Greater Greater Washington

Posts about USDOT

Transit


The feds are taking over WMATA safety, which is unprecedented

Late Friday evening, the US Secretary of Transportation announced an immediate federal takeover of WMATA safety oversight.


Boss pointing image from Shutterstock.

The takeover gives federal officials authority to inspect Metro at will, and to order Metro employees to address safety problems. WMATA will still manage normal train operations.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Congress transfer oversight of WMATA from the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC) to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

However, the FRA typically manages freight railroads, long distance trains, and commuter rail (like MARC and VRE), and has no experience with a transit agency like WMATA. US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx worried giving oversight to FRA would be more disruptive than a direct takeover by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which already has the statutory authority for a safety takeover.

With Foxx's blessing, that's what will happen. Effective immediately, the FTA is in charge of Metro safety.

The move is unprecedented. FTA has never taken over the safety oversight role from a local State Safety Oversight Agency (SSOA), like the TOC. But given Metro's repeated lapses, and the inability of the TOC to enforce change, USDOT believes this is the best alternative.

Details are still scarce. But the FTA will have authority to enforce corrective actions. This should mean that WMATA won't be able to ignore safety directives, as they do with the TOC.

This move is only temporary. The FTA will relinquish control when DC, Maryland, and Virginia create a new SSOA which actually has teeth and can effectively enforce safety changes. Since the FTA has never played this role before, it is unclear if this oversight will be a success.

Beginning with the 2009 train crash near Fort Totten that killed nine people, Metro has suffered several major safety lapses, including a smoke incident in January that killed another passenger.

This takeover is the sort of shake up of WMATA management that could lead to real change in the organization's culture, and hopefully improve WMATA safety. On the other hand, it could also further impede the agency from making nimble changes that could benefit riders. Only the future will tell.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

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 delayed—a 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 tax—it'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.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

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.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Support Us