Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Transportation Financing

Transit


Koch-funded groups: Cut all federal funding for walking, biking, transit

You know it's time to fight over the federal transportation bill when the fossil fuel-soaked elements of the conservative movement start agitating to stop funding everything except car infrastructure.


As inflation eats away at the gas tax, the Highway Trust Fund is going broke. But a group of conservatives is pretending that the problem is transit and "squirrel sanctuaries." Image from Brookings.

Yesterday, a coalition of 50 groups, several funded by the Koch brothers, sent a letter to Congress arguing that the way to fix federal transportation funding is to cut the small portion that goes to walking, biking, and transit [PDF]. The signatories do not want Congress to even think about raising the gas tax, which has been steadily eaten away by inflation since 1993.

The coalition membership includes many stalwarts of the Koch network, including Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth. The Koch brothers recently went public with plans to spend nearly $900 million on the 2016 elections.

The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card. Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is "regressive" because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can't afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.

"This scorched-earth proposal would eliminate the ability of local transportation agencies to invest in their own transportation priorities and lock us all into a 1950's—style highway- and car-only mentality that flies in the face of common sense—not to mention economics and what the free market and simple demographics have been telling us for years," wrote Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists.

Eliminating federal funding for transit would devastate many American cities, where transit agency budgets would be thrown into turmoil. And while federal funding for biking and walking can make a big difference because the infrastructure is so cost efficient, killing those programs won't affect the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund. The savings wouldn't even be enough to cover the cost of rebuilding a single interchange in Wisconsin.

Congressional Republicans tried this maneuver before during the last transportation bill reauthorization battle, unsuccessfully, although they did eventually whittle away secure funding for programs like Safe Routes to School. That didn't actually solve any problems, but it was a fine way for the GOP to pretend like the country can go on spending like a drunken sailor on highways.

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Bicycling


What to watch for in the 2015 Virginia General Assembly

The Virginia General Assembly's 2015 session kicks off today in Richmond. Smart growth and environmental advocates are gearing up for a busy, if short, session. While things evolve quickly at the beginning of any legislative session, there are already several issues and bills to look for that may impact smart growth in Northern Virginia.


Photo by Virginia Guard Public Affairs on Flickr.

Transit funding

Because legislation over the past four years didn't make transit a priority, it faces big funding shortfalls. 65% of Virginia's population and gross state product lie within the urban crescent (from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads), and with an aging population in rural areas, transit needs are growing.

Yesterday, Governor McAuliffe announced a package of transportation initiatives including a proposal to shift $50 million per year from ports, aviation, highways, and freight rail to transit. This helps, but isn't a long-term solution.

Transportation policy reform

Advocates expect that bills to reform the Public Private Transportation Act (PPTA) will try to prevent future disastrous project decisions, like Route 460 out of Hampton Roads, which wasted $300 million in taxpayer funds without having permits in hand. This year, proposed reforms to the PPTA include requiring better risk analysis and greater legislative oversight.

Highway advocates hostile to transit have tried for many years to make "congestion reduction" the main criterion for selecting transportation projects. Last year, the smart growth community won important amendments to a bill, HB2, which set more balanced criteria to give transit projects a fair chance at funding.

Unfortunately, transit opponents are back this session with bills to force VDOT to evaluate Northern Virginia projects solely under the congestion reduction standard. This would force officials to ignore the benefits of transit for moving more people, providing an effective commute option, reducing air pollution, promoting smart growth development, and maximizing walk, bike and transit trips.

Bicycle and pedestrian priorities

Legislators are proposing bills to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, including anti-dooring bills, bills to make it easier to safely and legally pass cyclists with a 3-foot buffer, and bills to require stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks.

Another bill would ensure localities don't lose state funding if they make bike improvements on local streets. Today, changing road from two lanes each way to one lane each way, plus a center turn lane, plus bike lanes (as Fairfax County did with Lawyers Road) could reduce a jurisdiction's funding under the state formula.

Standards for Uber, Lyft, and other services

Ride-hailing services have hit the scene across the country, offering new options for getting around without owning a car. States are addressing how to properly regulate these services, and Virginia is no exception. Issues include insurance, background checks for drivers, access for the disabled and those without credit cards, and use of hybrid or other high-efficiency vehicles.

Threats to land conservation

Virginia's very successful Land Preservation Tax Credit program is facing significant cuts, even though it has effectively helped Virginians to voluntarily conserve tens of thousands of acres in farms and forests, and helped communities reduce sprawl and the costs of public infrastructure.

Opponents of land conservation are also pushing legislation designed to undermine the conservation easement program, impacting the right and ability of private landowners to conserve their land. Expect to see smart growth and conservation groups across the state partner to defend this program.

Potomac bridges

It seems that each year brings new bills pushing for new highways across the Potomac far upstream from the American Legion Bridge. New bridges have the potential to impact Great Falls, Reston, and eastern Loudoun, fueling more sprawl and diverting funds need for investing in transit and fixing the American Legion Bridge. Each year, we've won bipartisan support to stop these bills. We'll see if they pop up again.

Specific details on particular bills will become available on the legislative system as they are filed and published. We'll follow up with bill numbers, details, and links in upcoming posts as the legislative session continues.

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Government


Should Congress be the ones to deliver more and better transportation infrastructure, or should we?

Now that the cromnibus crisis is crover, it's not too soon to remember that the current federal surface transportation spending authorization is going to run out in six months. Before things get down to the wire, we should remind ourselves of why surface transportation finance has become such a messy issue.


Results from a recent focus group study on transportation funding. Image by Lake Research Partners and Bellweather Research and Consulting.

Last summer, Congress allowed the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to nearly go bankrupt before providing a last-minute bailout. But that infusion from the General Fund, along with a dozen short-term extensions and authorizations, is the type of money that's kept federal surface transportation limping along since the last long-term authorization expired in 2009.

Ever since, the federal government has dispensed funds in a way that keeps infrastructure maintenance and construction on a flatline, short-term budget while requiring states and regions to provide plans for the long-term. It doesn't make sense.

The federal surface transportation program currently has no vision; it's a formula rather than a dynamic plan. And in five years of waiting, neither the Obama administration nor members of Congress have filled the void.

A big part of the problem is that transportation has lost the public's trust

Congress is unlikely to raise the gas tax even as prices plummet. We're all completely fed up with crumbling roads and incomplete streets. But instead of blaming a do-nothing Congress, transportation professionals need to confront the fact that actually no one wants to dedicate revenue to our work because the American transportation planning process is opaque and technocratic, wasteful, and unresponsive to public priorities. Some even call it elitist.

Our region has certainly fallen victim to this dynamic. In 2013, a series of focus groups led by the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in DC, Maryland, and Virginia showed that people are generally against attempts to increase revenue for transportation.

But after group participants considered alternatives, like increased tolling or a instituting a charge on vehicle miles traveled, support for increasing the gas tax rose from 21 percent to a majority of 57 percent. Even more telling, a whopping three-quarters of focus group participants wanted more money to go to transit, and 58 percent backed more funding for pedestrian and bicycle projects. Directing new revenue to roads came last, at 53 percent.

A recent national poll by a bipartisan pollster team (and sponsored by my employer, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy) found similar results across party lines, demographic groups, and geographic regions among likely 2016 voters. When asked to distribute a hypothetical $100 in tax dollars among highways, transit, and pedestrian and bike infrastructure, voters divided the money far more evenly among these three pots than Congress currently does.

There is a clear difference between the public's priorities and what the current planning process serves up. Voters of all kinds would support funding transportation infrastructure if we addressed this cognitive dissonance.

Crowdsourcing is a new way for the public to get involved in financing and supporting transportation projects

The federal government could take the wheel in realigning how it invests in transportation infrastructure to match public priorities. But is it likely to do so?

A lot of people are tired of waiting to find out. As an alternative to hoping for money from Washington, staff from the crowd-resourcing platform ioby recently gathered in DC with transit, walking, and bicycling advocates to brainstorm ways to apply their grassroots funding model to projects in the Washington region.

Participants noted that crowd sourcing doesn't just bring purchasing power, but also an opportunity for donors to show political and emotional buy-in for projects in their communities. And while crowdfunding isn't going to build a billion dollar bridge or transit line, a project leader in Memphis recently used the platform to raise matching funds to leverage $4.5 million in other funding to build a two-mile protected bike lane.

Perhaps this new form of civic engagement for transportation projects will help push our leaders toward a new vision for American surface transportation.

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Transit


Chevy Chase grasps at straws in the Purple Line fight

The Town of Chevy Chase has run out of coherent arguments in its fight to keep the Purple Line away from its borders.


The Purple Line in Maryland. Rendering by MTA.

With a Republican administration arriving in Annapolis, endangered shrimp-like creatures are no longer in fashion. So in a series of blog posts this week, former Chevy Chase mayor David Lublin focuses instead on the project's finances. He makes two main points in his criticism of the Maryland Transit Administration's plans for the Purple Line: that the state will turn to private partners to help fund it, and that the state expects it to carry more passengers than other light rail lines around the country.

But these are strengths, not weaknesses.

Lublin's claim that the project is weak because it uses a public-private partnership (P3) has things backwards. The project's merit is why the state chose it as the vehicle for P3 funding. Maryland could afford to build the Purple Line with current revenues, but it needs money for other transportation projects.

The total of the road and transit projects around the state is more than what the state can finance within its debt limit. Under Maryland law, P3 financing doesn't count against the limit because it is not paid back out of taxes. (In this case, fare revenue will repay the investors.) The state selected the Purple Line as a vehicle for P3 financing rather than some other facility because it judged that it would be unusually attractive to private investors. This judgment has proved correct, demonstrating the project's financial soundness.

Compared to other transportation projects, the Purple Line is the best investment Maryland can make

Maryland faces serious budget pressures, but that does not mean it can or should stop building transportation infrastructure. Over the next six years, the state plans to spend $7.2 billion on capital projects through the State Highway Administration, and $6.2 billion on transit through MTA and WMATA.

The state relies heavily on county governments to prioritize transportation investments. In 2013, following the increase in the gas tax, MDOT announced funds for replacing the Nice Bridge, a project that will cost $1 billion to serve an estimated 37,000 cars per day, because that's what Calvert Charles County prioritized. MDOT also funded design for the Thomas Johnson Bridge, estimated to cost over $800 million, because that's what Calvert and St. Mary's Counties wanted.

In Montgomery and Prince George's alone, there are dozens of road widening and interchange projects in the pipeline that collectively cost billions. In Montgomery, there are at least eight interchanges, including the Georgia Avenue/Norbeck Road interchange ($142 million), the US-29/Fairland Road interchange ($148 million), a new interchange at I-270/Newcut Road ($138 million), and four more interchanges on US-29 that will cost an additional $500 million. In Prince George's, officials have plans for an interchange at MD-4/Suitland Parkway for $150 million, and for seven interchanges on Indian Head Highway totaling $606 million.

Ten interchanges cost as much as the state's share of the Purple Line. Which of these will create more access to jobs and stimulate more economic development? Prince George's and Montgomery know the answer, and for many years their leaders have identified the Purple Line as their transportation priority.

Lublin claims the Purple Line's projected ridership is inflated, but that's not true

Lublin's second claim is that Purple Line proponents have overestimated its ridership. For this argument, he relies on a blog post by the well-known light rail critic Randal O'Toole, who asserts the Maryland line won't carry any more riders than others around the country.

O'Toole doesn't look at the specifics of the state's ridership forecast—which, as I showed recently, is probably too low rather than too high—but instead relies on general observations about the route. These range from very dubious ("no major job centers" in Montgomery County) to irrelevant (the average density of the built-up sections of the county, including Germantown and Olney) to just plain false (he says many University of Maryland classrooms are not within walking distance of a future station).

Even worse, O'Toole gets the numbers completely wrong. He says the final Environmental Impact Statement forecasts 46,000 riders a day in 2030; actually, it says there will be 69,300 in 2030 and 74,160 in 2040. Similarly, he misquotes the draft EIS36,000 rather than around 65,000 (the route the state later chose is a hybrid of alternatives with forecasted ridership of 62,600 and 68,100).

Based on O'Toole's analysis, Lublin infers that fare revenues will fall short of estimates. He then throws in a complete red herring, asserting that Baltimore bus fares will pay to run the Purple Line. It would have the same degree of truth, and be just as misleading, to say that car registration fees paid in Garrett County finance the free courtesy van at Martin Airport east of Baltimore. Maryland collects revenue from air, water, and ground transportation throughout the state into a single trust fund. All regions contribute, and all benefit.

David Lublin is not a stupid person, and he is familiar with the Purple Line ridership forecasts. While he served on its council, Chevy Chase paid consultants a lot of money to critique the state's numbers. If the arguments in his recent blog posts are the best he's got, that speaks volumes about the weakness of the case against the Purple Line.

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Events


Events roundup: Post-holiday fun

After a short holiday break, we are jumping right back into a busy week of fun-filled events. Learn about Buzzard Point, Montgomery County rapid transit, and President Obama's transportation funding strategy. See new apps and tools using Capital Bikeshare data, and learn how smart growth and environmental protection go hand-in-hand in Virginia.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The future of Buzzard Point: This section of DC has started to change with the nearby baseball stadium and will change far more if a soccer stadium comes to the area. GGW contributor David Garber is moderating a panel discussion about Buzzard Point development Tuesday, December 2, 6:30 pm at 101 M Street SW.

Obama's transportation strategy: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, wil discuss the Obama administration's transportation funding strategy at a talk on Tuesday, December 2. It's at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm.

Capital Bikeshare technology: Coders around the region have continued to build useful and fun apps and visualizations using Capital Bikeshare data. The third CaBi hack night is coming up on Thursday, December 4. People will show off their creations at the WeWork Wonder Bread Factory, 641 S Street NW starting at 6 pm.

Montgomery County rapid transit: If buses are more your flavor, then spend your Thursday night learning about the proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) line for Montgomery County. The Coalition for Smarter Growth and Communities for Transit will host an informational open house at the Activity Center at Bohrer Park, 7:30-8:30 pm, where you can get up to speed on the proposal for 10 major BRT routes to connect several communities in the County.

Greener smart growth: Interested in saving the environment while supporting smart growth? Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the MVCCA Environment and Recreation Committee to consider how smart growth can help support restoring the watershed around Route 1 in Fairfax County. Ecologist Danielle Wynne with Fairfax County will discuss the current restoration plans for the watershed and how we can balance growth and the future health of the environment. The event is on December 3 at the Mt. Vernon Government Center, 2511 Parkers Lane, from 7:15 to 8:30 pm.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

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Events


Events roundup: Georgetown and Fairfax

How can communities change while preserving what's important? Learn about these challenges in historic Georgetown and developing Route 1 in Fairfax. Also, learn about transportation financing, water and equity, and Ride On service at upcoming events around the region.


Photo by terratrekking on Flickr.

Change in Georgetown: Moving historic neighbor­hoods into the future can be difficult. Georgetown is trying to do that with its "Georgetown 2028" plan. On Tuesday, November 4, Georgetown BID transportation director Will Handsfield will discuss how the area can continue to develop a thriving commercial district and preserve its historic flair. That's at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW from 12:30 to 1:30 pm.

Growth and stormwater: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's next tour takes you to Route 1 in Fairfax, where growth will affect the local watersheds. Experts will talk about how Fairfax can add housing, stores, and jobs while preserving water quality. You need to RSVP for the tour, which is 10 am to noon this Saturday, November 1.

Public-private transportation: Curious about how the nation will finance transportation infrastructure? Tonight, Tuesday, October 28, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is hosting David Connolly and Ward McCarragher, both from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, to discuss a new report about how public-private partnerships can fund transportation. A wine and cheese reception will begin at 5 pm and the presentation will be 5:30-6:30 at 1666 K Street, NW, 11th floor. Please RSVP.

Ride On more: Montgomery County is planning to increase service on six routes, and will discuss the changes at a public forum Wednesday, October 29, starting at 6:30 at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.

Social equity and water: Georgetown's Urban and Regional Planning program's weekly lecture series is talking about "big investments in big cities." On Monday, November 3 at 5:30 pm, George Hawkins, the general manager of DC Water, will discuss how infrastructure also affects social equity. The talk is at Georgetown's SCS building at 640 Massachusetts Ave, NW. RSVP here.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

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Budget


Maryland voters could put transportation funding in a "lockbox." Here's what that would mean.

Legislators in Maryland are asking voters to amend the state constitution to ensure that transportation taxes go to transportation projects. They say it's necessary to keep governors from using the state's Transportation Trust Fund to balance the budget, as many have done since the 1980s.


Lockbox image from Shutterstock.

The fund gets revenue from the state gas tax, vehicle registration fees, titling taxes, and transit fares. If voters pass Question 1 in November, the governor won't be able to dip into it without declaring a state of fiscal emergency and getting a three-fifths vote from both houses of the General Assembly.

To date, more than $1 billion has never been reimbursed to the Transportation Trust Fund. The measure is similar to a constitutional provision that secures Maryland's education fund.

Who's in favor

Question 1's primary backing comes from the Committee to Protect Marylanders' Transportation Trust Fund, a coalition made up of the Greater Baltimore Coalition, AAA Mid-Atlantic, the Corridor Cities Transitway Coalition, the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, Purple Line Now, Red Line Now, the Maryland Association of Realtors, and various chambers of commerce. The committee hopes to raise between $400,000 to $500,000 in campaign funds.

Right now, various transportation taxes in Maryland are supposed to go toward improving safety, reducing congestion, and improving mass transit, air travel, and port facilities. Question 1 proponents say placing this money in a "lockbox" would ensure funding both now and in the future, a must for effective long-term planning.

Beyond the state budget, safeguarded funds would give Maryland more certainty to match federal funding grants moving forward. This is an important step in securing increasingly-scarce transportation funding, particularly from the Federal Transit Administration and its competitive grants like the New Starts program.

Who's not in favor

Formal opposition has yet to emerge, but some Republicans have publicly urged voters to turn down the proposition on the grounds that it doesn't offer strong enough protection. The lockbox would only protect state funds; the state could still take away the funding it gives to local jurisdictions for their discretionary use.

"It's not a lockbox. It's not very difficult to get past," Washington County delegate Andrew Serafini told the Baltimore Sun.

Who's keeping quiet

Last year, transportation advocacy groups rallied to support an increase in the gas tax. That coalition included many smart growth groups, bicycling groups, and others. So far, groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Action Committee for Transit have not taken a position on the lockbox issue.

Ben Ross, former ACT President, criticized the lockbox idea in a post here in 2011. He said that it reinforces what he calls the false notion that drivers pay for roads. The gas tax comes in lieu of a sales tax on gas (though, after last year's change, not as much as it once did), meaning that some of what drivers pay at the pump could have been general revenue were gas subject to the sales tax instead of having a dedicated gas tax.

Some transit and smart growth advocates have privately said they support the proposal but are nervous about the fact that this initiative is coming primarily from road lobbying groups like AAA and SMTA, who very clearly advocate for more money to expand roads.

Others worry that more spending on transportation overall, rather than more targeted spending on transportation, could ultimately help many residents get around faster in the short term, but also fuel the ongoing destruction of farmland and wilderness as more suburban developments crop up at the edge of the Washington and Baltimore regions.

This may explain why groups focused on a specific transportation project, like the CCT coalition or Purple Line Now, would sign on while smart growth organizations might have mixed feelings. This has been a similar tension in states that have considered ballot measures to find both roads and transit. There, many transit supporters cheered for the measures because they would build much-needed transit, while others worried more about the destructive effects of the road spending in the package.

This is good on balance

Passing the constitutional amendment to secure funding in a lockbox would send the message that transportation is a priority for Maryland residents. As transit and smart growth advocates continue to be engaged, these groups can ensure that the funding is spent wisely.

"This is a situation where the perfect should not be the enemy of the good," said Greater Baltimore Committee president Donald C. Fry, whose organization has been lobbying for a securing amendment for years. "This is clearly a good protection."

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Budget


More proof gas taxes don't pay for roads

Advocacy groups that think it's a waste of money to build transit or bicycle infrastructure often argue that since gas taxes come from drivers, so should all transportation funding.

This chart from Pew shows where the transportation money comes from; it's not all drivers:


Images from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Basically, the bluish areas are revenues which come specifically from drivers: gas taxes, vehicle taxes, and tolls. The greenish ones are other revenues: property taxes, general fund transfers, and other funds.

Some of the gas tax money goes to transit operations as well, but the vast majority doesn't:

Thanks to Matt Yglesias at Vox for pointing out this chart and the report.

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