping costs low for travelers and profits high enough for providers to ensure continued service without excessive government subsidy or regulation.

Here, the user-pays-user-benefits principle is sacrosanct, and fiscal self-sufficiency is paramount. It’s transportation reform for the libertarian set, who are just as likely as many liberals to categorize current transportation policy as deeply flawed — though they are just as likely to disagree about how.

That’s why the Mobility Choice Coalition — convened by the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security — hosts roundtable discussions about the issue of transportation reform as seen from the second camp. The most recent one was last Thursday. Previous roundtables, which Streetsblog has covered in the past, have covered the viability of private transit, the comparative advantages of bus vs. rail transit, and the idea of incorporating the cost of foreign oil wars into the price of highway travel.

“One of the key issues for us is pricing, really, across the board,” Anne Korin, the roundtable’s moderator, told Streetsblog. “Get the pricing right, and a lot of stuff will follow.” When one mode is priced unnaturally low, the market isn’t operating as efficiently as it could.

But pricing isn’t the whole story. Congress, you may have heard, is working on a new surface transportation bill, and there’s plenty of federal spending that has to happen before changes to pricing can be instituted. Korin can already see her message at work there.

“You definitely saw, in response to transportation language in both chambers, a huge emphasis on the user-pays principle,” Korin said. “First the response to H.R. 7 [which used energy royalties to pay for transportation spending], and the Senate bill which dips into general funds [for everything]. Either way, we think it’s very, very important to maintain the user-pays principle, and that message has gotten a good hearing.”

Last Thursday’s discussion began with a list of priorities for transportation policy reform, but it was clear from the outset that there are still deep divisions among cost-minded transportation thinkers. Those divisions often occur around whether gas tax revenue — or vehicle-miles-traveled fees once they’re implemented — and tolls should be used exclusively for roads or whether they can be used to fund infrastructure for other modes as well, which some see as undermining the user-pays principle.

Former Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shirley Ybarra, now of the Reason Foundation, said, “America needs a large increase in highway investment,” but opined that too much existing roadway revenue is being spent on what she called “other stuff.” Rather than breaking down the funding silos for each mode, Ybarra advocated the complete separation of those silos, and the insistence that each mode be entirely user funded. “Mica was on the right track” when he tried to separate transit from the Highway Trust Fund, she said — that is, until “transit went off the deep end.”

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Lautenberg Brawls With Port Authority Exec Over Tolling

New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg has been spoiling for a fight ever since the Port Authority raised tolls to cross into New York. And yesterday, he got it.

The Lincoln Tunnel helix in 1955. It hasn't been rehabbed since then. Photo: Wikipedia

Lautenberg invited Bill Baroni, the deputy director of the Port Authority, to testify at a Commerce Committee hearing that turned into little more than a showdown between the two men.

Lautenberg was commissioner of the Port Authority from 1978 to 1982, and he said that back then, the toll was $2, which would be about $5 in today’s dollars. “When it costs $12 to drive your car across a bridge in America, something is wrong,” Lautenberg said, adding that the decision to raise the rates was made “behind closed doors.”

Baroni countered that the Authority had actually held 10 public hearings on the toll increase, involving more than 1,500 people. He went through a list of crisis-level needs that necessitated the toll increase, from the Bayonne Bridge, which has to be raised to allow larger ships to pass under it, to the Lincoln Tunnel helix, which hadn’t been rehabbed in 70 years, to the George Washington Bridge’s suspender ropes, which need replacing.

But then he mentioned that Lautenberg, as a former commissioner, has a free E-ZPass, and that “it is impossible to argue fairness in tolls if you don’t pay them.” The whole thing spiraled into a war of words from there, with Baroni at one point obliquely comparing Lautenberg to Joe McCarthy.

The shoot-‘em-up nature of the hearing may have been the most entertaining part, but amidst the political theater there were some meaningful comments on the utility of tolling: for example, Baroni’s insistence that more funds from drivers are needed to bring his agency’s infrastructure into a state of good repair. Barring an increase in the gas tax, tolling is the only way to raise that revenue and maintain aging roads and bridges.

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NJ Senator Lautenberg Introduces Bill to Limit Bridge and Tunnel Tolls

Last summer, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey raised EZPass tolls from $8 to cross a bridge into the city during peak hours to $9.50, with planned increases to $12.50 in a few years (cash tolls are increasing somewhat more). Tolls for five-axle trucks will rise as high as $125.

The hikes marked the first time the Port Authority had raised tolls since 2008, and the only the third since 2001. Nevertheless, congressional representatives from the area are making noise. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) teamed up today to announce a bill to increase federal oversight of road tolls.

The “Commuter Protection Act” would restore U.S. DOT’s power to determine whether tolls on interstate bridges and tunnels are “just and reasonable” and set lower maximum tolls if they deem it necessary. The agency had that power until 1987, when it was revoked during an era of deregulation. The bill would also require the Government Accountability Office to produce a report on the “transparency and accountability” of how toll rates are set.

“When it costs $12 to drive your car across a bridge in America [the rate for cash tolls], something is wrong,” Lautenberg said in a statement. “Commuters are suffering.”

Lautenberg has a strong pro-transit record, but in this case he may end up hurting transit by taking up the cause of constituents who drive into the city. For one thing, the tolls have led to a four percent drop in traffic across the Port Authority crossings, which is good news for bus speeds. Meanwhile, ridership on PATH trains has risen 3.7 percent.

It’s still an open question whether the final draft of the bill will consider transit a “just and reasonable” purpose for tolling funds. There is currently no legal definition of “just and reasonable.” Even if transit is covered, however, the bill could still do damage.

If the U.S. DOT were to actually intervene with the Port Authority, for instance, there would probably be less funding available for transit. Already, the Port Authority scrapped plans to build a much-needed new bus depot in Manhattan because Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo scaled back the latest round of toll hikes.

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More Election Results: Transit Wins Big

Out of 12 transportation-related measures that were voted on Tuesday, seven represented a victory for transit, three were losses to learn from, and two more aren’t really a win one way or another but are worth noting. According to the Center for Transportation Excellence, these numbers bring the year’s total to an impressive 79 percent win rate for transit. Especially impressive is the fact that most of these measures involved a tax of some sort, and people were willing to pay it if it meant better transit service – even in tough economic times.

Clark County's campaign to keep bus service won Tuesday, 54-46.

Angie has profiled the victory in Durham and the loss in Seattle. Here are the rest of the results:

In Montcalm County, MI, a proposed property tax hike to fund bus service failed 39-61.

A terrible idea failed to catch on in Cincinnati, but the closeness of the final tally showed there’s still work to be done. The proposal to ban any forward movement on building a streetcar system lost, but the vote was 49-51. Still, this loss was a big win for transit.

Bad news for residents of Trumbull County, Ohio: the property tax increase that would have saved their transit system failed 36-64. If the county is to be believed, this means the transit system will shut down entirely, a huge loss, especially for the county’s most vulnerable residents. According to a local paper, “In 2010, the transit provided 64,249 trips: 18,922 for senior citizens, 21,013 for the disabled, 16,131 for students, and 8,183 for other residents.”

The 54-46 passage of Proposition 1 in Clark County, Washington was a big win for transit. Residents of the Washington-side suburbs of Portland will pay another 0.2 percent sales tax in order to stave off harsh cuts to their transit service. Even the normally anti-tax local paper said the vote was essential to maintaining quality of life in the county.

The counting of the statewide initiative 1125 in Washington went into the next day, but we can say definitively now that this bad idea has lost – at last count, it had 48.44 percent of the vote. The measure would have put serious restrictions on tolling at a time when tolling is one of very few funding mechanisms available to states. Even worse, it would have codified a pro-roads bias by insisting that tolling revenues could only pay for roads. It also singled out light rail, banning it on the I-90 bridge.

* The proposal to increase the Lorain County sales tax failed pretty spectacularly — 32-68. Transit advocates took note of this one but aren’t counting it as a loss, since the primary focus of the campaign – and the primary destination of the tax revenues – was the criminal justice system, not transportation. The loss does, however, mean that the county will cut its contribution to the transit system in half, in order to have more money to pay for prisons.

Here are a few we didn’t mention Tuesday:

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Seven Transportation Improvements Everyone Can Agree On

The Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank, is not always a transportation reformer’s best friend. Its scholars gave Florida Gov. Rick Scott inaccurate advice he then used to justify killing high-speed rail in his state. They want to prevent the gas tax from funding “peripheral” programs like transit and active transportation. But Reason Foundation experts have teamed up with Transportation for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense to champion seven cost-effective and eminently “reasonable” strategies for improving transportation outcomes even in the midst of a budget crisis.

Can we agree to stop building towns that look like this? Photo: Newsdesk.org

Leaders of the three groups briefed an audience on Capitol Hill today about the points of unity among them. Obviously, there were many issues they couldn’t come to consensus on, but it’s worth spotlighting the things even these disparate groups agree on. And it’s worth asking: if they’re so non-controversial, why aren’t they happening everywhere?

The seven innovations being highlighted by Transportation for America, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and the Reason Foundation are:

1. Transportation scenario planning – Rather than planning for a future just like the present, metros and states can use a more dynamic planning process, often used by the military but increasingly adopted by policy-makers, which brings together a variety of community stakeholders to envision how the future could look under a variety of possible scenarios. They come up with a “preferred scenario” and set policies and goals oriented toward achieving that scenario.

2. High Occupancy Toll lanes – Sometimes derided as “Lexus lanes,” these lanes are reserved for carpoolers but are also open to those willing to pay for a quicker trip with less congestion. HOT lanes can use dynamic pricing to change the cost of driving on the lanes based on demand to keep congestion on those lanes low enough to guarantee a 45 mile-per-hour speed, according to Shirley Ybarra of the Reason Foundation, Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation from 1998 to 2002.

3. Bus Rapid Transit – Latin America has pioneered a host of innovative ways to make bus service faster, more reliable, and more pleasant. The buses travel in their own designated lane, preferably physically separated from other traffic, to keep from getting stuck in the same traffic jams as everybody else. The stations often are more elaborate platforms, with fares collected at the station, to speed the boarding process. BRT is scalable, allowing cities to test the waters with a modest system and then improving stations, real-time bus tracking, fare collection systems, and lane separations as the system matures.

4. Intelligent Transportation Systems – Everyone seems to agree that E-ZPass (and even boothless “open road tolling”), traffic light optimization, electronic transit fare payments, and real-time transit tracking are improvements cities and states can make right now to get the most out of their existing capacity, potentially staving off the perceived need to expand. Despite the consensus on the utility of these tools, however, states are still slow to implement them, so let this be a tri-partisan push for them to get on it. A 2005 GAO report found that ITS reduced delays by 9 percent where it was implemented.

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Congressional Listening Tour Draws to an End in the Philadelphia Suburbs

Cross-posted with permission from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) wrapped up his nationwide tour of more than a dozen congressional districts Friday in King of Prussia, PA by listening to selected speakers from around the Greater Philadelphia region. Mica was joined by host Congressman Pat Meehan (PA-07) and Bill Shuster (PA-09) on the panel.

Reps. Mica, Meehan and Shuster at the final listening session of the T&I tour. Photo courtesy of Sarah Stuart.

Mica, who started the week in Afghanistan and Europe and the day in Scranton, PA, opened the session by stating that he wants to the next federal transportation bill to make proper choices about building infrastructure and the nation’s economy. He also said that he was done with extensions and was going to start drafting a bill in April. That bill, he said, will add in a rail component and identify where red tape could be cut.

The theme of the session was “how to do more with less.” That phrase was uttered over a dozen times throughout the two hours by members of Congress and the speakers. Mica stated unequivocally that the gas tax was not going to get raised, explaining, “It’s not just my position; it’s just not going to happen in the reality in which I live.” He stated that the goal was to find ways to raise revenue without raising taxes. But, to start, he asked the speakers directly, “What do you want changed?”

P3s, or public-private partnerships, were a hot topic. State Senator John Rafferty (44th District), who chairs the Pennsylvania Senate Transportation Committee, spoke about his legislation to create more of these partnerships to raise revenue for transportation projects. Rafferty said states need more flexibility from the feds to toll. He was quick to say that the state needed $20-60 billion to maintain the existing transportation system but that P3s could help supplement.

Cecile Charlton of the Delaware County Transportation Management Association and Rob Henry of the Greater Valley Forge TMA said they already do more with less and work hard to promote all modes of transportation, especially SEPTA, the region’s transit agency. Given the growth of jobs and housing in the counties, having a strong transit system is critical, and Ms. Charlton urged the committee to include public transit as an important piece of the new bill.

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State Transpo Officials Push to Toll for Maintenance, Not Just Capacity

Last week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told state DOT officials gathered at an AASHTO conference in Washington that he was all in favor of tolling – but only to add new capacity.

Iowa DOT Director Nancy Richardson says her state should be putting all of its funds toward stewardship. Photo: Iowa DOT

“We believe in tolling,” LaHood said. “You can raise a lot of money with tolls. If a state comes to us with good plans for tolling, yes, we’ll be responsive to that… as long as you’re building more capacity. That’s really what we’re going to look at.”

As state transportation officials struggle with state of good repair, they are beginning to chafe at the federal restriction that allows tolling only for new capacity – not maintenance or other needs.

“The argument always is, we shouldn’t toll for reconstruction because we’ve already paid for them once,” said Iowa DOT Director Nancy Richardson in an interview with Streetsblog. “But we’ve paid for them and we’ve used that value. Now it’s time to reinvest.”

She says maintenance, or “stewardship”, is a much higher priority for her state than capacity — to the point where she considers spending all of her funds on stewardship.

We probably have about 75 percent of our money going to that now. But our system has taken such a beating in the last five years because the weather has been so dramatic – both winters and flooding – so we’ve seen accelerated deterioration and costs over the past five or six years, without revenues going up significantly. Our bang for the buck is less. So we have to look, like all states, to see if we have to almost completely shift our funds to maintenance, or stewardship, as we call it, rather than capacity.

Secretary LaHood admitted, when asked, that the Federal Highway Administration had rejected tolls for Pennsylvania’s I-80 because the tolls were going to be used for “other things” besides new capacity.

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