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Posts from the Transportation Policy Category

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What Would It Take to Eliminate Carbon Emissions From U.S. Transportation?

The U.S. is behind other developed nations in moving toward energy efficient transportation. Graph: U.S. PIRG

America’s transportation system obscenely more carbon-intensive than global leaders in Asia and Europe. Graph: U.S. PIRG

To do its part to avert catastrophic climate change, the United States would have to more or less eliminate carbon emissions from transportation in the next 35 years. But America is nowhere near on pace to make that happen.

Transportation recently overtook the electric power sector to become the nation’s largest source of carbon emissions. That’s what you would expect out of a transportation policy framework that prioritizes cars, highways, and sprawl — and hasn’t changed very much in 60 years, despite some recent tinkering around the margins.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Frontier Group are out with a new report [PDF] outlining 50 steps to eliminate carbon pollution from the American transportation sector by incentivizing low-carbon modes of travel, more efficient development patterns, and cleaner vehicles. Here are three of the most important steps.

First step — get a grip on the damage being done

America is basically flying blind when it comes to charting a greener course for transportation emissions — we have no idea how all the money spent on transportation infrastructure affects the climate. Only in a handful of states do transportation agencies even consider how their very expensive highway projects lead to more greenhouse gas emissions.

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The Highway Era Is Over. When Will Our Institutions Catch Up?

The highway era is over. The construction of the Interstate Highway System is essentially complete.

How much has changed at American transportation agencies since the 1960s? Photo: Youtube

How much has changed at American transportation agencies since the 1960s? Image via YouTube

Americans will continue to log lots of miles on highways, but for the most part, the job of building them is over. We’ve already connected the places worth connecting by highways.

The problem is that transportation agencies — especially state DOTs — haven’t caught up. In their training, organizational structure, and policies, most state DOTs are still oriented around building highway capacity in a neverending quest to eliminate car congestion. Times have changed, but they have no grand new purpose.

In a recent editorial at NextCity, the Brookings Institution’s Adie Tomer and Jeffrey Gutman argue that our institutions need a new framework to meet modern challenges:

For all the flaws under the post-World War II approach, reducing congestion was a clear governing principle. Now cities and regions need to go back to the drawing board and formalize new objectives. Is it designing denser communities that support shorter distances between places? Is it to improve the amount of regional jobs people can reach in a given timeframe? Is it removing the physical barriers that separate communities? Whatever the objectives might be, each community must define accessibility on its own terms.

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Rising to the Political Challenge of a Carbon-Free Transportation System

Cross-posted from the Frontier Group

If we are to eliminate transportation’s contribution to climate change by mid-century, we will likely need to do some things in the coming years that currently seem politically impossible.

Our upcoming report, A New Way Forward, lays out some of the options: cities might embrace a new vision for urban growth that enables millions more people of all income levels to live low-carbon lifestyles; regions might unite to ensure that an emerging system of shared, autonomous and connected cars is sustainable and beneficial for the public; the public and decision-makers might finally overcome the political dominance of the fossil fuel industry in order to transition all of our motorized vehicles to run on clean, renewable fuels.

All of these are tall orders. None of them are truly impossible.

Yet none of them can realistically be achieved through incremental public policy “fixes” of the type that tend to dominate our current public policy debates. All will require a more profound level of change – a reordering of long-standing political, economic and social relationships and attitudes. They will require transformation.

If we accept that transformation is necessary to decarbonize our transportation system in time to prevent the worst impacts of global warming (and for the sake of the rest of this blog post, at least, we will), then it becomes imperative for us to understand how transformation occurs and the role public policy can play in making it happen.

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A Transportation To-Do List for the Next President

How can the next president improve American transportation policy?

tcf_reportWithout wading into the spectacle that is the election, Beth Osborne, a former top official at U.S. DOT who’s now a vice president at Transportation for America, lays out a presidential agenda for transportation reform at The Century Foundation.

National transportation policy hasn’t fundamentally changed since Eisenhower, and Osborne says the next president should take a fresh approach. Here are the priorities she lays out:

1. Fix It First

Too many state DOTs are splurging on fancy new highway flyovers while their roads and bridges crumble. Osborne says the next president should demand they “fix it first.” The federal government should continue sending most federal transportation funds to states, but those funds should be restricted to maintenance.

The current system enables extravagant waste. Texas, for instance, recently borrowed $840 million in federally-backed TIFIA loans to build the $5.2 billion Grand Parkway — a third outerbelt for Houston. Meanwhile, the state is allowing 83 miles of rural road to return to gravel because it doesn’t have enough money to maintain them.

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Obama’s Last Budget Lays Out a Smart Vision for American Transportation

The White House released its 2017 budget [PDF] this morning, which includes more detail about the exciting but politically doomed transportation proposal President Obama outlined last week. Obama’s plan doesn’t have a chance in the current Congress, but it shows what national transportation policy centered on reducing greenhouse gas emissions might look like.

Obama had an awesome transportation budget in him all along. Photo: Iowapolitics.com via Flickr

If only candidate Obama had campaigned on this transportation plan in 2008. Photo: Iowapolitics.com/Flickr

Last week’s release sketched out a $10 per barrel tax on oil to fund a $30 billion increase in annual transportation spending. The budget gives us a closer look at what that $30 billion would fund.

In total, $20 billion of it would go toward programs to reduce GHG emissions and give people better options to get around without driving. Here are the details — keep in mind that with the GOP firmly in control of Congress, this is more of an aspirational document than a politically feasible spending plan.

Transit

The budget calls for an $8 billion increase in annual capital funds for transit, bringing the total to about $20 billion. Of that, about $16 billion would be divvied up to metro regions by formula to support maintenance and expansion projects, about 60 percent. Another $3.5 billion would boost competitive grant programs for expansion projects. The budget recommends funding in FY 2017 for Los Angeles’s Westside Subway, Southwest Light Rail in Minneapolis, Albuquerque Bus Rapid Transit, and Honolulu commuter rail, among other projects.

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The Best and Worst of the New 5-Year Transportation Bill

The trucking industry was a big winner in the transportation bill negotiations. Photo: Wikipedia

The trucking industry was a big winner in the transportation bill negotiations. Photo: Wikipedia

Smart people are wading through the 1,300-page transportation bill that came out of conference committee earlier this week, and we’re starting to get a clearer sense of how it will change federal transportation policy for the next five years.

The House voted to pass the bill by an overwhelming margin just moments ago, and President Obama has already pledged to sign it, so it’s as good as law at this point.

This bill is not a major shift for federal transportation policy. It’s mostly an extension of the status quo funded by some accounting gimmicks. But national advocates for sustainable transportation and safer streets were able to notch a few wins in an adversarial political climate.

In his round-up for Transportation for America, Stephen Lee Davis lists some of the rays of hope:

More support for smart transit-oriented development projects
Due in part to the hard work of T4America, Smart Growth America and LOCUS over the last year, transit-oriented development projects will be eligible for the low-interest TIFIA and RRIF federal financing programs. The small pilot program of TOD planning grants was also preserved; grants that help communities make the best use of land around transit lines and stops, efficiently locate jobs and affordable housing near new transit stations, and boost ridership.

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Just How Bad Is the Final House Transportation Bill?

Nobody was expecting the GOP-controlled House of Representatives to put together a transportation bill that did much for streets and transit in American cities.

Congress passed a 6-year transportation bill this morning. Yay? Image: Transportation Dems

The House passed a six-year transportation bill this morning. Yay? Image: Transportation Dems

And they were right — there’s nothing to get excited about in the bill. But neither is it the total disaster for walking, biking, and transit it could have been. So how does the House bill stack up against the current law? It’s looking a little worse.

Amendments to the bill were heard earlier this week, and the final bill was passed just hours ago. Some last-minute changes made it in, but in general not the ones that would help modernize the nation’s transportation policy and reduce our dependence on driving.

The final House bill includes a $40 billion funding patch to cover the gas tax shortfall, which means it now has funding for six years instead of three. But the new money is very gimmicky. At the last minute, Texas Re­pub­lic­an Randy Neuge­bauer introduced an amendment to raid the Federal Reserve’s Capital Surplus Account, and it was approved overwhelmingly.

Prior to that, House leaders had not indicated (or figured out) how they intended to pay for the bill. Yesterday, they refused to even hear an amendment from Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer to raise the gas tax.

Neugebauer’s amendment allowed lawmakers to pass the long-term bill industry and government agencies have been begging for without doing the responsible (and politically courageous) thing and finding a revenue source that doesn’t amount to a desperate one-shot.

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Q&A: How Advocates, Pols, and Agencies Should Team Up to Change Cities

TransitCenter R&D Director Shin-pei Tsay, right, speaks in Portland Thursday.

pfb logo 100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

When deep economic forces rumble through a country, all its cities change a little. But some of its cities change a lot.

What makes a city capable of changing a lot?

That’s the question being tackled this year by Shin-pei Tsay, director of research and development for TransitCenter. Her New York City-based nonprofit was commissioned by the Knight Foundation to take a close look at the recent history of 30 U.S. cities and find the patterns that have led to rapid innovations in urban streets, like dedicated bus lanes, protected bike lanes, and pedestrian plazas.

Tsay gathered her research into an 80-page report released last month called A People’s History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovation that looks closely at six cities: Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, New York, Pittsburgh, and Portland. We caught up with her on her speaking tour this month for an interview about how to line up the three constituencies that drive urban change: civic activists, politicians, and bureaucrats.

How and why did this report come together?

In the 2000s, a lot of people were really worried about the next federal transportation bill. But at the same time there was a lot of change happening in cities across the country. Small changes are happening in places like Memphis or Nashville or Akron. We were commissioned by the Knight Foundation to look at this question: How did these innovations happen?

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Boxer and Inhofe Say Transportation Bill Almost Ready, Funding Still TBD

Two leading Washington lawmakers assured reporters Wednesday that a long-term transportation bill is coming, but provided little in the way of details.

Senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, respectively, held a press conference Wednesday featuring a line-up of construction and labor leaders demanding “action on transportation.” The event is shown in the above video in its entirety.

Inhofe told reporters a draft six-year bill is almost ready. Just six weeks remain before the current extension of MAP-21 expires, and the Highway Trust Fund is set to run out of money in July — potentially threatening the construction season.

A critical hurdle for lawmakers is settling on a funding source to replace the declining gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993. Just yesterday a bipartisan group from the House asked Congress to raise it.

But little was said about funding at the press conference. Boxer said while she is supportive, there isn’t much appetite for an increase in taxes on gasoline or crude oil. “I will do almost anything to fill that trust fund,” she said.

Boxer said she would be “dropping a bill” with Rand Paul to generate revenues by “repatriating” overseas profits on U.S. corporations hiding out overseas to avoid taxes.

“I’m hopeful that this type of reform can bring us together and unite us,” she said. The Hill reports lawmakers are divided on whether to make that 5 percent tax on corporate profits overseas voluntary or mandatory. Paul and Boxer say the repatriation tax bill could bring $2 trillion in revenue.

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The Indiana Toll Road and the Dark Side of Privately Financed Highways

This is the first post in a three-part series on the Indiana Toll Road and the use of private finance to build and maintain highways. Part two takes a closer look at how Australian firm Macquarie manages its infrastructure assets. Part three examines the incentives for consultants to exaggerate traffic projections, making terrible boondoggles look like financial winners.

Who owns the Indiana Toll Road? Well, as of the bankruptcy filing in September, Macquarie Atlas Roads Limited (MQA Australia), which is joined at the hip to Macquarie Atlas Roads International Limited (MQA Bermuda) on the Australian stock exchange, has a 25 percent stake. Macquarie’s investment bank arm brokers the various transactions related to ownership of the road, collecting fees on each one. Welcome to the world of privately financed infrastructure. Graphic: Macquarie prospectus

In September, the operator of the Indiana Toll Road filed for bankruptcy, eight years after inking a $3.8 billion, 75-year concession for the road with the administration of Governor Mitch Daniels.

The implications of the bankruptcy for the financial industry were large enough that ratings agency Standard & Poor’s stepped in immediately to calm nerves. In a press release, the company attempted to distinguish the Indiana venture from similar projects, known as public-private partnerships, or P3s: “We do not believe this bankruptcy will slow the growth of current-generation transportation P3 projects, which have different risk characteristics.”

But the similarities between the Indiana Toll Road and other P3s involving private finance can’t be ignored. And as we’ll see, even the differences aren’t all good news for the American public. Once hailed as the model for a new age of U.S. infrastructure, today the Indiana deal looks more like a canary in a coal mine.

At a time when government and Wall Street are raring to team up on privately financed infrastructure, a look at the Indiana Toll Road reveals several of the red flags to beware in all such deals: an opaque agreement based on proprietary information the public cannot access; a profit-making strategy by the private financier that relies on securitization and fees, divorced from the actual infrastructure product or service; and faulty assumptions underpinning the initial investment, which can incur huge public expense down the line. Though made in the name of innovation and efficiency, private finance deals are often more expensive than conventional bonding, threatening to suck money from taxpayers while propping up infrastructure projects that should never get built.

For the parties who put these deals together, however, the marriage of private finance and public roads is incredibly convenient. Investors are increasingly impatient with record-low returns on conventional bonds, and are turning to infrastructure as an asset class that promises stable, inflation-protected returns over the long run.

Meanwhile, governments are eager to fix decaying infrastructure — but without raising taxes or increasing their capacity to borrow. On the occasion of yet another meeting intended to drum up investor interest, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently wrote on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s blog: “With public investments in our nation’s important transportation assets steadily declining, we need to find better ways to partner with private investors to help rebuild America.”

Those investors are lining up to get in the infrastructure game. According to the Congressional Budget Office, about 40 percent of new urban highways in America were built using the private finance model between 1996 and 2006. Since 2008, that figure has jumped to almost 70 percent.

In an attempt to get even more deals done, the current federal transportation bill ramped up funding for the TIFIA program — which offers subsidized federal loans and other credit assistance, often to projects that also receive private backing — by a factor of eight.

Major private investors have stepped up their lobbying efforts to close more of these lucrative deals. Meridiam North America recently hired Ray LaHood, Foxx’s predecessor as Transportation Secretary, and Macquarie Group — which orchestrated the Indiana fiasco — hired away a White House deputy assistant to “continue strengthening our relationships with key elected officials… while also exploring new investment opportunities.”

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