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Posts about Transportation Reauthorization

Roads


Federal transportation bill clings to the status quo

Congress passed a major transportation bill last week, authorizing more than $100 billion in spending for highways, transit, and other modes over the next 2 years. The bill changes a number of rules and shifts the ways in which money is distributed, in an effort to preserve highway funding.


Photo by Talk Radio News Service on Flickr.

The bill generally maintains the status quo of federal trans­por­tation spending, but attempts to stretch the amount of money available for highways. Transit gets the same amount of money as before, which is not nearly enough for the projects states want to build.

Bicycle and pedestrian programs got consolidated into a single, smaller program, half of which state governments control directly. States uninterested in building sidewalks and bike trails can spend the money on more roads instead.

The bill makes $54.6 billion available per year for the next 2 years. About 80% of funding will go to highways, and about 20% will go to transit. Both the overall funding level and the 80/20 split are comparable to existing allocations.

The gas tax will remain at 18.3¢ per gallon, as it has since 1993 when gas was $1.07. Since this won't produce enough revenue to maintain current spending, almost $20 billion in federal general fund money will be infused into the transportation fund.

Highways

As in every previous federal transportation authorization, the bulk of spending authority goes to highways. Most of the money will be automatically distributed to state Departments of Transportation, which will have the authority to determine spending on roads within their borders.

Little about this system will change, except that a little bit more money is available for highways due to cuts to other modes.

One thing that may change is the make-up of the fleet of cars and trucks using the highways. This bill eliminates the so-called "gas guzzler tax," which raised a small amount of money but provided a disincentive to buying the least efficient cars and SUVs.

Another change is that more funding, up to $1 billion per year, is being directed to the TIFIA program, which offers loans to states and localities for major capital projects, instead of direct grants. TIFIA loan details are more favorable than private market deals, so this is a good option for large projects that don't get grants. Meanwhile, by expanding a program that requires participants to pay it back, the feds stretch limited dollars further.

Transit

At one stage of negotiations, Republicans in Congress sought to eliminate transit funding altogether. That would have been a disaster. Thankfully, it didn't happen.

Much of the transit money flows to transit providers through automatic formulas, similarly to how highway money flows to state DOTs. The largest pot of non-automatic money is in the New Starts program, which is the major federal source for money to build new rapid transit routes.

New Starts is funded at $1.9 billion per year, which is $50 million per year less than the existing allocation.

For that money, the list of project types that are eligible to receive New Starts grants has been broadened, to include more BRT projects, as well as projects that expand the core capacity of existing transit lines. Also, a special category has been established for "demonstration projects" that are primarily funded with local or private money, and only need a little federal funding.

New Starts is extremely important. Virginia received $900 million from it to help build the Silver Line, and Maryland is counting on it to help fund the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, and Baltimore Red Line. Expanding the list of eligible uses is good, but it further spreads out an already-diminished pot of money.

The competition for New Starts grants will be fierce, and the supply definitely won't meet the demand.

Tax-exempt benefits for transit riders will continue to be capped at $125/month, while drivers can still get corresponding parking benefits of up to $240/month. This is a blatant subsidy for driving over transit use, and is extremely unfortunate.

Some positive news is that there are two new transit programs established in the bill.

The first is a safety program that will institute nationwide safety standards for railcars, and require large transit agencies to establish safety plans. This is a direct outgrowth of WMATA's problems in recent years, especially the June 2009 Metrorail crash.

The second new program will offer planning grants to help communities plan and build Transit Oriented Developments around transit stations, which is a nice win for smart growth.

Bike/ped

Bicycle and pedestrian funding was a major target for attack, and a major point of contention. Many rural and conservative congresspeople don't understand the importance of these modes to urban transportation, and view them as unnecessary luxuries.

At several points throughout the negotiation process, it looked like dedicated bike/ped funding might be eliminated entirely. With the final adopted bill, it was reduced from about $1 billion annually to about $700 million annually. That's too bad, but the fact that any survived at all is good news.

Of that $700 million, half will be distributed via automatic formula to Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) for use on bike/ped projects. Previously all of this money had been distributed to states, so sending it to metropolitan areas is an interesting change, and could be seen as an experiment in funneling money directly to metropolitan areas instead of through states.

Unfortunately, the other half of the $700 million in bike/ped money will go to state DOTs, who will have the option of either using it for bike/ped projects, or flipping it into their highway funds and using it for road projects. If all the states do this, it will decrease the total amount of federal bike/ped funding to just $350 million.

Although it is not strictly a dedicated bike/ped fund, another pot of money that is often used for bike/ped projects is the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program (CMAQ). Capital Bikeshare has largely been funded via CMAQ, so it is a significant program.

The good news is that CMAQ funding levels appear to be level. The bad news is that the list of eligible project types that can use CMAQ funds has been broadened to include a larger variety of road projects.

Environmental issues

Republicans in Congress had wanted to include in the bill funding for the Keystone Pipeline, which would have transported crude oil from Canada to refineries in the US. Democrats opposed it, and the fight was one of the most widely-reported sticking points in the negotiations.

Funding for the pipeline was not included, which was the major Republican concession agreed upon, in response to Democrat concessions regarding bike/ped and transit funding.

However, another aspect of the bill may have even more important and widespread effects.

A rarely-reported provision aimed at streamlining project delivery will eliminate the requirement for federal environmental review for a wide range of projects, including those within existing right-of-way, those that are below certain cost thresholds, and those that replace damaged infrastructure.

Excluding those projects will undoubtedly save millions of dollars, and months or even years of project planning. But it will also eliminate a key step in project review, and reduce the ability of localities to object to undesirable projects imposed on them by states. It is definitely a mixed blessing.

Summary

Just about everyone in the transportation policy world agrees that the current federal funding system isn't working. Costs keep rising, and with the gas tax flat, spending power keeps dropping. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees about what to do.

Some want to find more sustainable revenue sources, and use them to build multimodal 21st century infrastructure. Others want to eliminate multimodal programs and focus on spending limited money on what they see as the most important priority, highways.

This bill is a compromise. It puts off the larger questions of our country's long term needs, and takes a slight regressive lean, in order to continue for 2 more years the overall status quo of an 18.3¢ tax going to an 80/20 highway/transit split.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Government


House GOP would wipe out local control over bike/ped funds

The House GOP couldn't pass a transportation bill of their own, so now they want to undo one of the major bi-partisan achievements in the Senate transportation bill.


Image from Elvert Barnes via the Ped-Bike Information Center.

As part of its counter-offer to the Senate in conference committee negotiations over the transportation bill, the House appears to be proposing the elimination of the Cardin-Cochran amendment, which would allow local jurisdictions to control funds for bike/ped projects.

The House proposal, sent to the Senate yesterday, would would effectively block access to bike/ped funding for many towns, cities, and regions located in states where the department of transportation places a low priority on street safety.

Politico Pro reported that House conferees confirmed that the first part of its counter to the Senate offer would "retain the Transportation Enhancements program's overall structure but would let states opt out." Transportation Enhancements is one of the principal funding mechanisms for bike/ped projects. Neither Politico nor Streetsblog has seen a copy of the couter-offer, so it's unclear exactly how the proposal is framed.

Initially, under the Senate's MAP-21 bill, TE was subsumed under a subset of the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program called "Additional Activities," which states could opt out of entirely. But thanks to a bi-partisan amendment crafted by Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran and Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, decision-making authority for those funds was devolved from states to local governments, which tend to place a higher priority on active transportation programs.

The House proposal appears to erase that progress.

"By allowing states to opt out of Additional Activities funding, the House counter-offer would prevent local governments from accessing funds for small-scale, local transportation projects," said Mary Lauran Hall, communications coordinator for America Bikes. "It pits state control against local control. We've heard from mayors and local elected officials across the country that they want funding for these projects. It doesn't make sense to take away the tiny portion of transportation dollars that trickle to local governments."

The House is expected to complete its counter-offer over the next few days.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

Government


Virginia needs a tea party to overthrow Agenda 639

It's time for Virginia residents to storm the harbor of their state capitol and throw the tea overboard. Last week, Governor Bob McDonnell signed a transportation bill that massively expands the hand of government and overrides local decisions about how communities should grow and change. How's that for big government?


The Gadsden flag, from Wikipedia.

SB 639 has an unprecedented, frightening provision that lets the Commonwealth Transportation Board, appointed by the governor, override a city or county's own plans. Localities will have to include transportation projects the state wants, no matter what the local residents of that area think.

It's astounding to see this from a supposedly conservative governor and state legislature. One of the most common­sense principles of current conservative movements is smaller government.

The national, and Virginia, Tea Party holds as a fundamental principle that "Governing should be done at the most local level possible where it can be held accountable." Individual counties and cities ought to be able to decide how they want to grow, or not grow. Loudoun, Charlottesville, and Roanoke should make these desicisions instead of the state government in Richmond.

Tea Party groups have been alarmed about "Agenda 21," which they say is a United Nations plan to undermine property rights. There's no UN conspiracy (though planners shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the underlying fears), but Virginia has a very real assault on liberty happening today. Call it Agenda 639.

Agenda 639, or Senate Bill 639 as passed into law, forces each county to match local transportation plans to dictates from the Commonwealth Transportation Board. If a locality doesn't want a particular transportation project, too bad. If VDOT spends money on the project anyway and a county rejects it, they have to reimburse VDOT, even if the county never wanted the project in the first place.

That's not all. Virginia has for many years used a formula to allocate transportation money to the various counties and cities. That gave local levels of government more say over their transportation. Agenda 639/SB 639 moves hundreds of millions of dollars out of the formula, giving the CTB unprecedented control of how it's spent. The governor in Richmond will now have more power to spend tax money than local leaders. That's the opposite of "the most local level possible."

If Virginia's small-government conservatives aren't alarmed at this, they should be.

One of the debates on the national transportation bill is to what extent the federal government should mandate that states and localities spend money on specific types of projects, even if those are projects, like paving sidewalks, that many people support to improve safety and economic development of an area.

The House transportation bill simply eliminates these set-asides. This has led many people in cities where people walk and bike in large numbers to worry that their state departments of transportation would refuse to fund such projects.

A bipartisan amendment from Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) found a common sense and small government approach to this issue: let local communities, or regional metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), choose how to spend the money themselves.

This is the right strategy for both liberals and conservatives. There's little enthusiasm for making more transportation decisions in Washington. Even in Washington, we'd rather make the transportation decisions at 55 M Street, SE (the District Department of Transportation headquarters) than inside 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE (the US Department of Transportation), 2 blocks away.

Look at the saga over streetcar tracks on the 11th Street bridge. Federal regulations made it impossible for DC to put tracks on a bridge, a project local voters supported and would have paid for with local money. Too many transportation projects are too expensive and take too long because of federal rules.

Let's get rid of many of these federal rules and give the power to "the most local level [of government] possible." Transferring federal power to big state governments isn't enough to advance liberty. Give the power to local counties and cities.

With this bill on his record, Bob McDonnell might well turn out to be Virginia's most big-government governor ever. Let Northern Virginia decide what Northern Virginia wants, let Hampton Roads choose what's best for Hampton Roads, and let the Appalachian west set its own course.

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