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Government


Democrats grudgingly approve a transportation extension bill with a risky timeline

On Tuesday, during the one-hour debate period over the House proposal to extend transportation funding through May 31, lawmaker after lawmaker stood up to condemn the bill. America needs a long-term transportation bill, they said. A short-term stopgap only creates more uncertainty.


Rep. Earl Blumenauer was one of just 10 Democrats to reject the House extension. Image from C-SPAN.

And then they voted for it.

More Democrats than Republicans voted for it, in fact, despite standing up and declaring that "a short term solution is not enough" or that it's "just another kick-the-can-down-the-road approach" or that it's just "a little shuffling around of money so we can pretend… we're not creating more debt." But in the end, the Highway and Transportation Funding Act passed easily, with only 10 Democrats and 45 Republicans voting against it.

Peter Welch of Vermont was one of those no-voting Democrats. During the floor debate, he called the bill an "abdication of our responsibility."

"Some folks are saying we need time to put together a long term bill," he said. "We've had time. What we need is a decision."

Earl Blumenauer is in favor of an extension, but only through the lame duck period after the election. He voted no as well, criticizing Republicans for failing to have a "deliberate, thoughtful process."

"We have not had a single hearing on transportation finance in the Ways and Means Committee all year," he said. "We didn't have one the year before that. We haven't had a hearing in the 43 months that the Republicans have been in charge."

How long will the extension be?

The Senate Finance Committee has passed a largely similar bill, with the same amount of money coming out of slightly different funding sources.

Wyden's bill also failed to include an expiration date. Senator Barbara Boxer is expected to introduce an amendment putting a December 31 date on itso that she would still be chair of the EPW Committee when the real bill gets negotiatedbut the juggernaut is already in motion toward a longer extension until May. By putting enough money in the bill to get there, Wyden was tacitly acceding to that timeline without overtly ruffling Boxer's feathers.

Even President Obama has given the green light to the House bill, though he also insisted that "Congress shouldn't pat itself on the back for averting disaster for a few months, kicking the can down the road for a few months, careening from crisis to crisis."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he plans to schedule three floor votes before the August recess: the House bill, the Senate Finance Committee bill, and Boxer's December 31 plan.

Boxer, of course, doesn't refer to her own hold on the committee when lobbying for a shorter extension. She just says the longer one is "a really bad idea because the longer the patch, the longer the indecision, the more jobs lost, the more businesses go under."

Besides, now that presidential election seasons last for two years (at least), punting until May could easily bleed into much longer delays. After all, if it's too hard to pass a major spending bill in the run-up to a mid-term election, imagine the resistance to passing one during a presidential race.

A bill under a Republican Senate could be much worse

If the Republicans really do take control of the Senate in January, that means that the bill sent to President Obama's desk will be one crafted and approved by Republicans in both houses.

Control of the Environment and Public Works Committee would shift to Louisiana Republican David Vitter, who has a track record of rejecting any revenue increase, railing against merit-based transportation financing, and working to cut environmental reviews for road projects.

The current House Transportation Committee chair, Bill Shuster, has a better track record of consulting with Democrats than his predecessor, John Mica, but with a Republican Senate, even Shuster might be less invested in bipartisanship.

A Congress with both chambers controlled by Republicans could revive old, rejected ideas like devolving transportation funding to states, closing the Highway Trust Fund's transit account, or eliminating bike/ped funding. That is the scenario set up by yesterday's extension vote with its May 31 sunset.

Oh, and if you're impressed that Congress is addressing this issue well before the September 30 expiration of the current MAP-21 bill, don't be. That bill's funding fixesgimmicks in their own rightdidn't manage to last all the way until its sunset, and the highway account of the Highway Trust Fund is expected to dip into insolvency by the end of next month. US DOT was preparing to start cutting payments to states by 28 percent on August 1. And Congress has only 10 work days left on the legislative calendar before members retreat to their home districts for the month of August.

A version of this post originally appeared on Streetsblog. Since it ran yesterday, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) announced plans to slow the bill unless he can get a vote on two amendments (to devolve funding to states and repeal the Davis-Bacon rules on contractor pay) that do not have bipartisan support.

Transit


The Purple Line gets a boost from President Obama's budget

Yesterday, the Purple Line took a big step forward when the federal government recommended giving it a $100 million grant for next year and providing additional funding in the coming years. Now, all it needs is approval from Congress.


Image from the Maryland Transit Administration.

President Obama included the $2.2 billion, 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton in his 2015 budget. It's one of 7 transit projects the Federal Transit Administration recommended for a "New Starts" grant, including the Baltimore Red Line, an extension of LA's Purple Line, Boston's Green Line extension, the Columbia River Crossing in Portland, and commuter rail in Orlando and Fort Worth.

The agency also recommended Congress give the Purple Line a "full funding grant agreement" committing it to help pay for construction. Maryland hopes the federal government will provide $900 million, though it's unclear what the final amount will be.

The state has already agreed to put in up to $900 million for the project. Montgomery and Prince George's counties will give $220 million total, while the state is looking for a private partner to build and operate the line and pitch in additional funds.

The Purple Line has been discussed in some form since 1986. If everything goes right, it could start construction in 2015 and open in 2020. But getting here hasn't been easy.

From the beginning, it faced vehement opposition from the exclusive Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, because the line would follow the Capital Crescent Trail, a former freight rail line that bisected its golf course. Meanwhile, the University of Maryland didn't want it passing through the heart of campus, and even hired former Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan (now running for a fourth term) to oppose it.

Maryland was able to find a workable solution for both parties, and the Purple Line now enjoys the support of both county executives, elected officials in both counties, and hundreds of civic, environmental, business, and advocacy groups.

But there are still a few challenges remaining. One is that Congress actually has to approve President Obama's budget and decide how much the "full funding grant agreement" for the Purple Line would be. The other is the Town of Chevy Chase, which continues to oppose the project because of its impacts on the trail. The town recently hired a lobbyist who happens to be the brother of the House transportation committee chair to make the case against the line.

Meanwhile, other residents may sue the government because they feel not enough research has been done about the Purple Line's impacts on a small, shrimp-like creature that's listed as an endangered species but is found several miles away. These things may add additional delay to the Purple Line, but it's unclear whether they're enough to actually halt the project.

In any case, yesterday was a great day for the Purple Line. When I attended my first Purple Line meeting in 2003, as a junior in high school, I assumed that I'd be riding it by now. Hopefully, 28 years after the project was first announced, we won't have to wait much longer.

Roads


President Obama proposes a "fix-it-first" program for roads

In last night's State of the Union address, President Obama launched a "Fix-It-First" program to repair aging infrastructure and put people to work.


The "enhanced" State of the Union. Image from whitehouse.gov.

The president even took an indirect jab at officials who would rather build new than fix existing infrastructure, saying, "I know you want these job-creating projects in your district; I've seen all those ribbon-cuttings."

So, tonight, I propose a "Fix-It-First" program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.

Obama has proposed infrastructure investment many times before, and always with a heavy tilt toward repair and maintenance, but never such an explicit mandate to "fix it first." By keeping existing transportation infrastructure in good condition, officials can save the public from the expense of unnecessary road expansion projects.

However, he did give a nod to some new infrastructure he'd like to see: notably, high-speed rail.

"Ask any CEO where they'd rather locate and hire," Obama said, "a country with deteriorating roads and bridges or one with high-speed rail and Internet, high-tech schools, self-healing power grids."

The president also proposed a "Partnership to Rebuild America" to attract private capital for infrastructure investment "to make sure taxpayers don't shoulder the whole burden."

In his speech, Obama spent far more time talking about energy and climate change than transportation.

American-produced wind, solar, and natural gas topped his energy platform, but he wasn't above bragging, "We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years." He delighted in the "natural gas boom" and the fact that his administration has been "cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits."

He calls it his "all-of-the-above plan."

He also asked Congress to come up with a "bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change," like the Climate Stewardship Act, a cap-and-trade bill John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduced a decade ago.

Then he hedged against Congress's ability to break through gridlockespecially on environmental issues. "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," he said, pledging to take executive actions to reduce pollution, adapt to climate change, and pursue more sustainable sources of energy. He highlighted the urgency:

Now, it's true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it's too late.

His goal: cutting in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years. Not the energy used, just the energy wasted. I'm not sure how he defines and quantifies wasted energy.

Read his entire speech here or watch the enhanced version, with explanatory graphics, here.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

Politics


Presidential debate again ignores urban issues

Listen to the national candidates talk, and you'd think American cities don't exist; there is no form of transportation other than driving. A number of bloggers have pointed out how last night's debate, like its predecessor, conspicuously didn't talk about cities.


Photo by mgstanton on Flickr.

At Next American City, Matt Bevilacqua writes:

Neither candidate uttered the word "city." At all. Go ahead, check this debate transcript from ABC News. ...

Urban advocates have raised this complaint many times before: During national campaigns, when pundits and politicos are bickering over everything from reproductive health to drilling for oil to the debt ceiling, issues specifically related to cities get the short shrift.

Republicans hardly ever talk about urban America anymore. ... Though this year's Democratic National Convention had a roster full of big-city mayors, their time in the spotlight largely yielded only sentimental personal narrativesnot much about what they do to make cities function daily, and not much about the needs of the people they serve.

It's not like there weren't moments last night when either candidate could have, at least in passing, addressed the concerns of the country's urban-dwellers. ... [D]uring the discussion on economic growth, Obama could have turned to the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to defend his record. Established during his first term, the partnership has done wonders for economic development in urban neighborhoods.

Streetsblog's Ben Fried wishes cities or transportation policy came up in the answer to a question about energy:
QUESTION: Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it's not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?
Fried says, "Let's imagine the contours of the straightforward, leveling-with-America response that never came:"
OBAMA: Yes, I do agree with Secretary Chu that it is not the job of the Energy Department to lower gas prices, any more than it's the job of the Commerce Department to lower the price of tin or cotton.

But there's a lot we can do to become more resilient in the face of oil price shocks. We can give people real transportation choicesinvest more in transit, and in making our streets saferso you aren't forced to burn a gallon of gas every time you need to pick up some groceries.

My administration has started us down a smarter path with the Sustainable Communities Initiative and the Department of Transportation's TIGER program. These programs are laying the groundwork for a 21st Century transportation system that makes our communities more productive and efficient while reducing our addiction to oil. If we make these investments, not only will we free ourselves from constantly worrying about prices at the pump, we'll also stave off the disaster of climate change and prevent the kind of droughts and other extreme weather events that are battering America.

Instead, the President talked about (and then starting arguing with Romney about) how much they've increased oil production. Which is not just about furthering our addiction to a dwindling resource, but also economically silly for anyone who realizes that oil is a world market.

Matt Yglesias posted a great chart showing that gas prices in the US, Canada, and Japan move in almost precise lockstep; the only difference is the size of the country's gas tax. Ours, of course, is extremely low compared to other industrialized nations.

Government


Transportation in Congress roundup: Leaders agree on extension, GOP would kill Amtrak, & Obama proposal

A lot has been going on in Congress around transportation policy this week, and Tanya Snyder has been on top of it at Streetsblog Capitol Hill. Here are a few quick excerpts from her latest articles, which you can read in full on the Streetsblog site.

House and Senate agree on 6-month transpo extension


Photo by THE Holy Hand Grenade! on Flickr.
Just days after a Senate committee asked the full chamber to consider a four-month extension of SAFETEA-LU, new negotiations have replaced that idea with a six-month extension at current spending levels. The bill also extends the gas tax. ...

The extension is a clean one, with no changes in policy. That means bike/ped funding, which has been under threat over the last week, will remain for the next six months, at least. And the extension will be funded by the same 18.4 cent federal gas tax the U.S. has had since 1993, which was also due to expire September 30 and which is also renewed by this action.

The extension will stick to current funding levels, authorizing $24.78 billion in spending from the Highway Trust Fund for the first half of FY2012 (which begins October 1). That's almost $19.8 billion for highways and $4.2 billion for transit.

That's far more than the FY2012 budget just passed by the Transportation and HUD Appropriations subcommittee in the House, which agreed to $27.7 billion for highways and $5.2 billion for transit for the entire year. Although this extension can authorize more spending than that, actual spending levels are up to the appropriators. Experts say that at this level, most of the money would go to pay states back for projects already built, and new highway project funding could be cut by as much as 75 percent.

But higher spending levels also have their down side. "Maintaining current highway and transit spending levels for any period of time deepens the Highway Trust Fund's revenue hole," writes Jeff Davis, noting that according to the CBO, "the Highway Account of the Trust Fund will run out of cash at these spending levels in the first few months of calendar year 2013, with the Mass Transit Account running dry a year or so behind that)."

Read more »

Rail advocates: House bill would kill Amtrak

The 2012 transportation budget passed by a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee yesterday cut all high-speed rail funding and slashes Amtrak's operating grant by 60 percent. What's more, it forbids Amtrak from using that money to fund short corridors.

Ridership on those short corridors grew five percent in the last year (PDF). Twenty-seven train lines, including several in and out of Chicago, would suddenly see their federal funding disappear, if the House budget were to become law. That would only leave the Northeast Corridor and a handful of cross-country routes; half Amtrak's ridership would be cut instantly.

According to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a rail advocacy group, the danger goes further than just the short corridors. The organization asserts that "the bill really would kill all of Amtrak because loss of the short corridors would cut revenues and balloon costs for Northeast Corridor and national network (overnight) trains… Overhead costssuch as for station facilities and maintenance back shopswhich now are shared among routes would be dumped on the surviving trains. For example, the Texas Eagle would become the sole user of the St. Louis and Fort Worth terminals and six Illinois stations. And Amtrak's Chicago terminal costs would be borne solely by eight overnight trains."

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Good news and bad news: Obama's plan would work, but GOP won't pass it

[Friday] morning brought some useful indicators about the outlook for President Obama's jobs bill. Good news first: Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, says President Obama's job creation plan will likely add 1.9 million jobs, cut the unemployment rate by a percentage point, and grow the economy by 2 percent.

The plan includes $50 billion for infrastructure, with an emphasis on transportation and schools, and the creation of an infrastructure bank capitalized at $10 billion. ...

Despite Moody's upbeat analysis of the president's proposal, stocks tumbled [Friday] morning. According to Bloomberg, the gloom wasn't about the merits of the plan but the likelihood of Congressional passage. "Even as President Obama made an effort to put that plan together," said James Dunigan, chief investment officer in Philadelphia for PNC Wealth Manage­ment, "there's not a whole lot of confidence that Congress will pass [it]."

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