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Topic of the week: No more federal gas tax?

A new bill in the House of Representatives proposes eliminating the federal gas tax and making states pay for roads and transit themselves. Would that be good or bad for transportation?


Photo by RW PhotoBug on Flickr.

The Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA), by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Representative Tom Graves (R-Georgia), would virtually eliminate the federal gasoline tax over a 5-year period and devolve the responsibility of funding roads and transit to the states. It now has 19 co-sponsors in the House. We asked a few contributors to give their thoughts on how it could affect transportation funding.

David Cranor: This could be made workable. First, we could devolve gas taxes to states. Then, we could take the general funds used to enhance state funding to pay for Transportation Enhancements, recreation trails, Amtrak, TIGER, and so on.

The upside is that it gets rid of all the belly-aching and actually means less money for roads, unless states raise their gas taxes. The downside is that it reduces political support for non-car transportation.

David Edmondson: If the federal government cuts the gas tax and its investments in transportation, this would undoubtedly be bad for transit and non-car modes of transportation. But there may be a silver lining.

Despite the best efforts of advocates, federal transportation dollars overwhelmingly favor roadway projects, and most of those are highways or overbuilt arterials. And, given that these are often capital projects, the end result is high maintenance costs on localities that wouldn't have built the project in the first place if the money weren't "free" from the feds.

If states raise their own gas tax to match the loss, they'd be able to use that money how they see fit. A whole slew of federal strings would come off, freeing states to make the decisions they think they ought. While that might mean more questionable interchanges in Wisconsin, that state will actually need to pay for them entirely.

Advocates' fear that states won't raise their gas tax are certainly valid, of course. The tax discourages driving and was designed to fund infrastructure of national importance. Eliminating it would cut the federal government's ability to do either of those things. Yet the chance to cut all the bloat and waste advocates fight against and this money encourages would be quite a silver lining.

Matt Johnson: In Georgia, Graves' home state, the state constitution expressly prohibits the expenditure of gasoline tax revenues on anything other than roads, so without federal money, the Peach State would essentially only invest in highways. That's actually not a huge change.

MARTA, which operates rail, bus, and paratransit in Fulton and DeKalb counties is the largest transit agency in the country that receives no funding from the state government. Of course, MARTA was able to build their rail system using local and federal funds. But without the federal share, it would have been impossible.

Which is probably what Graves and Lee want. After all, the GOP has long suggested that investing in transit is a wasteful subsidy, while investing in roads is a sound investment for economic development.

According to Senator Lee, "Under the Transportation Empowerment Act, Americans would no longer have to send significant gas-tax revenue to Washington, where sticky-fingered politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists take their cut before sending it back with strings attached." [emphasis added]

Of course, this isn't accurate. According to a Government Accountability Office report from September 2011, both Georgia and Utah are winners in the transportation dollar lottery. Both states got $1.10 back in federal transportation dollars for every $1.00 they sent to Washington between 2005 and 2009.

Of course, they're no different from the other 48 states. But wait a minute: aren't there winners and losers? Doesn't at least one state have to be a donor state?

No. Because Washington doesn't just allocate gas tax revenues. They also send general fund revenues off to transportation projects.

So not only are those sticky-fingered lobbyists not stealing from Georgians to fund highway projects in Yankeeland, but the federal government is actually gifting Georgians (and Utahans) a little extra money on the side. Or to translate that into GOP-speak, "it smacks of socialism."

The idea, of course, is to just let the states take over and use a more locally-focused approach that works best for them. Federalism and all that.

But anyone want to put the odds on whether a state like Georgia would actually raise their own gas tax to compensate? Yeah, I didn't think so.

The real goal is of course, to stop spending money on transportation altogether. But that's okay. It's DOA in the Senate.

Canaan Merchant: Any transportation project is going to try to combine its funding from all levels of government. This bill is just the latest example of trying to come up with a standard across a large country with a very diverse population and large number of situations that require specific and different solutions.

Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic has considered the question as well. He argues that the basic scheme where the federal government provides funding for construction while states and cities pay for operations and maintenance is backward.

Local governments may benefit from being able to not have to compete against dozens of other projects for federal funding while the federal government can ensure that service doesn't take a dive in lean budget years for localities.

Now that may not be optimal in the end, but it may be beneficial to completely reconsider how and who funds transportation projects across the country.

Events


Events roundup: Transit in Montgomery, Fairfax, and beyond

Over the next few weeks, talk about transit in the 2014 election, learn about Bus Rapid Transit in eastern Montgomery County, and figure out how to spend Virginia's transportation money at meetings around the region.


Robert Thomson (at left), aka Dr. Gridlock, in Tysons Corner. Photo by VaDOT.

Transit reporters talk politics: How will Smart Growth issues affect the 2014 elections in DC and Maryland? The Action Committee for Transit will host a panel discussion on transit and the election with the Washington Post's Robert Thomson, also known as "Dr. Gridlock," Ari Ashe from WTOP, and Josh Kurtz from the blog Center Maryland. Kyjta Weir, former Examiner reporter and current reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, will moderate.

This free meeting will be Tuesday, November 12 from 7:30 to 9pm at the Silver Spring Civic Building, located at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring. For more information, visit ACT's website.

Learn about BRT on Route 29: Do you live, work, or travel along Route 29 in Montgomery County, also known as Colesville Road and Columbia Pike? Join CSG, Communities for Transit, and other local organizations hosting an educational event about Bus Rapid Transit for residents and business owners along 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville. Speakers will include Montgomery County Planning Board member Casey Anderson, county planner Larry Cole, and Chuck Lattuca, BRT system manager at the Montgomery County Department of Transportation.

With 17,000 projected riders by 2040, a BRT line along 29 is an important part of Montgomery's rapid transit network. The event will take place on Wednesday, November 13 from 6 to 9pm at the White Oak Community Recreation Center, 1700 April Lane in Silver Spring. Click here to RSVP or for more information.

Spend Virginia's transportation money: Virginia's newly-passed transportation funding bill means new money for projects in Fairfax County. How should the county spend it? County officials are holding a series of dialogues to learn what residents want and find the best ways to get them moving.

There will be four meetings over the next few weeks at various locations throughout the county. The next one is this Monday, November 4th from 6:30 to 8:30pm at the Falls Church High School auditorium, 7521 Jaguar Trail in Falls Church, followed by meetings in Fairfax and Reston. For more information, visit the county's website.

Envision better biking in Fairfax: Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling will hold its second-annual Bicycle Summit tomorrow with keynote speaker Jeff Olson, author of The Third Mode: Towards a Green Society. Citizens, community leaders, bike advocates, and transportation professionals will discuss ways to make Tysons and other parts of Fairfax County more bicycle-friendly.

The event will be from 9am to 3:30pm. The registration fee is $25 and includes lunch and other refreshments. To register, visit the event website.

Montgomery County Councilmember Roger Berliner will hold a town hall meeting tomorrow night to discuss issues affecting District 1, which includes Bethesda, Potomac, White Flint, and Poolesville. Berliner has been a strong supporter of the county's Bus Rapid Transit proposal, which the council is currently studying, making this a great opportunity to give him your thoughts on the plan.

The meeting starts at 7pm at Garrett Park Elementary School, located at 4810 Oxford Street in Garrett Park, near the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station. For more information, visit this page.

Roads


Will Maryland spend its new transportation funds wisely?

On Monday, Governor Martin O'Malley will announce which Montgomery County transportation projects he will support with funds from the new transportation bill passed earlier this year. While there may be good news about transit, advocates are concerned about the selection process and new highway projects that may receive funding.


The ICC. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

After years of a dwindling transportation trust fund, Maryland is ready to get started on a large backlog of important transportation projects. While the new Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act will raise $4.4 billion over the next 6 years, it's not enough to finance all the competing priorities. It is unclear how state leaders will decide how to allocate the money.

Advocates from 10 organizations working in Montgomery and Prince George's counties who supported the bill released a letter today applauding funding pledged so far for transit, bicycling, and pedestrian infrastructure. But they also raised concerns over new highway capacity projects and a project selection process done behind closed doors.

Unlike Northern Virginia, there is no clear public process for project selection for transportation funding in Maryland. In the fall, MDOT will release their draft project list and hold a series of open houses, but only after the O'Malley administration has spent the spring and summer announcing the projects it will fund.

So how do transportation funding decisions really happen in Maryland? One important influence is "priority letters," from each county telling the state which projects they want funding for. But the letters themselves are often not created with much public input, and while the Montgomery and Prince George's letters embrace some transit, bike, and pedestrian projects, both focus heavily on roads.

An important influence in Maryland's transportation funding decisions should be the stated goals of the Consolidated Transportation Program (CTP). It includes several important goals that ought to be used as selection criteria for funding, including doubling transit ridership by 2020, encouraging transit-oriented development and smart growth, prioritizing system preservation, and preservation of the natural environment and rural resource lands. Just last week, O'Malley made a major announcement regarding his plan to tackle climate change, which includes investment in public transit and transit-oriented development as a core strategy.

Despite a stated commitment to smart growth, climate protection, and system preservation, O'Malley's list of projects for Prince George's includes two major new road capacity projects that direct hundreds of millions of dollars far from Metro stations or inside-the-Beltway communities. $150 million would go towards a new interchange at MD 4 (Pennsylvania Avenue) and the Suitland Parkway, which would fuel the 6,000-acre Westphalia greenfield scheme. Such an investment promises to undermine local and state goals of encouraging transit-oriented development at the county's 15 underutilized Metro stations.

O'Malley will announce Monday which projects he will fund in Montgomery, but if the county's priority letter is any indication, his list will include road projects that may work against smart growth goals. Four of these projects are road widenings and interchanges along the Route 28/198 corridor. These projects alone would cost $500 million dollars, while drawing commuters and toll revenue away from the already underutilized Intercounty Connector, which runs parallel to the road.

Meanwhile, previous announcements indicate that Maryland may use a public-private partnership, effectively borrowing against future revenues, to help pay for the Purple Line. Governor O'Malley has already pledged $280 million for design and right-of-way acquisition, but in order to open by 2020 as scheduled, the light-rail line needs $1.1 billion of local funding.

A partnership with a private company would enable the state to pay for the project over a longer time horizon. But because the Purple Line is the top priority for both Montgomery and Prince George's counties, transit advocates are asking that state funds not go to lower-priority projects until it is certain that alternative financing is really a good deal for taxpayers and riders.

Since there will never be unlimited funds for transportation, the state's investments for suburban Maryland should go towards projects that are consistent with the state's long-stated smart growth and climate protection goals. If Maryland wants to address the area's traffic challenges and air and water pollution, the state must make building the Purple Line, funding the MARC Growth and Investment Plan, and WMATA's Momentum plan its top priorities.

Transit


Northern Virginia picks transportation projects to fund

For years, leaders in Northern Virginia have been asking Richmond to let Northern Virginia raise its own money to spend on its own transportation priorities. They are finally getting the chance.


Almost $20 million will go to new VRE railcars. Image from BeyondDC.

When the Virginia General Assembly passed a broad new transportation funding bill earlier this year, it included a section letting Northern Virginia raise and allocate hundreds of millions per year. Those new taxes began rolling in on July 1, with the beginning of Virginia fiscal year 2014.

On Wednesday night, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) officially approved its first set of projects. The authority allocated about $210 million, split roughly evenly between transit and roads.

The largest projects include the Silver Line's Innovation Center Metro station, new VRE railcars, and widenings along Route 28.

NVTA also approved a bond validation lawsuit that will preemptively ask Virginia courts to rule on NVTA's legality. That process should take 6-9 months, and NVTA will have to wait until it's over to actually start spending money. Taking the issue to court now means NVTA won't have to spend years fending off other court challenges.

The project list is below. For more details, see the project description sheets on NVTA's website.

ProjectFunding (millions)Location
Transit and multimodal projects
Innovation Center Metro station$41  Fairfax Co.
VRE railcars$19.8Regional
VRE Lorton station 2nd platform$7.9Fairfax Co.
WMATA buses$7  Regional
WMATA Orange Line traction power upgrades for 8-car trains$5  Regional
DASH buses$3.3Alexandria
Potomac Yard Metro station environmental study$2  Alexandria
Crystal City multimodal center bus bays$1.5Arlington
VRE Gainesville extension planning$1.5Regional
VRE Alexandria station pedestrian tunnel & platform improvements$1.3Alexandria
Herndon Metro station access improvements (road, bus, bike/ped)$1.1Fairfax Co.
ART buses$1  Arlington
Leesburg park and ride$1  Loudoun
Loudoun County Transit buses$0.9Loudoun
Route 7 Tysons-to-Alexandria transit alternatives analysis (phase 2)$0.8Regional
Falls Church pedestrian access to transit$0.7Falls Church
Duke Street transit signal priority$0.7Alexandria
PRTC bus$0.6Prince William
Alexandria bus shelters & real-time information$0.5Alexandria
Van Buren pedestrian bridge$0.3Falls Church
Falls Church bus shelters$0.2Falls Church
Road projects
Rt 28 - Linton Hall to Fitzwater Dr$28  Prince William
Rt 28 - Dulles to Rt 50$20  Fairfax Co.
Belmont Ridge Road north of Dulles Greenway$20  Loudoun
Columbia Pike multimodal improvements (roadway, sidewalk, utilities)$12  Arlington
Rt 28 - McLearen to Dulles$11.1Fairfax Co.
Rt 28 - Loudoun "hot spots"$6.4Loudoun
Chain Bridge Road widening$5  Fairfax City
Boundary Channel Dr interchange$4.3Arlington
Rt 1 - Featherstone Rd to Mary's Way$3  Prince William
Edwards Ferry Rd interchange$1  Loudoun
Herndon Parkway intersection with Van Buren St$0.5Fairfax Co.
Herndon Parkway intersection with Sterling Rd$0.5Fairfax Co.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Columbia Pike streetcar may still get federal funding

Arlington's plans to use federal funding for the Columbia Pike streetcar hit a snag recently, when the project was not accepted into the FTA's Small Starts grant program. Streetcar opponents took this news as a sign that the project is in trouble, but it's not.


Photo by cliff1066™ on Flickr.

The FTA isn't turning down the project permanently. They are requesting changes and suggesting Arlington reapply later this year. Federal rules changed with last year's MAP-21 transportation bill, and so Arlington has to apply under the larger New Starts program instead of Small Starts.

The delay is good, anyway. Another new rule is that once a project is accepted into New Starts, construction has to begin within 2 years. Even if it had won funding this year, Arlington is 3 years away from construction, so next year is the right time to apply in any case.

County Board chairman Walter Tejada confirmed at a board meeting last night that county leaders are still committed to funding and building the streetcar.

It's not really $410 million

Some reports erroneously claim the that FTA turned down the streetcar because it thinks the project will cost $410 million. That's not what happened, explained Arlington transit bureau chief Steven DelGiudice.

The FTA's report on Columbia Pike does cite a $410 million figure, but that isn't for the cost of the streetcar. Instead, it's an insurance figure that shows the worst-case scenario, if everything imaginable were to go wrong. It shows the streetcar cost, plus the cost of other tangential projects nearby, plus a $70 million contingency figure in case of overruns.

What sort of tangential projects? Things like 12th Street in Pentagon City. 12th Street doesn't exist right now. A private developer will build it as part of a skyscraper development, regardless of whether or not there is ever a streetcar.

Once 12th Street is there, it will be a convenient place to put the streetcar. But since Arlington plans to run the streetcar down a street that isn't built yet, FTA's rules say the total has to include all of the street's costseven though all of the money comes from a developer. FTA assumes that if the development is delayed, the county might have to build the road itself.

The total cost also has to show an insurance contingency for those tangential projects, like 12th Street. Double whammy. FTA also recommended that the county increase its contingency fund from 18 to 35%.

There are a few new costs the FTA identified that will probably increase the budget. They anticipate very heavy ridership on the route, and recommended that the county look at a larger vehicle to meet these capacity demands.

The result is a slightly higher real cost figure, and another paper figure that's way bigger than what the project will actually cost to build. FTA knows it won't really be $410 million. In fact, their cost range says $255 million is just as likely, with the probable cost somewhere in between.

Because the rules of Small Starts require including everything and cap projects at $250 million, the streetcar project has to go under a different program. The Small Starts program is for small, low-cost, particularly easy-to-accomplish projects. Most new rail lines, and many large BRT lines, go through the New Starts program instead.

Since the New Starts program is larger, that also means that the project can get more total dollars of federal funding. The statute allows FTA to provide up to 80% of the funds for a project, but because there are more projects applying than available funding, the federal share is more likely 50%.

The chances of getting New Starts funding are good

According DelGiudice, the FTA's report is very positive for the streetcar and affirms the county's projections.

FTA believes the ridership will be strong, and even suggested Arlington increase the capacity of the streetcar with more cars and a bigger railyard. That shows FTA believes this is a good place for rail transit.

Despite not being accepted into the Small Starts program this year, FTA's report on Columbia Pike is actually very good news and shows the FTA thinks it's a strong project. Arlington can reapply under the larger program, and since they're 3 years away from construction anyway, doing so is not even a delay.

The decision ultimately lies with the County Board to choose whether to apply under New Starts, but if they do, the streetcar project stands a good chance of winning approval next year.

Transit


Maryland, Virginia, fund these projects!

Maryland and Virginia will both enact major new transportation funding bills this year. Neither bill says exactly which projects will be funded, but here are the top 10 projects in Maryland and Virginia that most deserve to get some of the funds.


Tysons grid of streets, no. 2. Image from Fairfax County.

1. 8-car Metro trains: Metrorail is near capacity, especially in Virginia. More Metro railcars and the infrastructure they need (like power systems and yard space) would mean more 8-car trains on the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines.

2. Tysons grid of streets: Tysons Corner has more office space than downtown Baltimore and Richmond put together. Converting it to a functional urban place is a huge priority.

3. Purple Line: Bethesda, Silver Spring, Langley Park, College Park, New Carrollton. That's a serious string of transit-friendly pearls. The Purple Line will be one of America's best light rail lines on the day it opens.

4. Baltimore Red Line: Baltimore has a subway line and a light rail line, but they don't work together very well as a system. The Red Line will greatly improve the reach of Baltimore's rail system.

5. Silver Line Phase 2: The Silver Line extension from Reston to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County is one of the few projects that was earmarked in Virginia's bill, to the tune of $300 million.

6. Arlington streetcars: The Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars both have funding plans already, but could potentially be accelerated.

7. Route 7 transit. Leesburg Pike is the next Rosslyn-Ballston corridor waiting to happen. Virginia is just beginning to study either a light rail or BRT line along it.

8. Corridor Cities Transitway: Gaithersburg has been waiting decades for a quality transit line to build around. BRT will finally connect the many New Urbanist communities there, which are internally walkable but rely on cars for long-range connections.


Corridor Cities Transitway, no. 8. Image from Maryland MTA.

9. MARC enhancements: MARC is a decent commuter rail, but it could be so much more. Some day it could be more like New York's Metro North or Philadelphia's SEPTA regional rail, with hourly trains all day long, even on weekends.

10. Alexandria BRT network: This will make nearly all of Alexandria accessible via high-quality transit.

Honorable mentions: Montgomery County BRT network, Potomac Yard Metro station, Virginia Beach light rail, Southern Maryland light rail, and VRE platform extensions.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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