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With No Transport Funding Fix, USDOT to Cut Payments to States Next Month

Click to enlarge. Next month, the Highway Trust Fund -- the funding mechanism for the nation's transportation system -- will become insolvent next month without Congressional action. Chart: FHWA

Click to enlarge. Next month, the Highway Trust Fund — the funding mechanism for the nation’s transportation system — will become insolvent unless Congress acts. Chart: FHWA

State transportation departments could see the federal funding they receive pared back as early as a few weeks from now if Congress doesn’t come up with a transportation funding solution.

A “cash management plan” to deal with the impending shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund — which actually pays for transit, biking, and walking projects in addition to roads — was outlined in a letter from U.S. DOT to state transportation officials yesterday [PDF]. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote that “as we approach insolvency, the Department will be forced to limit payments to manage the reduced levels of cash.”

Federal transportation revenues have been faltering for a long time, primarily because inflation has eaten away at the gas tax, which hasn’t increased in more than 20 years. Congress and the White House have floated many possible solutions of varying merit — a gas tax increase, an excise tax on oil, “business tax reform,” even canceling Saturday mail service. Lacking an agreed-upon revenue source, the Highway Trust Fund has been propped up with general revenues over the last few years. It is unclear whether Congress will extend that stopgap before funding starts to run dry in the next few months.

In his letter, Foxx indicated that if the issue isn’t resolved by August 1, around the time when revenues are expected to dip below current spending levels, U.S. DOT will dole out the available money based on existing funding formulas. In other words, the funding cuts will be shared among all the states, based on population and other factors.

In a speech yesterday in Washington, President Obama urged Congressional action to ward off funding problems, saying inaction would put 700,000 jobs at risk — or about as many people as live in Denver or Boston. He blamed Congressional Republicans for failing to act to resolve the issue.

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Sec. Foxx Braves the Rain for Bike to Work Day

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Photo: Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments

It’s Bike to Work Day, and despite pouring rain, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx came out to the Washington Area Bicyclists Association event in Freedom Plaza, getting soaked in shorts and a baseball cap.

No disrespect to Ray LaHood, who did more for cycling than any Secretary of Transportation ever had, but he never showed up to DC’s venerable Bike to Work Day event along the celebrated Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes. His deputies did, but LaHood himself never made it.

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Photo: MWCOG

While current staff members of both WABA and U.S. DOT speculated that Foxx may have been the first U.S. Transportation Secretary ever to make it to the annual event, former staff recall that Mary Peters attended, and perhaps Rodney Slater and Norman Mineta as well.

But did those other secretaries show up in the rain? Event organizers insisted that Foxx could take a pass today because of the weather (and the associated low turnout) but he was adamant about being there.

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Obama Administration Sends Transportation Bill to Congress

The Obama administration today sent Congress its proposal for a multi-year transportation bill, which it’s calling the GROW AMERICA Act. The bill, based on the budget proposal President Obama released two months ago, relies on corporate tax reform to raise $87 billion to fill the hole in the Highway Trust Fund. The four-year bill would cost $302 billion.

Sec. Anthony Foxx sent a transportation bill to Congress today. Photo: ##http://www.bizjournals.com/charlotte/blog/queen_city_agenda/2013/02/anthony-foxx-jerry-orr-share-a-happy.html?page=all##Nancy Pierce, Charlotte Business Journal##

Sec. Anthony Foxx sent a transportation bill to Congress today. Photo: Nancy Pierce/Charlotte Business Journal

It’s the first time Obama has sent Congress a transportation proposal. He received some criticism for not doing so before the current transportation authorization, MAP-21, passed.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the bill’s submission to Congress in a phone call today with reporters. Foxx recently wrapped up an eight-state bus tour, in which he talked to people about the infrastructure needs where they live.

“Failing to act before the Highway Trust Fund runs out is unacceptable — and unaffordable,” said Foxx. ”This proposal offers the kind of job creation and certainty that the American people want and deserve.”

The bill  includes $206 billion for the highway system and road safety over its four year duration, and transit gets $72 billion. That brings the current 80-20 ration for highways and transit to something closer to 75-25. Rail — a new addition to the transportation bill – gets $19 billion, including nearly $5 billion annually for high-speed rail. The proposal also sets aside $9 billion for discretionary, competitive funding, including $5 billion for the popular TIGER grant project.

Foxx noted that he has been “pleased” that members of Congress have already been working in a bipartisan fashion to craft a bill and that he looks forward to “supporting and building on the good work that’s already been done.”

Reporters on the call were most interested in the increased authority the administration seeks for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in investigating and penalizing automakers who fail to act quickly on vehicle recalls. The administration seeks to increase civil penalty limits nearly tenfold, to $300 million, so that they would be “more than a rounding error” in the company’s bottom lines.

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Sec. Foxx: Bicycle Infrastructure Can Be a “Ladder of Opportunity”

Sec. Foxx told hundreds gathered for the Bike Summit that he won't stand still and allow bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities to increase. Photo: Brian Palmer, via the ##http://www.bikeleague.org/content/sec-foxx-shares-support-bikes##Bike League##

Sec. Foxx told hundreds gathered for the Bike Summit that he won’t stand still and allow bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities to increase. Photo: Brian Palmer, via the Bike League

This morning, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s blog post is all about bicycling. He opens by touting the complete streets policy he helped implement in Charlotte (it passed before he was mayor) and the city’s bike-share system — the largest in the Southeast.

His post follows on his speech yesterday to the National Bike Summit, which began with this frank admission: “I’ve got big shoes to fill.”

Foxx’s predecessor, Ray LaHood, became the darling of the bike movement when he stood on a table at the 2010 Summit and affirmed his commitment to safe cycling, later declaring “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

Foxx’s speech was less fiery but showed his commitment to the issue. He mentioned that he himself had been the victim of a crash while jogging in Charlotte, and while he wasn’t hurt, he’s aware how lucky he was that it didn’t turn out differently.

“All across our country, every day, there are accidents and injuries — and unfortunately sometimes even fatalities — that occur among the bicycle and pedestrian communities,” Foxx told the Summit audience. “I didn’t tolerate it as a mayor. And as U.S. secretary of transportation we certainly won’t stand still and allow this crisis to slowly build up over time.”

“Our roads should be safe,” he went on. “They should be easy places to travel no matter how we are traveling on them.”

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Live-Blogging Obama’s Transportation Announcement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Secretary Foxx Pledges to Make Bike/Ped Safety a Priority

Pedestrian crash statistics aren’t just numbers to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. He himself was the victim of one of those crashes once, while out jogging. “I got lucky,” he told a packed room at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board today. “But there are lots of people out there that aren’t so lucky.”

Sec. Anthony Foxx announced his transportation priorities today, including an increased focus on safety for modes that historically get ignored. Photo by Nancy Pierce, ##http://www.bizjournals.com/charlotte/blog/queen_city_agenda/2013/02/anthony-foxx-jerry-orr-share-a-happy.html?s=image_gallery##Charlotte Business Journal##

Sec. Anthony Foxx announced his transportation priorities today, including an increased focus on safety for modes that historically get ignored. Photo by Nancy Pierce, Charlotte Business Journal

He said he saw an uptick in the number of pedestrians and bicyclists injured on the roads while he was mayor of Charlotte — and that these numbers are trending upward not just in that city, but around the country. “So over my tenure as secretary of transportation you can expect me to focus some attention on pedestrian and bicycle safety,” he said.

TRB is a major event that draws several thousand transportation professionals and academics from around the world.

Foxx said that after a recent airplane trip, his 9-year-old daughter brought him her list of transportation priorities (including bigger airplane bathrooms and no ear popping) and he figured if his daughter had already announced her transportation priorities, maybe he should do the same.

One of those priorities is to “look out for modes that traditionally don’t get much attention” like bicycling and walking.

The secretary highlighted equity not just among modes, but among people of different incomes. He said transportation should connect everyone, no matter where they live, to the 21st century economy:

I happen to know what happens when that doesn’t happen. Growing up in my hometown of Charlotte, I saw the indent of a highway loop that separated one part of the city from its central business district, and another highway project that divided a neighborhood in half, creating more stress on already stressed communities.

Foxx also highlighted the power of transportation to shape our communities. “I don’t think transportation should just help us get places better,” he said. “It should help us make places better — and help improve the quality of life of people all across our country.”

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Foxx: “We’ve Got to Look at Transportation in a Multimodal Fashion”

Tomorrow marks the end of Anthony Foxx’s first month as the U.S. secretary of transportation. Today he met with reporters who have been eager for an on-the-record meeting with him.

Sec. Anthony Foxx told reporters that not all important transportation projects turn a profit. Photo by Nancy Pierce, Charlotte Business Journal

Though Foxx has been confident and specific in answering questions by members of Congress, he was more reserved with the press gaggle. He repeated some comfortable administration talking points, even at one point making reference to “places like Peoria” — his predecessor’s hometown.

He signaled that he would continue Ray LaHood’s legacy of running a well-rounded department, not just a highway department in disguise. “From where I sit, we’ve got to look at our transportation network in a multimodal fashion,” he said. “We may be in a situation where the most important priority in your part of the country is keeping Amtrak service or a transit system, and in another part of the country it may be highway investment. I think the either/or language around transportation isn’t always helpful. We need a both/and strategy for how we deal with it that is tailored to the communities that we’re serving.”

Foxx’s meeting with the press came two days after President Obama offered a “grand bargain” to trade infrastructure spending (a Democratic priority) for a corporate tax cut (a bone to Republicans). One reporter asked if this was the “big, bold vision” LaHood had intimated we would be seeing from the president. “I would classify what the president rolled out this week as pretty bold,” Foxx said, “because it points out a pathway to aggressively dealing with state of good repair in this country across a lot of modes, including transit, including — potentially — highways.”

The effect of federal dithering over funding isn’t lost on Foxx, but the administration just isn’t ready to make any concrete proposals. While he said sequestration was a “blunt instrument” that has dealt a “tough blow” to the transportation sector, he didn’t offer a revenue solution that would allow more spending without deficit spending.

He did say that he didn’t favor the approach some conservatives take of eliminating federal support for everything but highways and aviation. “That would leave an awful lot on the cutting room floor,” he said, “and impact our ability to create jobs and opportunities long term in a variety of spaces, not to mention limiting our ability to keep the traveling public safe.”

But will the administration put forward a concrete proposal — besides spending supposed war savings — to fund transportation? “The administration has put proposals out,” Foxx said. He repeatedly dodged the question of whether he would support a long-overdue hike to the gas tax or any other specific proposal.

As we mentioned last week, no one wants to go first in proposing a gas tax increase or a VMT fee, and so we hear many echoes of Foxx’s assertion that whatever solution eventually arises “is going to be the product of a dialogue –  it’s not going to be a monologue.” That dialogue is going to need to start with some brave soul throwing out a proposal, and it appears that Anthony Foxx has no desire to be that brave soul.

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At First Hearing, Foxx Defends Projects That Advance the “Public Good”

Should the nation’s largest infrastructure loan program finance projects that make the transportation system more productive and efficient? Hell no, says Senator David Vitter, ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Hundreds of millions of dollars should be available to any old project that comes along, as long as it has a good shot at repaying the loan.

It doesn’t make any sense, but MAP-21 changed the federal TIFIA loan program to award loans on a first-come, first-served basis. Credit-worthiness is the only remaining criterion. And at the same time that it removed all selection criteria, Congress increased funding for TIFIA nearly ten-fold — a lot more money to throw at useless projects at a time when very few government programs are being expanded.

If you think it’s hard to stand up and defend the use of a billion dollars a year in taxpayer money on projects that may or may not have any public benefit — think again. In an EPW hearing yesterday on U.S. DOT’s implementation of MAP-21’s TIFIA changes, Sen. David Vitter made it very clear that the quality of a given project must not have any bearing on whether that project is funded. In fact, he made it clear that a condition of expanding TIFIA was that the criteria be “simplified” in order to “get the program back to its original intent.”

Some of us are a little concerned that in the DOT application, however, there is a new term in there: “public benefit,” asking for a description of “public benefit.” Why is that inserted in there? Because it’s not what we wanted to get back to: eligibility, either you’re in the box or not, either you’re eligible or not — and credit worthiness. The concern is that something like public benefit obviously is completely subjective and would re-insert tremendous administration discretion, which quite frankly we didn’t want to do.

Anthony Foxx, the brand-new transportation secretary appearing in his very first Congressional hearing, said that to his knowledge, no applicant had been turned away because of concerns about public benefits. “In other words,” he said, ”every project that’s come through the doors, our staff is trying to work to get to ‘yes’ on those projects.”

But a few minutes later, Foxx made his way back to that issue, subtly standing up for the role the Transportation Department can play in actually making sure money is used well and projects actually serve a purpose. In a conversation with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) about private investment, he lauded the Chicago infrastructure bank for selecting projects “that will provide the best return – but also the best public benefit.”

“And I think we should continue working towards that,” he said.

Foxx also noted that many transportation projects are worthwhile, even when they can’t attract private sector financing. “While some projects are great candidates for public-private partnerships, there are some projects that are simply part of the public good — and will never qualify for a public-private partnership — but aren’t unimportant because of that,” he said.

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Anthony Foxx Takes Office As U.S. Transportation Secretary

Photo courtesy of U.S. DOT

Anthony Foxx, who resigned yesterday as mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, was sworn in today at 11 a.m. as the new U.S. secretary of transportation. The Department of Transportation sent the following information in a press release after the ceremony:

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx was sworn in as the nation’s 17th Secretary of Transportation by Judge Nathaniel Jones in a private ceremony at U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters at 11 a.m. today.  The ceremony was attended by Foxx’s wife, Samara, and their two children, Hillary and Zachary, and used a Bible belonging to Secretary Foxx’s great-grandparents, Peter and Ida Kelly.  Secretary Foxx worked for Judge Jones as a law clerk for the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals after law school and invited Judge Jones to administer the oath of office today.

Secretary Foxx is spending his first full day meeting employees and holding meetings on important issues facing the Department, including transportation safety and hurricane and severe weather preparedness. Foxx was confirmed by the full U.S. Senate in a unanimous vote of 100-0 on June 27.

In a written message to all employees, Secretary Foxx underscored his commitment to safety:

“Safety will remain our top priority at DOT.  At the same time, I will work to improve the efficiency and performance of our current transportation system while building the infrastructure we need for future generations,” said Secretary Foxx.  “In doing so, I look forward to bringing my ‘on the ground’ experiences as a mayor, while embracing the tremendous knowledge, skill and ingenuity of the DOT workforce and our many stakeholders.”

As Secretary of Transportation, Foxx leads an agency with more than 55,000 employees and a $70 billion budget that oversees air, maritime, and surface transportation.

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Foxx’s Responses on Bike Questions: Vaguely Promising, But Mostly Vague

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx was unanimously confirmed yesterday by the full Senate to become the new chief of U.S. DOT. He’ll be sworn in soon, probably next week.

We know you ride, Anthony Foxx -- but what will you do as secretary to make riding safer and more enjoyable for everyone? Photo: Charlotte Observer via Bike Portland

At Foxx’s confirmation hearing, many senators submitted questions for the record – abbreviated to QFRs in Congressional parlance – and received answers before they had to vote on Foxx’s nomination. Those answers still aren’t public and won’t be until the official record from the hearing is published, which staffers say could take as long as six months. But Sen. Brian Schatz has released the answers to the questions he asked [PDF], and it just so happens he asked about bicycling and transit.

“The good news,” writes Caron Whitaker of the Bike League, is this: “His answers were positive. The bad news: The answers are so vague — especially the one on performance measures — it tells me we have a lot of work to do…”

Will Foxx follow through on LaHood’s pledge to update roadway design guidelines to better protect pedestrians and cyclists? Foxx commits to nothing more than “facilitating stakeholder discussions in this area.” He does say he understands “the importance of meeting the increasing needs of bicyclists and pedestrians and ensuring their safety,” and he touts the progress he helped make in improving Charlotte’s bicycle network, establishing a bike-share system, and making pedestrian improvements, including connections to transit.

He also notes he supported a complete streets initiative. Great, so how would a Secretary Foxx see complete streets principles influencing federal policy? Oh, you know, “each community has a unique context.” No mention of a federal complete streets policy, like the one recently introduced in the House.

And in response to Sen. Schatz’s impressively sophisticated question on creating a separate set of performance measures for non-motorized transportation, without reducing the prevalence of biking and walking, comes this less impressive answer: He would “consider this and all comments received” on the matter. That’s a cold blowoff. He added that “bicycling and walking are an increasingly important part of our transportation network, and offering the public safe transportation choices would remain a priority at the Department if I am confirmed as Secretary.”

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