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Posts about Transportation Reauthorization


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.


House bill delayed, but transit, walking, biking aren't safe yet

Congress is in recess, and the House's atrocious transportation bill has been dismembered and delayed, but if you want to preserve funding for transit and active transportation, don't let your guard down yet. There's still plenty to watch out for as the House and Senate attempt to reauthorize federal transportation programs.

Photo by jcolman on Flickr.

There are some stark differences between the House and Senate bills. But what is scariest may be their similarities.

When two companion pieces of legislation pass their respective chambers, a conference committee combines them. The committee is made up of members of both the House and the Senate, and it is their job to resolve differences between the two bills. (Most recently, a conference committee forged a compromise on extending payroll tax cuts and unemployment insurance.)

Committee members are limited in that for each provision, they must choose either one chamber's version or the other's—they generally do not have the power to come up with something new on the spot. Furthermore, if the two bills agree on something, the conference committee can't alter that provision.

There are already large chunks of the House and Senate bill that are the same. Both eliminate dedicated bike-ped funding, for instance. The House bill admittedly goes much further than the Senate's, but if the two bills were to be conferenced right now, Safe Routes to School, Transportation Enhancements and Recreational Trails would all be history.

The committee would then have to choose how to weaken those programs: eliminate them altogether, like the House bill, or keep them eligible under Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program but let states opt out of them. Another critical choice: fund CMAQ from the Highway Trust Fund, as in the Senate bill, or fund it from the the smoke-and-mirrors "alternative transportation account" envisioned in the House bill.

"We have to keep the bike-ped programs alive in the Senate to be able to fight for them in conference," David Burwell, director of the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment, told Streetsblog. "That's why Senate Amendments 1549 [Cardin/Cochran, making CMAQ city-friendly] and 1661 [Klobuchar, protecting Rec. Trails] are so important to the bicycling community. If they don't get added to the bill, the fight is over in conference."

There are other amendments pending in the Senate that would add some language already adopted by the House. The House's Keystone XL pipeline proposal has already passed as part of H.R. 3408, the "drill" part of "drill and drive." If a Keystone XL pipeline amendment succeeds in the Senate, it cannot be removed by the conference committee.

Both chambers have to vote on the committee's end product, the conference report, before they send it to the president. If the committee doesn't think it can reach a compromise that will pass both chambers, we're headed for an extension. If it passes both but President Obama vetoes it, as he has promised to do with the House bill, we're headed for an extension.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.


Oppose a House transportation bill so bad it "defies belief"

Today, thousands of people from across the country are calling their representatives in the House to ask them to vote NO on HR 7, the House transportation bill that jeopardizes transit service across the country, makes our streets less safe for walking and biking, fails to put people to work, and does far too little to fix our crumbling roads and bridges.

Photo by TriMet on Flickr.

We do desperately need an updated transportation bill to lay the groundwork for a prosperous 21st Century, but this bill is unfortunately not it.

We're joining with thousands of others and calling on our supporters today to call their representatives to oppose this bill.

You can use that page to look up your representatives and find a short script to use on a phone call, if you need it. Then, if you like, you can fill out the short form and send us a note to let us know how the call goes and join our ranks.

Today, we're just one part of a massive national call-in day rallying opposition to this bill from an unbelievably broad set of groups. The environment, business, labor, transit riders and transit workers, elected officials... the list keeps growing. All of whom agree that the House bill makes two steps backward for every step forward.

For one, this bill would erase a 30-year precedent—signed by President Reagan—of dedicating about 20% of the federal fuel tax into a trust fund for transit systems across the country, jeopardizing the daily rides for millions of people who depend on transit for their commutes or livelihood each day.

Instead, it would shift that money into roads and highways and force transit to go begging before Congress each year for annual appropriations. For three decades until last Friday, Congress subscribed to the wisdom of investing in transit to help address congestion, cut down on road repair costs, provide options other than driving, and power local economies.

This bill also eliminates the tiny bit of dedicated funding that local communities use to make their streets and roads safer for people on foot or bike, as well as the program that helps children walk to school safely in their communities. This is done in the name of "devolving control to states," though it virtually guarantees instead that states will override the wishes of local communities with more highways while ignoring the safety fixes local communities desire to make walking or biking safer and more convenient.

Residents on both US coasts today woke up to strong editorials in their papers of record opposing the bill. The New York Times called it "so uniquely bad" that it defies belief. The Sacramento Bee made it absolutely clear that this bill "gives public transportation the shaft." From the Times editorial this morning:

Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, rightly calls this the "worst transportation bill" he has seen in 35 years of public service. Mr. Boehner is even beginning to hear from budget-conscious conservatives who believe that relying on user fees is the most fiscally responsible way to pay for all transportation programs. Perhaps the House speaker will listen to these warnings and send the bill back to the relevant committees for the wholesale revision it needs. If he does not, and it passes, then the Senate must stop it.
The Bee makes it clear that in a time when people are looking for more options for getting around each day, this bill takes away exactly what more Americans are so desperately seeking.
If they have their way, the nation's transportation network will take a giant step backward to a "roads only" policy for dedicated funding. The full House votes next week on a multi-year transportation bill (House Resolution 7)—and Americans should urge their members of Congress to reject it. The United States needs a transportation system that gives people a variety of options—roads, rail, bus, bicycle paths and walkways. It needs to find ways to reduce emissions and traffic congestion.
From coast to coast, it's becoming clear that this bill needs to be defeated. We're looking forward to working with the House on a better bill, but this is not that bill.

Join with others, make a phone call, and then spread the word via email and your social networks today if you've already called. Use the #HouseTranspoFail hashtag today on Twitter.

(DC residents, we know your representation plight—most of our staff are DC residents too. But you should still call Delegate Norton and tell her why this bill is dangerous. Though she can't vote on the full bill, she does sit on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that wrote the majority of this bill and can vote there. And she should still hear about the damage this would do to WMATA and other local-area transit agencies.)


House GOP moves to decimate transit funding

In a move that should dispel any remaining thoughts that the House transportation bill will ever be signed into law, the Ways and Means Committee announced today that they will try to forbid gas tax revenue from funding transit.

Photo by Jim Nix / Nomadic Pursuits on Flickr.

The Ways & Means bill (PDF) would funnel all gas tax revenue toward road programs, redirecting billions of dollars per year away from transit, which for decades has received about 20% of fuel tax receipts.

Instead, the House GOP wants transit funding to come entirely from the general fund, pitting transit against all other government spending. To offset that spending, $40 billion would have to be cut from the rest of the federal budget.

Essentially, the House GOP is holding transit hostage to achieve budget cuts elsewhere—and they don't seem to care if the hostage dies. They will also be tossing aside a precedent set during the Reagan administration, one that has enjoyed bipartisan support through several transportation bills, including the 2005 law, known as SAFETEA-LU, which was passed by a Republican president and Republican Congress.

Dan Smith of USPIRG put it like this:

The House Ways and Means Bill stops just short of defunding America's public transit system. Instead it says that the real money with a funding source will all go to highways, while the tooth fairy will pay for transit. For Big Oil and the highway lobby, this is a dream, but it's a nightmare for America's transportation future.
In keeping with the secretive nature of the current House's transportation reauthorization process, the announcement comes just one day before Ways and Means will mark up the bill. There is even less time to protect transit funding in the House bill than there was to protect bike/ped programs in today's T&I markup.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog DC.


House transportation bill is "a march of horribles"

The House's five-year transportation bill is slated for release on Tuesday. Based on an early summary, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act looks like a return to 1950s-style transportation policy. It is particularly unkind to transit and bike/ped programs, and to cities in general.

Highways 'n' pipelines: The cover page to the House transportation bill brochure. Image from Politico.

The bill's overarching themes, again in the absence of official language, seem to be:

  • Funneling as much money as possible to highways
  • Giving even more power to spend that money to state DOTs, not cities and metro regions
  • Shortening the environmental review process
  • Eliminating programs "that do not have a federal interest," which apparently includes all dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs
  • Doing away with discretionary transit programs, which would spell the end for the very successful TIGER
  • Augmenting gas tax revenue with a yet-unspecified revenue stream from oil and gas drilling

One example the summary gives of a project not in the federal interest is the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, which distributed four $25 million grants "to demonstrate how improved walking and bicycling networks can increase rates of walking and bicycling." One of those grants went to Minneapolis, which is making great strides in promoting biking and walking. If reauthorized at current levels, NTPP would account for 0.04 percent of the bill's total appropriations.

The "flexibility" afforded states to minimize spending on bike/ped and transit, as well as the bill's reliance on oil drilling, have advocates outraged. The Sierra Club's Jesse Prentice-Dunn told Streetsblog that the bill represents "a significant step backwards for safe biking and walking."

"Americans are looking for transportation choices that can conveniently get them where they need to go without polluting the planet," Prentice-Dunn said. "Today more than 12 percent of trips are made by foot or bike, yet less than 2 percent of our nation's transportation funding goes towards biking and pedestrian infrastructure.

According to the Alliance for Biking and Walking, bike commuting increased 57 percent between 2000 and 2009. Instead of increasing investment in transportation options that Americans want, the House bill appears to funnel more dollars towards roads, further deepening our addiction to oil."

The bill would also cut Amtrak's operating subsidy by 25 percent in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, would keep existing lanes on the interstate highway system toll-free, and would allow states to use up to 15 percent of their total highway funds to capitalize state infrastructure banks (currently the maximum is 10 percent).

Deron Lovaas, Federal Transportation Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Streetsblog that the bill "looks uninspiring at best, giving states a lot of authority without a lot of accountability."

"The language about curtailing environmental reviews is alarming, but it's probably the tip of the iceberg compared to what we'd see in the bill itself. It's a march of horribles... and they'll go much further than the Senate in eliminating environmentally beneficial programs," Lovaas said. "I can't help but conclude that the house Republican leadership has hijacked the transportation bill and shattered the idea of bipartisanship in transportation policy making."

The new date for the full bill's unveiling is Tuesday, January 31.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.
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