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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)."

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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 costs—such as for station facilities and maintenance back shops—which 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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Budget


Debt deal could mean more painful cuts for transportation

The House and Senate are getting close to voting on a deal, reached over the weekend, to raise the debt ceiling and cut spending.


Photo by Gary Denness on Flickr.

There's nothing in the legislative text that says anything specifically about transportation or the Highway Trust Fund, but it's clear that the cuts mandated in the agreement will affect all sectors. This comes after several rounds of budget cutting this spring.

Although some key programs, like high-speed rail, were high-profile victims at that time, solid investments like TIGER and other livability initiatives survived. Some of the cuts were really phantom savings, cutting contract authority that was never going to be used anyway. There are no more easy cuts left to be made in transportation.

The weekend's debt deal trades a $900 billion raise in the debt ceiling (accomplished in two stages) for $917 billion over the next decade in discretionary spending cuts—reducing domestic discretionary spending to the lowest levels since Eisenhower was president—and including $350 billion in defense cuts—the first defense cuts since the 1990s.

Later this year, the debt ceiling will be raised by another $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion, depending on the deficit reduction recommended by a special new bi-partisan, bi-cameral committee and agreed to by Congress. Alternately, if Congress passes a balanced-budget amendment (the preference of many Republicans), that would satisfy the conditions for raising the debt ceiling.

In the absence of such an amendment, if committee members can't come to an agreement, or Congress fails to pass their recommendations, across-the-board cuts will automatically be implemented, cutting equally from defense and non-defense spending. Medicare, social security, and some other social safety net programs would be exempted.

After seeing discretionary spending cut time after time with no sacrifices demanded of the defense sector, it's remarkable that social programs, not defense, were the ones shielded from the painful cuts. Meanwhile, by spreading cuts around to a greater number of agencies, including massive spenders like the Pentagon, each affected agency is affected less.

Still, infrastructure spending is vulnerable. The White House fact sheet on the debt deal, in the section about the automatic cuts triggered by a failure to act on the committee's recommendations, says:

If the fiscal committee took no action, the deal would automatically add nearly $500 billion in defense cuts on top of cuts already made, and, at the same time, it would cut critical programs like infrastructure or education. That outcome would be unacceptable to many Republicans and Democrats alike—creating pressure for a bipartisan agreement without requiring the threat of a default with unthinkable consequences for our economy.

Under the normal spending cuts regime (not the nuclear option of the automatic, across-the-board cuts) the Department of Transportation is grouped with all other discretionary spending for cuts. The Highway Trust Fund is not discretionary, since it has its own funding source.

I asked Senate staffers if any of this will make it harder for the Finance and EPW Committees to justify spending $12 billion more than trust fund receipts, as spelled out in the Senate transportation bill—even if that $12 billion comes from another budget item and doesn't add to the deficit. No response yet.

Another Senate staffer says that while there are not cuts specific to transportation, the cuts will be "pretty devastating to every discretionary program."

In addition to spending cuts and the possibility of tax reform in the committee recommendations, the expiration in early 2013 of the Bush tax cuts on the rich also ensures some deficit reduction. If more savings aren't found, the president says he will veto an extension of those tax cuts. The White House estimates that would generate nearly $1 trillion; other estimates have put the added revenue closer to $700 billion over ten years.

In his sales pitch to House Republicans [PDF], Speaker John Boehner is trumpeting his victory in keeping tax increases at bay—and indeed, for now, President Obama's proposals to close loopholes on the oil industry and corporate jets are not in the bill. But the 12-member fiscal committee is tasked with finding deficit reductions in both cuts and revenues—teeing up another Congressional brawl over taxes later this year.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

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Roads


Examiner beats drums for war on non-cars

The Washington Examiner's opinion section features five separate fusillades against transit, spending on transit, and the entire idea, incomprehensible to the authors, that some people can happily live their lives primarily getting around using transit and on foot and might actually enjoy it.


One of the places a freeway might be built. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Several, by "conservative" writers and crossposted from "conservative" national publications, follow the typical pattern of such anti-transit screeds, filled with "scare quotes" and namecalling toward people who disagree as "pointy-headed" "bureaucrats," "functionaries" and more to defend government spending on modes of travel they personally prefer.

An Examiner editorial criticizes the Obama administration's meager extra spending on transit as a "war against cars" (of course). The editorial board can't stand spending on "expensive high-speed rail, unprofitable low-speed Amtrak, and other forms of government-subsidized mass transit" ... as opposed to expensive freeways, unprofitable arterials, and other forms of government-subsidized roads.

Scare-quoted words include "investing" (money on transportation projects) and "livability," which apparently is code for "using government funding to force people now living in the suburbs to move back into densely packed central cities where they would have to depend upon mass transit rather than privately owned vehicles." That's instead of the previous policy of using government funding to force people to live in places where they would have to depend on cars even to cross a street without being killed.

That's far from the most comic of the faux-free market arguments, where people actually seem able to argue with a straight face that the government spending money on one mode of transportation is totally just markets at work while spending public money on another mode is socialism.

The most extravagant argument comes from Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, who actually writes this:

If the law of supply and demand were operative, we'd see a smarter approach to improving transportation in America. The supply of cars would create a demand for more roads and bridges to accommodate them, just as food lines outside a grocery store create demand for more grocery stores.
Once again, the government is not building grocery stores. It is building the roads. And Barnes may not have noticed, but in grocery stores, you pay for the food you want. Last calls road pricing a way "to force drivers to put a dollar value on their commute." Like... in the grocery stores, where there's a dollar value on the food?

Meanwhile, Barnes obviously hasn't been on the Northeast Corridor Amtrak trains, or any of the subway systems in dense cities where people are clamoring for more trains and better service. Why doesn't that create demand for transit programs?

Because Barnes is sure they're not useful to anyone. "The simple fact is most people prefer to travel by car because it's convenient, which mass transit rarely is," he claims. Rarely in his experience, perhaps. Sure, driving is more convenient for many people in many cases. Transit is more convenient for other people in other cases.

Barnes argues that all the transit hasn't taken cars off the road, and that transit's mode share has declined. I have to assume he's just being disingenuous and trying to feed red meat to his base, because he must be smart enough to recognize that if you build very little transit and a lot of roads while the nation grows significantly, maybe the overall amount of cars will increase faster than the amount of transit ridership.

What's most frustrating about this argument from "conservative" commentators is that they're doing exactly what they accuse others of: coercing people to take only one mode. Barnes' argument isn't that we need both roads and transit. He only wants roads and nothing else. How does taking away choices create more freedom?

It's just like the groceries. Some people like milk. Others like orange juice. The government is subsidizing the growing of both in this country. But we aren't hearing "conservative" commentators argue that all orange subsidies have to end because adding a few new orange groves hasn't succeeded in curbing obesity all on its own.

Another Barnes assertion claims transit in Washington hasn't curbed congestion. Yet that Texas Transportation Institute report, which tautologically proves that if you build a lot more roads people spend more of their long commutes driving long distances fast instead of short distances slowly, showed that the Washington area has grown a lot since 1999 but without traffic actually getting worse.

The strange logic continues with a piece by Fred Utt of the Heritage Foundation criticizing transportation borrowing by Barack Obama and by Barbara Hollingsworth praising the same borrowing by Bob McDonnell.

Hollingsworth writes, "In order to take advantage of low construction costs, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and the General Assembly agreed to incur $4 billion in debt in order to expand and maintain the commonwealth's extensive highway system, which has become seriously degraded after years of neglect." But Utt decries federal transportation programs as "borrow-and-spend policies" and a "political slush fund."

What's the difference? It's simple: One has some transit, the other doesn't. Also, one executive is a Democrat, the other a Republican. Utt can't abide transit because some people belong to a union. He seems to forget that so do highway builders. Hollingsworth, meanwhile, just hates the Silver Line.

She has three main criticisms: It's expensive, there aren't a lot of people nearby, and the number of people who will take a train to the airport doesn't justify train service. Actually, there's some difference of opinion among transit advocates about the Silver Line's phase 2, from Wiehle Avenue through Dulles and into Loudoun County.

Starting with the third argument, Hollingsworth feeds off the common misconception many people have that this is primarily a "train to Dulles." It's really a train to Tysons and then to some park-and-rides near Dulles as well as the airport itself. Some people will use the train to go to the airport, but most riders in that section will be residents of the area using it to commute.

The Silver Line is expensive, but so are highways; it takes more local dollars because the federal government doesn't contribute as much money to such a project as to an equivalent highway. As with Barnes' claim that the little transit we've built hasn't reduced traffic enough, this argument uses circular reasoning. Because the feds don't pay much for transit, it's expensive; therefore, the feds should stop paying anything at all.

As for there not being a lot of people nearby, as Richard Layman explains, heavy rail transit creates its own population density. The Silver Line will trigger more development in the areas where it will go.

While phase 1 of the Silver Line serves Tysons, an already-dense area that's one of the largest job markets in the nation, phase 2 will primarily serve future development in western Fairfax and in Loudoun. To some, that's an argument against it, since like a rural highway, it's subsidizing far-flung development.

The fifth article, by Jonathan Last from the Weekly Standard, attempts to debunk the idea of induced demand, which he can't abide. It reads like one of those polemics from evolution deniers, full of statements that the "experts" insist something is true, but it can't possibly be.

Last cites 7 separate studies that back up induced demand, but then says it can't be true because if you ask the average person on the street, they'd tell you that of course building highways makes traffic better. Oh, and there was once one study that said perhaps it's overblown. Proof!

One group, he says, even went "spinning off into outer space" by trying to apply game theory. Because we all know that relatively new branches of mathematics never have any real application to existing problems.

Ultimately, this is all a lot of arguing over specifics. Individual studies or cost projections aren't going to change minds. The fact is that road building interests, suburban development interests, and the "conservative" mouthpieces they fund are going crazy that a long-standing, enormous funding imbalance in their favor might be shifting back, even a little bit.

These two pie charts, one from Transit Miami in 2009 and one from Streetsblog yesterday, tell it all:

Few scream more loudly than an interest group used to getting the entire pie, especially during a time when the pie is shrinking due to static gas tax revenues.

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Government


Letter: DC already adequately represented on NCPC

Lisa MacSpadden, Director of Public Affairs for NCPC, sent along this response to a recent article:

In your December 2 post, "How Can Obama Do More for DC?" you mentioned that the President, directly or indirectly, controls half of the 12 seats on the National Capital Planning Commission. You recommended that President Obama appoint a District resident to the Commission to ensure representation by someone who lives in Washington and therefore truly cares about the city.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

You are correct that three of the seats are occupied by the heads of the largest federal landholding agencies, and that one is appointed from Virginia and one from Maryland as required by law. The law also requires that the third appointee serve at-large. This helps to ensure that those outside the National Capital Region are provided the opportunity to have a say in what transpires in a capital city that belongs to all Americans.

Your post did not mention that four of the Commission's seats are held by District officials (the remaining two seats are held by representatives from the House and Senate). The mayor of the District of Columbia holds a seat, as does the chair of the Council of the District of Columbia. In addition, the mayor appoints two District residents to sit on the Commission. I think it would be fair to say the District is well represented given this equates to one-third of the federal Commission's membership.

The District's four representatives are steadfast supporters of District issues. Their participation, and that of the federal and congressional representatives, ensures a balance of local, federal, and national interests. Were the President to appoint a District resident, then the nation at large would lose its voice in planning for America's capital. That would be unfortunate and at odds with the mission of NCPC.

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Public Spaces


How can Obama really do more for DC?

Yesterday, President Obama and Mayor-Elect Gray met for lunch. According to Gray, Obama said he "wants to do more for the city."


Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

How can he do more? Obviously there are a number of federal programs that give out funding, whether discretionary or formula, and Obama could push for DC in many areas of the federal budget. But the President is very concerned about the deficit, and Congress makes the final budget decisions. What could Obama do for DC that doesn't involve large spending programs?

President Obama already controls a lot of what goes on in DC. He heads the largest employer in the District. Agencies control a great number of buildings downtown. The National Park Service (NPS) controls most of the parkland in the District, from the Mall to individual neighborhood pocket parks.

The President controls, either directly or indirectly, half of the 12 seats on the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC): 3 direct Presidential appointees and 3 ex officio seats for the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior (handled by the Park Service), and General Services Administration (GSA). The Park Service also holds one of the seats on the Zoning Commission.

If these federal agencies, especially Interior and GSA, had strong guidance from the White House and coordinated closely to improve the vitality of DC on and around federal property, they could create some big change. All it really takes is the will to overcome bureucratic inertia.

Here are some specific steps Obama could take right now:

Appoint a high-level DC point person. The simplest item could be a very significant one. There is no one person in the White House in charge of working with the DC government. Obama should appoint such a person at a high enough level to give him or her the power to really coordinate the DC-related work of the cabinet departments and push them to make changes when necessary and when they fit with the President's vision.

Appoint a DC resident to NCPC. Of the 3 Presidential appointees, the law requires one to be from Maryland and one from Virginia. The third appointee is currently Herbert Ames, a real estate agent from South Carolina appointed by President Bush. His term ends next year. The President should pick someone who lives in DC and who truly cares about making the District a better place.

Restrain excessive fortress design at federal facilities. Many federal agencies seem to want their building to be a fortress, partly because everyone is particularly sensitive to security, and partly because it makes agencies feel like they are more important.

Fortunately, NCPC and GSA have been pushing for more federal buildings to engage the street, like the upcoming GSA headquarters modernization which will include ground-floor retail. Require all new or renovated federal facilities in urban areas to contain publicly-accessible retail or food spaces, and avoid a bunker mentality unless it really, truly is necessary.

Direct federal agencies to encourage multimodalism. The President already issued an executive order instructing agencies to try to reduce their carbon footprint. He could specifically push agencies to accommodate bike parking inside their buildings and to put Capital Bikeshare stations outside, for example.

Encouraging transit use is not as simple as encouraging bicycle use. The best thing would be for Congress to extend the increased ceiling for pretax transit benefits, keeping it on an equal footing with the parking benefit. That also means federal workers get a higher transit benefit, helping workers better afford to take transit. Unfortunately, this isn't something Obama can do on his own.

Make St. Elizabeth's a good neighbor. The biggest immediate opportunity for making federal design fit with a community will come at St. Elizabeth's, where DHS is consolidating operations. That will have a lot of security, but there are many ways DHS can also encourage employees to interact with the surrounding community, foster nearby restaurants that are also open to the public, and take transit, streetcar, bike or walk to the complex.

Direct NPS to allow the Circulator and Capital Bikeshare. NPS has exclusive concession contracts for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, including ones for the Tourmobile and for bike rentals. They have been interpreting these contracts to prohibit allowing transit services, including bike transit (Capital Bikeshare), on the Mall.

However, $1 transit service doesn't compete with a $23 tour bus, and a bike meant for under 30 minutes of use to get from one place to another doesn't compete with an all-day bike rental. The White House should instruct NPS to find a way to allow these services immediately.

Direct NPS to treat urban parks differently from rural parks. NPS manages its parks in dense urban areas with the same philosophies as a natural wilderness like Yosemite. People from Colorado primarily wrote the National Mall Plan. But keeping spaces wild is not as paramount of a concern for urban parkland, which needs to contribute to the health of residents.

For example, NPS recently denied permission for DDOT to build a wooden walkway across a part of Fort Totten Park to help people walk to the Metro station. NPS needs a separate division with separate management policies for urban parks, staffed by people with expertise running parks in cities and a passion for making parks good public spaces.

Give DC control over local neighborhood parks. NPS plays a valuable role in our nation (some of my fondest childhood memories are from Minute Man National Historical Park), but it makes no sense that they decide all policy, handle all law enforcement, and have to plow the sidewalks (which they don't do) around most small neighborhood square, circle, and triangle parks throughout the District.

The President could instruct the Park Service to work out a way to turn day to day maintenance and policy of the small parks over to DC while maintaining ownership of the land and NCPC review for permanent changes to the parks. For example, NPS could essentially work out a contract with DC where it outsources park management to DC for these parks.

NPS could pay DC what it spends on those parks, including policing, snow and more. DPR could take over those duties, and handle things like permits for events or retail concessions, but DC wouldn't be able to decide to develop the park into housing, for example.

Local BIDs may also want to contribute to park beautification or "adopt" parks, as they do in many other cities. NPS is currently fairly hostile to public-private partnerships. Turning over the parks' immediate control would make such arrangements possible.

Unify management of lands around the Mall. The National Coalition to Save Our Mall keeps pointing out that nobody can really plan for the contiguous park space people generally call the Mall because control is fragmented between the Park Service, the Smithsonian, the Architect of the Capitol, the Secret Service, the National Gallery, the Commission on Fine Arts, NCPC, DDOT, DC DPR, the various memorial commissions, and more.

Create a board composed of federal, DC and citizen representatives to coordinate policy for the and work with NCPC, which could perhaps staff the commission.

And of course:

Publicly support voting rights. This was one of the primary asks from Gray at the lunch. Obama may have said he supports voting rights, but he has done little to make that a part of the national conversation, and most Americans still don't know that DC residents have no vote in Congress.

Obama should take public steps, whether symbolic like restoring the "Taxation without representation" plates to his limousine or meaningful like asking Congress for legislation, that will generate news cycles around DC voting rights. The Post also editorialized for the President to promise to veto Congressional measures that step on DC home rule.

It's great that President Obama wants to have a positive effect on DC. Fortunately, he is in a position to do so, easily and immediately. He can get started on the above initiatives right away.

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Budget


Obama's budget includes the $150 million

President Obama released his FY2011 budget today, and it includes the $150 million federal match for WMATA capital needs.

Here's the budget (large PDF, faster Google Viewer). The item is on the page marked 981, which is page 57 of this document.

Last year's budget didn't include the money at first, and area Congressional leaders pushed to add it after the crash. I heard this was an oversight rather than an intentional omission from the new administration.

Streetsblog Capitol Hill dissected more of the budget. It contains sustainability and high-speed rail money, including a rebranded infrastructure bank with $4 billion. It also cuts some programs that tend to be allocated by Congressional earmarks instead of a more objective or executive branch-based process.

page/2

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