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Bi-partisan Senate Bill Would Give Locals More Say Over Transpo Spending

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Improving local access to transportation funds would help build project’s like the multi-modal Atlanta BeltLine. Rendering: Atlanta BeltLine

When it comes to transportation funding, cities and towns occupy the bottom of the totem pole. The vast majority of federal transportation money goes to states, to the exclusion of local governments. That means state DOTs get tens of billions to spend on highways each year, while mayors and local agencies have to scrounge for money to improve transit, build sidewalks, or add bike lanes.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate Thursday could give local governments greater access to federal funding. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced the Innovation in Surface Transportation Act — Senate Bill 2819 [PDF] — which would set aside some federal transportation money for states to redistribute to cities and towns on a competitive basis.

Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker says municipalities around his state want access to federal transportation funds. Photo: Senator Wicker

Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker says municipalities around his state want access to federal transportation funds. Photo: Senator Wicker

The legislation would devote 10 percent of federal surface transportation funding — or about $5 billion per year — to local-level projects. The funds would be split up between the states, and in each state a panel would distribute the money on a competitive basis to local governments, transit agencies, and regional planning agencies.

Senator Wicker said the bill is supported by localities across Mississippi as well as the Mississippi Municipal League.

“Local officials in Mississippi are on the front lines of America’s transportation challenges but often lack the resources to pay for critical improvements,” he said in a statement. “This measure would enable these local leaders to have a larger role in deciding which projects merit consideration. In doing so, leaders could implement the most targeted and cost-effective solutions to meet unique and urgent infrastructure needs.”

Three other senators — Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania), and Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi) — have also signed on as sponsors. The Senate bill has a companion in the House – HR 4726, which has been held up in committee.

David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, a leading supporter of the measure, said he doesn’t expect the bill to be passed into law before the holiday recess. But support for the bill today, he said, could help shape the next transportation bill.

Transportation for America is asking supporters to email their senators and urge them to support the measure.

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Transformation for America: T4 Reemerges With Focus on Local Control

John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, helped unveil the new Transportation for America. Photo by Stephen Lee Davis.

John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, helped unveil the new Transportation for America yesterday. Photo courtesy of T4.

Transportation for America has been in hiding. Perhaps you’ve noticed.

The coalition of over 500 organizations that came together to advocate for policy reform and adequate funding in the transportation reauthorization seemed to disappear for a little while after the dust settled on MAP-21. T4America, often called simply T4, provided analysis of the bill and helped reformers figure out how to make the most of it. And then T4 kind of went away.

The coalition was technically a campaign of Smart Growth America, and once the bill it was organizing around had passed — and was a pretty big disappointment — the group worked long and hard to figure out its next move.

Yesterday, Transportation for America announced that it had figured it out.

During the four-hour re-launch event T4 hosted in Union Station’s Columbus Room yesterday, there wasn’t much talk about organizational restructuring. Instead, panel after panel of mayors, MPO executives and other local officials talked about the challenges they faced and the solutions they’ve discovered as they sought to build stronger, more sustainable urban places. (More on that in a separate post.) But if you listened closely, you would learn all you needed to know about T4’s new direction.

“Some of the best decision-making and most courageous leadership is occurring at the local level,” said John Robert Smith, former Republican mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, and co-chair of Transportation for America. “That’s why we believe that more of the decision-making — and authority and accountability — should rest at local leadership.”

In the last go-round, Transportation for America tried to frame itself as a middle-of-the-road, agenda-free big tent, a broad coalition of disparate organizations asking for common-sense solutions for the nation’s transportation — and fiscal — problems. But somehow, it didn’t work that way. On the Hill, they were still seen as liberals trying to get everyone out of their cars.

They realized that their message resonated a lot more, and they made more inroads, when they brought local leaders to talk with their members of Congress.

Read more…

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T4A Calls for Action Against Dreadful House Transpo Budget

Transportation for America is gearing up for a fight over transit, rail, and TIGER funding, and they’re asking supporters of smart transportation investments to make their voices heard.

The new budget put forth by the House of Representatives would zero out funds for TIGER, strip $400 million from Amtrak and raid $500 million from a fund for, of all things, repairing bridges.

The House and Senate have proposed two very different funding plans for transportation. Image: Transportation for America

But cooler heads and clearer vision prevailed at the Senate, where appropriators put forward a budget that would expand funding for transit and TIGER. The Senate proposal would also help Amtrak keep up with growing demand.

Projects like the Atlanta streetcar and Chicago’s Blue Line rehab were made possible with the help of TIGER, an innovative, merit-based transportation funding program for which demand has been overwhelming. Eliminating TIGER would close off a vital mechanism to fund cost-effective projects that curb traffic, improve safety, and reduce car dependence.

Transportation for America calls the House budget “unabashedly bad” and has issued an action alert asking supporters to contact their Senators to support a budget that invests more in sensible transportation options.

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T4A: One in Nine American Bridges Structurally Deficient

There’s a new report out on the state of America’s bridges, and with it a new raft of disturbing statistics. Nearly one in nine, or 11 percent, are structurally deficient — meaning a bridge inspector has rated a major component of the structure to be in poor condition. The average age of a bridge in the United States is 43 years; the average design life, 50 years.

Despite the poor structural condition of America's bridges, states continue to spend on road expansion while neglecting maintenance. Image: Transportation for America

While state DOTs and other transportation agencies have been spending the bulk of their money expanding highways and promoting sprawl, there are 66,405 structurally deficient bridges in the United States. As Transportation for America points out in “The Fix We’re In For,” if you were to string together these aging bridges, they would stretch from Washington, DC, to Denver. A smaller number of these bridges are also “fracture-critical” — in danger of collapse if a major structural element fails.

James Corless, director of Transportation for America, said in a conference call today there is a backlog of bridge repair coming due and federal policy isn’t addressing the problem. MAP-21, the current transportation bill, eliminated dedicated funding for bridge repair, making it more tempting for states to spend on road expansion instead of maintenance. The largest federal pot of money available for repairs — the National Highway Performance Program — is open only to the highest class of highways, which encompasses only 10 percent of bridges.

The problem isn’t going away. While the proportion of structurally deficient bridges has decreased slightly since T4A’s last bridge report in 2011 (from 11.5 percent to 11 percent, thanks in part to the stimulus bill), the pace of repair is slowing. In 10 years’ time, nearly one in four bridges will be 65 years old, the average age of a structurally deficient bridge.

Lynn Peterson, secretary of the Washington Department of Transportation, commented on the findings during a T4A conference call today. She said even though her state rates well overall on bridge maintenance (Washington is the sixth-best in the country with less than 5 percent of its bridges rated structurally deficient), the collapse of the I-5 bridge of the Skagit River last month has refocused her agency on repair. A temporary replacement bridge opened today, less than four weeks after the collapse, which was caused by a truck collision. The bridge was not structurally deficient, but newer bridges are required to have built-in redundancy intended to prevent such a collapse.

“It’s always cheaper to do the maintenance of our bridges up front, rather than having to deal with an emergency such as this,” said Peterson.

In order to get a handle on the problem, T4A recommends prioritizing repair projects over expansions and removing funding restrictions on bridge repair.

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Seven Jiu-Jitsu Moves for Advocates to Use MAP-21 to Their Own Advantage

OK, truth: Raise your hand if you find federal transportation legislation intimidating and incomprehensible.

T4America's new document will help communities improve mobility and keep everyone safer. Photo: T4America

I thought so. Me too.

The problem, as you know, is that it’s enormously important that advocates not only understand the new transportation law, MAP-21, but that they understand it in granular detail so they can find the small opportunities buried in a depressingly large mass of disappointment.

So a big thank-you goes out to the folks at Transportation for America, who just released exactly the resource advocates need: a guide to the law called “Making the Most of MAP-21.”

In addition to providing a basic outline of the law and its relevant provisions (and omissions), the document contains some excellent how-to’s and talking points for advocates and project sponsors trying to squeeze funding for sustainable transportation projects out of programs biased heavily toward auto-oriented infrastructure.

Here are a few of the excellent ideas that stand out:

Ask states to flex highway funds for bridge repair. One major hidden peril of MAP-21 is that it transferred the responsibility of repairing 460,000 bridges that aren’t on the National Highway System (NHS) to the overburdened Surface Transportation Program (STP), without adding any money for it. In fact, STP has $5 billion of new responsibilities under MAP-21 and only $1 billion of new money.

Source: T4America

Luckily, there’s a solution: States can flex up to half of their National Highway Performance Program (NHPP) funds, normally earmarked for NHS projects, to other uses. After all, NHS gets a disproportionate share of funding: “Although the NHS represents only five percent of all American roads, fully 58 percent of the highway program is committed to its upkeep,” the report says.

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Everything You Wanted to Know About Transit Funds (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Transit agencies can have a hard time finding the money to expand rail lines and busways. While federal grants for road projects require a 20 percent local match, transit projects need to get 50 percent or more from local funding sources. The byzantine federal funding bureaucracy creates high hurdles, especially for smaller agencies without on-staff expertise in applying for and managing these grants. Loans and private sources of funds are also difficult, since they need to be paid back, and transit tends not to make back its capital outlays from the farebox.

How Tucson funded its streetcar. Source: T4America

Enter Transportation for America’s new how-to guide, Thinking Outside the Farebox [PDF]. It breaks down the many options, delving into the pros and cons of a wide variety of funding and financing mechanisms. It explains why general obligation bonds are cheaper but riskier than revenue bonds, and why GARVEE bonds might be worth it, even though they’re essentially paid for with future formula funding. It points out that one big benefit of federal TIFIA loans is that you don’t have to start paying them back until five years after project completion, so you have a chance to get revenue coming in. And it notes that ballot initiatives to fund public transportation have a 70 percent approval rate over the past decade, but other taxes like those on special assessment districts can be controversial and hard to get passed.

Several success stories show how expansions can be funded — but prove that it’s never easy. Tucson’s half-cent sales tax funds 35 new road projects, but also a modern streetcar connecting downtown with the university. Cleveland’s bus rapid transit line got federal New Starts money and competitive state funds. Los Angeles’ famous 30/10 financing plan for its major transit expansiona used an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, combining TIFIA loans, sales taxes, bonds, formula funds — you name it.

T4America recommends that agencies plan for operations as they figure out financing, since a shiny new rail line won’t do you much good without funds to keep it running. The report authors are also fans of scenario planning, a way to tease out potential benefits and drawbacks of various plans before implementing them, to save time and money. And they make the connection between system expansions and transit-oriented development, a great way to maximize transit investments and open up potential funding opportunities as the surrounding real estate gains in value.

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GOP’s “Bridge Repair, Not Bike Lanes” Mantra Was Just a Lot of Hot Air

Last fall, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) proposed diverting all transportation enhancements funding, which goes primarily to bike and pedestrian projects, to bridge repair. “With nearly 25 percent of our nation’s bridges deemed either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, we need to make their reconstruction a priority over errant beautification projects,” Sen. Paul said.

A quarter of U.S. bridges may be deficient, but focusing on just the most dangerous will have the most impact. Image: ##http://www.partnershipborderstudy.com/bol_old/Section%201/section1.asp##Partnership Border Study##

Republicans insisted they were all about bridge repair and couldn't spare a dime for biking and walking, but it turns out they didn't set aside anything for bridge repair either. Image: Partnership Border Study

He also said that the money spent on “movie theaters, squirrel sanctuaries, turtle tunnels and flower beds” could otherwise boost the Highway Bridge Program by $700 million.

Forget for a moment that that’s the world’s most preposterous definition of TE ever. Let’s take at face value the idea that keeping the nation’s bridges in a state of good repair is an important safety issue. Who could disagree with that?

In the MAP-21 transportation bill that the president will sign in just a couple of hours, the Republicans did manage to gut transporation enhancement spending. But did they divert that money over to bridge repair? Far from it. In fact, they gutted bridge repair spending too!

The bill consolidates two-thirds of highway programs out of existence, including the Highway Bridge Program for the rehabiliation or replacement of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges.

Joshua Schank of the Eno Transportation Center says it’s not such a bad thing. “Program consolidation, which if anything didn’t go far enough, will result in more focus on where the money is going and therefore likely cause more funds to be dedicated to existing infrastructure,” he said in an email. “The old bridge program encouraged repair, but without regard to need or prioritization. By contrast, the new National Highway Performance Program focuses more on outcomes, such as pavement conditions, that are consistent with state of good repair and will help prioritize decision-making.”

Indeed, one of the few performance measures in the bill that really has teeth is the one for bridge repair, which requires states with inferior infrastructure conditions to spend more. However, not everyone is convinced that this will do the trick.

“The way they crafted it, yes, [states] could spend a lot on repair,” said James Corless, director of Transportation for America. “They could have spent a lot on repair under SAFETEA-LU.” But they didn’t.

Read more…

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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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Making Lawmakers Answer For Pedestrian Deaths In Their Districts

Rep. James Lankford, a Tea Party Republican representing Oklahoma City, probably wasn’t responsible for any of the 118 pedestrian deaths in his district between 2001 to 2010. And it’s unlikely Rep. Steve Southerland of Panama City, Florida was behind the wheel when any of the 164 people were killed while walking in his district during the decade.

From 2001 to 2010, 118 people were killed while walking in Rep. James Lankford's district -- a death toll he can reduce with one vote. Photo: U.S. Congress

But they are two of eight freshmen on the transportation conference committee, and their vote over the next few days could mean that those appalling numbers go up — or down.

To remind members of what’s at stake with this transportation bill, Transportation for America has released an addendum to its groundbreaking “Dangerous by Design” report, this time quantifying the death toll by Congressional district. Everyone who cares about safe streets can now be very specific when asking their representatives to support a transportation bill with the Cardin-Cochran amendment to keep at least some bike-ped funding control at the local level.

“Having saddled communities with unsafe streets, it would be the height of cruelty for Congress now to take away resources and latitude from local communities trying to improve those conditions and save lives,” said James Corless, director of Transportation for America, in a statement.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett has taken a different position than his representative, James Lankford. Cornett is a vocal supporter of local control over funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects. He co-authored an op-ed recently asking Congress to restore Safe Routes to School and Transportation Enhancements funding. “Many of the more dangerous roads for motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists alike in our communities are federal-aid highways,” he wrote. “House leaders have said fixing these unsafe conditions is a local problem, or a frill we can do without. We strongly disagree, and we urge them to restore dedicated funds for this purpose.”

Last January, a retired minister was killed while crossing the street after attending a college basketball game in Bethany, Oklahoma. He was one of Rep. Lankford’s constituents.

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Compare the Senate and House Transpo Bills, Side-By-Side

Now that the Senate has passed a transportation bill and everyone’s waiting to see what the House will do next, Transportation for America has done us all a great service and compared the Senate’s bill to the House’s — well, to the last thing the House showed us before things fell apart for John Boehner’s extreme attack on transit, biking, and walking.

The T4A analysis breaks down each bill, policy by policy, and lays out any pending amendments to the House bill that could potentially change it for the better.

Here’s an excerpt from their detailed comparison:

Public transportation & transit-oriented development

Senate: Continues dedicated funding for public transportation at traditional 20 percent share. Creates some new flexibility to spend federal funds on operations, i.e., keeping buses and trains running, not just buying new equipment. A new transit-oriented development planning program was incorporated into the bill via the Banking title.

House: Original bill ends 30 years of dedicated funding for public transit (read the letter we organized by more than 600 groups and individuals opposing this). Allows loans for transit-oriented development as an eligible expense under the TIFIA loan program. It doesn’t provide large transit operators with any flexibility to spend federal money on operating their transit systems.

Possible House amendment fix:  LaTourette/Carnahan 16 would allow all transit agencies to use a portion of their federal transit funding for operating expenses during times of economic crisis. (This amendment is similar to this bill the two representatives offered back in 2011.)

Walking and bicycling, local control of funds

SenateDue in part to this amendment offered by Senators Cardin and Cochran and incorporated into the bill, MAP-21 consolidates programs for making biking and walking safer (as well as for other small local projects) and gives 50 percent of this consolidated program directly to metro areas. States and metro areas must create a competitive grant process to distribute that funding to local communities that apply. The Commerce Committee title also includes a new Complete Streets provision.

House: Eliminates most dedicated funding for bicycling & walking. Those uses remain “eligible” but without any dedicated funding for them. The bill also deletes numerous references throughout the bill that encourage multimodal projects. The bill retains the Recreational Trails program.

Possible House amendment fix: Petri-Blumenauer 103 creates consolidated program for bike/ped and other local projects and provides local governments access to new consolidated pot of funding.

Read the rest here.