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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.

Government


Why is the Highway Trust Fund going broke (and what can be done about it)?

You may have been hearing some doomsday reports in the media about the impending bankruptcy of the Highway Trust Fund. The US Department of Transportation has a ticker where you can watch the balance drop. What is happening, and why?


Photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

What is the Highway Trust Fund?

The Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is basically a bank account that was established by Congress in 1956 to pay for the Interstate Highway System. The HTF is funded through revenues from the federal gas and diesel taxes, and an assortment of other taxes on things like truck tires. The idea was that these taxes are essentially road user fees, and thus should be set aside for transportation.

In 1982 we started the long and painful slog away from the "user fee" concept with the creation of the Mass Transit Account, which funds transit capital projects.

How important funding from the HTF is for transportation infrastructure varies a lot from state to state. In our region, federal funding comprises 86% of transportation capital investment in Virginia, and it's also really important for WMATA, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

How much money is in the HTF right now?

The HTF is divided into two main accounts, the Highway Account and the Mass Transit Account. The former has $8.1 billion in it right now and the latter has $2.8 billion.

That sounds like lots of money. Why the wailing and gnashing of teeth?

True, the current balance in the HTF is roughly 80% of what it was last October. That seems far from empty. But we really are about to blow through those billions.

Most programs financed by the HTF are operated on a reimbursement basis. That means that money to pay for projects doesn't go out the door until the project is complete and has been inspected. It's not unusual for states to basically be handing over big piles of receipts at the end of the fiscal year to get paid back. Thus, most of the projected drop has yet to occur.

Also, the summer construction season is just now kicking into high gear. People are freaking out because bids for work are going out the door while a letter from Transportation Secretary Foxx warns that reimbursements may well be delayeda cash flow crisis for states.

Why is this happening if it's possible to predict it in advance?

The HTF is in crisis because it's traditional revenues are no longer sufficient to cover the spending levels Congress authorized for transportation programs. To cope, Congress has been periodically bailing out the trust fund for the last few years using infusions of money from the General Fund (the pot all our income taxes go into).

So this is an artificial crisis? We're creating it by spending more than we have?

Some folks certainly see it that way. Others note our crumbling bridges and burgeoning demand for transit capital projects. Also the current transportation spending authorization, passed in 2012, did not increase spending.

If our transportation spending is reasonable, why can't we find the money to pay for it?

We last raised the gas and diesel taxes in 1993. The CBO estimated last year that if these taxes had been indexed to inflation, the 18.4¢-per-gallon tax on gas would be 29¢ today. Basically, the HTF has lost 38% of its purchasing power to inflation alone.

When people bring up raising the gas tax, smarty-pants folks correctly point out that cars have become more fuel efficient, and even in these more efficient cars people are driving less, so the gas tax is becoming conceptually inefficient or obsolete. Ideologues point out that we spend HTF money on things that encourage people to drive less, and thus pay less into the fund, like transit infrastructure, sidewalks, and bicycle facilities. However, more intellectually pure solutions like road pricing or a tax on vehicle miles traveled are not ready for prime time. So, let's stop changing the subject.

The CBO estimates that raising the two motor fuel taxes by 10¢ would solve the problem without eliminating funding for any current transportation programs. In other words, other issues are marginal compared to the effectiveness of simply adjusting motor fuel taxes for inflation.

A bipartisan proposal to do just that is finally making the rounds after years of General Fund bailouts. However, such a proposal is both a referendum on our economic recovery since 2008 and our sense that we need a federal transportation program. That means it's got a long row to hoe with the Obama administration and tea party conservatives.

What will happen if the HTF empties out while we are waiting for Congress to act?

USDOT will stop writing checks. Stop work orders will go out on projects. Contractors will get laid off. The lights are going to go off in some people's houses.

Because this pain will be very visible, and affect every state, it's likely that Congress will provide a general fund bailout at a minimum for this summer. Just a couple of months ahead on the calendar, however, the current transportation spending authorization will expire at the end of September, another impending crisis that requires Congressional action.

Many professionals in the transportation sector are weary of the constant lurching from one short-term authorization to another, and the de facto endless funding cut that is inflation. However, I'm not convinced that we transportation professionals have fully confronted why many in Congress, or even the general public, might be reluctant to fund our work.

It's not just time to raise the gas taxit's time to increase transparency in transportation planning, truly listen to the public's priorities about transportation, and earn the trust required to justify dedicated revenues. I'll talk more about that in an upcoming post.

Government


Two senators (one of whom is a Republican!) propose a 12-cent gas tax increase

There are several proposals on the table to stave off the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund (which pays for transit, biking, and walking projects too) in two months. Just now, two senators teamed up to announce one that might actually have a chance.


Photo from the Office of Senator Corker.

Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) have proposed increasing the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon over two years. The federal gas tax currently stands at 18.4 cents a gallon, where it has been set since 1993, when gas cost $1.16 a gallon. The senators' proposal would also extend some expiring tax cuts as a way to reduce the impact on Americans.

"I know raising the gas tax isn't an easy choice, but we're not elected to make easy decisionswe're elected to make the hard ones," said Murphy. "This modest increase will pay dividends in the long run and I encourage my colleagues to get behind this bipartisan proposal."

This proposalwhile still not introduced as a formal billhas far more potential than anything else that's been offered. President Obama's corporate tax scheme was dead on arrival, even though it had support from the Republican chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp. Rep. Peter DeFazio's idea of a per-barrel oil fee and Sen. Barbara Boxer's idea for a wholesale oil tax don't have Republican support. Neither does Rep. Earl Blumenauer's 15-cent gas tax hike, which was the most logical proposal on the table, until now. What the House Republicans want to do is fund the transportation bill by reducing Saturday postal servicea hare-brained scheme if ever there was one.

What gives this proposal a fighting chance, of course, is Bob Corker's name on it. Not only is Corker a Republican, but he's a respected leader on the Banking Committee. It's also a sign that maybe, just maybe, as we stare down the barrel of a real funding shortfall, members of Congress might find the gumption to do what they all know needs to be done: raise the gas tax.

"In Washington, far too often, we huff and puff about paying for proposals that are unpopular, yet throw future generations under the bus when public pressure mounts on popular proposals that have broad support," said Corker. "Congress should be embarrassed that it has played chicken with the Highway Trust Fund and allowed it to become one of the largest budgeting failures in the federal government. If Americans feel that having modern roads and bridges is important then Congress should have the courage to pay for it."

The CBO has said that a one-cent increase in the gas tax would net $1.5 billion a year. That means this 12-cent increase would bring in exactly the $18 billion needed annually to fund the Senate's six-year transportation bill. And perhaps most importantly, Corker and Murphy propose indexing the tax to inflation so it remains viable in the future.

"A return to stable funding will ensure that our states and communities can repair aging roads, bridges and transit systems and build the infrastructure we need for a growing economy," said James Corless, director of Transportation for America, in a statement. "The alternative is to allow our transportation system to crumble along with an economy hobbled by crapshoot commutes and clogged freight corridors."

The president and CEO of AAA, which just came out in favor of a gas tax increase, agreed. "Many Americans are willing to pay a little more if it will lead to improved transportation and a better commute," said Bob Darbelnet in a statement.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog USA.

Politics


Will Cantor's loss push congressional Republicans to balk on transportation compromise?

Last night, US House majority leader Eric Cantor lost the Republican primary to a tea party challenger who painted Cantor as too willing to compromise with Democrats. Cantor's loss makes this summer's looming congressional fight over transportation funding all the more unpredictable.


US Highway Trust Fund balance. If Congress doesn't act soon, money will run out. Image from USDOT.

MAP-21, the federal transportation funding bill, expires in October. But the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) will begin running out of money in August. Without a bipartisan bill to add new money, federal transportation funding will trickle to a halt.

Transportation wasn't a major issue in Cantor's election, but immigration reform was. Cantor mostly opposed immigration reform, but he briefly contemplated compromise, giving his more conservative opponent David Brat an opening to attack.

Some pundits fear that will push every other House Republican away from compromise in general, and grind whatever progress Congress was making on anything to a halt.

From an immigration perspective that probably makes little difference; House Republicans were not going to compromise anyway. But it could make a huge difference for transportation.

Transportation funding was a non-partisan issue in the 20th Century. Every six years Congress would pass a transportation bill with broad support from both parties. But in recent years, amid declining gas tax revenue and increasing need for supplemental funding, transportation has become a partisan spark.

Congress seemed primed to act, but now it's an open question

Up until Cantor's defeat, the general assumption in the transportation world has been that Congress would do something this summer. "Something" might mean a long term solution like a new bill and new taxes. Or it might mean a band-aid, like an extension of MAP-21 with an infusion of federal general fund dollars. Either way, Congress appeared to be making some progress.

But now? House Republicans might very well cease all legislative activity, and hope to ride out the rest of election season without upsetting their conservative base.

Polls show that raising money for transportation is popular, and voters rarely punish officials for doing so. But that may not matter to Republicans concerned about attacks from the extreme right.

While in Congress, Cantor fought against progressive transportation funding. But in this case his personal vote, and even his leadership on the specifics, might be less important than the simple fact that he was probably willing to advance a bill.

On the other hand, maybe the Republican establishment will take this as a call to arms, and moderate legislators will become more powerful. But that seems unlikely the day after the biggest tea party victory of the season.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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.

Transit


Chevy Chase hires a powerful Congressional chairman's brother to lobby against the Purple Line

In addition to some recent high-profile spins through the revolving door, we now have a new example of ethically questionable influence peddling in Washington: A powerful Congressman's brother working to bring down a transit line in Maryland.


Robert Shuster. Photo from Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) wields the gavel of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committeea post his father held, with great success, before him. Now Shuster's brother, Robert, has been hired by the town of Chevy Chase, Maryland, to help them oppose the construction of a light-rail line.

The Purple Line concept has been under development since 1989, with the state beginning work in earnest in early 2008. The principal opponent to the line, the Columbia Country Club, has dropped its opposition and promised not to bring any lawsuits as a result of a deal to adjust the route.

The Purple Line has faced countless obstacles and defeated them all. Rep. Shuster's brother now has $20,000 a month of Chevy Chase's taxpayer dollars to try to come up one the transit line can't overcome.

According to the Washington Post, Chevy Chase hired Robert Shuster's law firm last month, so far paying a total of $40,000 for two months. The town council is now deciding whether to move from a month-to-month arrangement to an 18-month contract, still for $20,000 a month.

The Post notes that the firm, Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, lists Robert Shuster first as one of four lawyers on the project.

No worries, though: Shuster won't be lobbying. The Post quotes Mayor Pat Burda as saying she didn't even know about the Shuster connection when she first contacted the law firm, and that the town is focused on the Federal Transit Administration, not Congress. She said it in no uncertain terms: "We're not lobbying Congress."

But the pro-Purple Line Action Committee for Transit has found a Congressional lobbying disclosure form from Shuster's firm that "states explicitly that Shuster and his partners are lobbying the House of Representatives and Senate for the Town of Chevy Chase." The form says Shuster and two others will be lobbying on urban development, transportation, and "government issues."

"I do not and will not lobby my brother," Robert Shuster pledged in a statement to the Post. But whether or not Shuster lobbies his brother may be beside the point. A Shuster calling up a member of Congress is going to get his phone call answered, and "in Washington, that's your first goal," said Purple Line advocate Tracey Johnstone.

But what does Chevy Chase seek to get out of Congress anyway? Maryland is in the market for $900 million in federal aid to round out funding for the Purple Line, but they're looking to get it from a New Starts full-funding grant agreement from the FTA, not Congress.

Undoubtedly the town of Chevy Chase, ably represented by the good people at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, will petition the FTA to reject the MTA's request for a New Starts grant. Purple Line opponents always find some legit-sounding reason to block it: endangered amphipods (except, oops, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it's no problem), impact on a nearby trail, the view from a tony golf course clubhouse. They'll certainly come up with a good story to tell the FTA.

But the lobbying disclosure form makes clear that they'll be taking that message to Congress, too. After all, FTA only makes recommendations for New Starts grants. House and Senate appropriations committees make the final decision.

Sure, that's a different committee from the one the other Shuster heads, but "if you think the appropriations committee isn't checking with the chair of T&I about what they're putting in a New Starts grant, you don't know how Congress works," said Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Earmarks were eliminated in MAP-21, and if that ban continues, there would be no place for an explicit Purple Line funding authorization in the next bill. But there are some possibilities for the next bill to have an impact.

First, Congress could go back to earmarks, though it's unlikely. Second, Congress could make it clear, outside of bill language, that the region is expected to use its urbanized area formula grant money on the Purple Linethough that's a tough demand to make without offering new money. Third, Congress could underfund New Starts altogether, which is entirely possible and even likely, which could hobble the agency's ability to fund the Purple Line. Or, fourth, Congress could slip an amendment into the bill that targets the Purple Linerequiring more studies on endangered amphipods, for example.

Either way, it never hurts to have friends in high places in Washington.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog DC.

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