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Posts about Transportation Reauthorization


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'sthey 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 precedentsigned by President Reaganof 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 optionsroads, 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 plightmost 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 elsewhereand 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.


All states are "donees" when it comes to highways

For quite some time, the country was divided into "donor" and "donee" states, each group either contributing more revenue than they received from the Federal-Aid Highway Program or vice versa.

But that is no longer the case, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. Between 2005 and 2009 every state in the union received more Federal-Aid Highway dollars than it contributed through fuel taxes and other fees.

The amount of Federal-Aid Highway money given to each state per dollar contributed to the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund for fiscal years 2005-2009. Image from GAO.

But while that might sound great, the truth is it's bad news no matter where you live. This was only possible because the roughly $200 billion in Federal-Aid spending over that time period included $30 billion from the general funda trend that presents some rather obvious sustainability concerns, to say nothing of equity for non-drivers.

"A significant amount of highway funding is no longer provided by highway users," GAO stated in the report.

Discrepancies in "rate-of-return" were also mitigated by the 2005 SAFETEA-LU which offered an "equity bonus" to donor states. The program guaranteed a minimum return to states, resulting in a higher rate-of-return for all states, and as much as a 25 percent increase for some.

That doesn't mean funding discrepancies have been eliminated, as the map above illustrates.

Despite the fact that all states received more money than they contributed to the program, some 28 still receive a relatively lower rate than 22 others, GAO reported: "Thus, depending on the method of calculation, the same state can appear to be either a donor or donee state."

The donor-donee issue has been a bone of contention in the federal reauthorization process and part of the conservative push for greater state-level control of transportation funding decisions. By claiming that their state is a "donor" state, some argue that their state should retain full control over its transportation funds, without federal decision-making or any cross-subsidy of other states' transportation needs. In essence, they would wind down the federal program and all national transportation aims, in exchange for autonomous state-by-state transportation programs.

But GAO cautions that over-emphasis on rate-of-return issues can distract from more essential concerns for the country's surface transportation program. For this reason, GAO lists the Federal-Aid Highways program on its "at-risk" list.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), ranking member of the House Transportation Committee, hopes the new information will throw water on the contentious issue and help streamline the reauthorization process. In a press release, Rahall had this to say:

Instead of being consumed by the parochial 'donor' and 'donee' debate, this GAO report confirms that Congress should be working toward crafting a surface transportation bill that meets the needs of a 21st century national transportation system. Using rate of return as our rationale for how we spend our limited transportation dollars simply detracts from the national focus when we ought to look at the larger picture and determine what investments best help create American jobs and grow our economy.
Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol HIll.


Transportation in Congress roundup: Leaders agree on extension, GOP would kill Amtrak, & Obama proposal

A lot has been going on in Congress around transportation policy this week, and Tanya Snyder has been on top of it at Streetsblog Capitol Hill. Here are a few quick excerpts from her latest articles, which you can read in full on the Streetsblog site.

House and Senate agree on 6-month transpo extension

Photo by THE Holy Hand Grenade! on Flickr.
Just days after a Senate committee asked the full chamber to consider a four-month extension of SAFETEA-LU, new negotiations have replaced that idea with a six-month extension at current spending levels. The bill also extends the gas tax. ...

The extension is a clean one, with no changes in policy. That means bike/ped funding, which has been under threat over the last week, will remain for the next six months, at least. And the extension will be funded by the same 18.4 cent federal gas tax the U.S. has had since 1993, which was also due to expire September 30 and which is also renewed by this action.

The extension will stick to current funding levels, authorizing $24.78 billion in spending from the Highway Trust Fund for the first half of FY2012 (which begins October 1). That's almost $19.8 billion for highways and $4.2 billion for transit.

That's far more than the FY2012 budget just passed by the Transportation and HUD Appropriations subcommittee in the House, which agreed to $27.7 billion for highways and $5.2 billion for transit for the entire year. Although this extension can authorize more spending than that, actual spending levels are up to the appropriators. Experts say that at this level, most of the money would go to pay states back for projects already built, and new highway project funding could be cut by as much as 75 percent.

But higher spending levels also have their down side. "Maintaining current highway and transit spending levels for any period of time deepens the Highway Trust Fund's revenue hole," writes Jeff Davis, noting that according to the CBO, "the Highway Account of the Trust Fund will run out of cash at these spending levels in the first few months of calendar year 2013, with the Mass Transit Account running dry a year or so behind that)."

Read more »

Rail advocates: House bill would kill Amtrak

The 2012 transportation budget passed by a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee yesterday cut all high-speed rail funding and slashes Amtrak's operating grant by 60 percent. What's more, it forbids Amtrak from using that money to fund short corridors.

Ridership on those short corridors grew five percent in the last year (PDF). Twenty-seven train lines, including several in and out of Chicago, would suddenly see their federal funding disappear, if the House budget were to become law. That would only leave the Northeast Corridor and a handful of cross-country routes; half Amtrak's ridership would be cut instantly.

According to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a rail advocacy group, the danger goes further than just the short corridors. The organization asserts that "the bill really would kill all of Amtrak because loss of the short corridors would cut revenues and balloon costs for Northeast Corridor and national network (overnight) trains… Overhead costssuch as for station facilities and maintenance back shopswhich now are shared among routes would be dumped on the surviving trains. For example, the Texas Eagle would become the sole user of the St. Louis and Fort Worth terminals and six Illinois stations. And Amtrak's Chicago terminal costs would be borne solely by eight overnight trains."

Read more »

Good news and bad news: Obama's plan would work, but GOP won't pass it

[Friday] morning brought some useful indicators about the outlook for President Obama's jobs bill. Good news first: Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, says President Obama's job creation plan will likely add 1.9 million jobs, cut the unemployment rate by a percentage point, and grow the economy by 2 percent.

The plan includes $50 billion for infrastructure, with an emphasis on transportation and schools, and the creation of an infrastructure bank capitalized at $10 billion. ...

Despite Moody's upbeat analysis of the president's proposal, stocks tumbled [Friday] morning. According to Bloomberg, the gloom wasn't about the merits of the plan but the likelihood of Congressional passage. "Even as President Obama made an effort to put that plan together," said James Dunigan, chief investment officer in Philadelphia for PNC Wealth Manage­ment, "there's not a whole lot of confidence that Congress will pass [it]."

Read more »


Inflation, not bike sharing, is why the gas tax isn't enough

Congressman Eric Cantor (R-VA) recently railed against urban bike sharing, blaming it, pedestrian funding, and more for the gas tax not covering all transportation needs. But the real problem is that the gas tax is bringing in less revenue than in the past.

Virginia, Maryland, and DC are also raising record low amounts of revenue, adjusted for inflation, compared to almost any time in the history of their gas taxes.

Cantor says that federal bicycle and pedestrian funding in FY 2011 was around $1 billion. He claims that we spent $53 billion on highway and transit projects, which are the only types of transportation projects he considers appropriate. That means we spent 1.85% of our transportation budget on bikes and peds.

Unfortunately, the gap in our transportation budget is much larger than $1 billion.

The actual problem with the highway and transit trust funds is inflation. The federal gas tax was last raised in 1993. And since a penny buys less every year, so does the gas tax.

The federal motor fuel tax rate is currently 18.4¢ per gallon. That's the highest it's ever been in nominal dollars. But if we adjust for inflation, we see that in January 1994, 18.4¢ was worth 28¢ in 2011 dollars. That's a reduction of 34% in the value of the tax.

In actual buying power, the high point of the federal gas tax was in 1960. That year, the rate was just 4¢ (raised from 3¢ in 1959). But if we adjust for inflation, we find that 4¢ in 1960 is equal to 31¢ today.

In fact, at present we're on the cusp of dropping below the value of the gas tax when it was implemented in 1932. That year it was just one penny per gallon, which translates to 16.7¢ in today's dollars. That's not much less than the 18.4¢ we pay now.

In Cantor's home state, Virginia, the trend is even more stark. The gas tax is bringing in less money than at any time since the Commonwealth instituted the tax in 1923.

Back then, Virginia drivers had to pay a whopping 3¢ on each gallon of gasoline. But three pennies in 1923 is the equivalent of 40¢ today. That alone is more than today's Virginia and federal gas taxes combined, which add to 35.9¢/gallon.

Like the federal tax, the buying value of Virginia's state motor fuel tax has declined almost steadily since its peak in 1933, when it was at 87.8¢ in 2011 dollars (a nickel in 1933 dollars). It was last raised in 1987, when it went from 11¢ per gallon to 17.5¢ per gallon (raised from 22¢ to 35¢ in 2011 dollars). Due to inflation, Virginia's gas tax has lost 50% of its value over the last 24 years, and is now lower than ever before.

This is a difficult concept for many people to understand, at least in the abstract. That makes it easy for people to accidentally or purposefully mislead with figures. Consider the position of the Virginia Petroleum, Convenience and Grocery Association, the industry group representing many convenience stores in the state:

Whereas, In 1987, the first full year after Virginia's motor fuel taxes were last increased, the state collected $468 million. For 2009 motor fuel tax collections were $904 million, an increase of 93.1 percent; ... Now Therefore Be It Resolved, ... VPCGA opposes any effort to expand local motor fuel taxation, as well as any effort to increase the rate of the existing local taxes...
Did you see what VPCGA did there? They looked at the revenues from 1987 and the revenues from 2009 and compared them directly. But a 1987 dollar is not equivalent to a 2009 dollar. It is intellectually dishonest to suggest that tax collections increased by 93%.

If we adjust the 1987 gas tax revenue to 2009 dollars we can make a more valid comparison. $468 million in 1987 would be a touch over $872 million in 2009 dollars. That means that the 2009 revenue of $904 million is only a 3.67% increase over the 1987 revenue.

Another problem with gas tax revenues is the growth in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). VMT growth is outstripping growth in gas tax revenues. This is due somewhat to an increase in gas mileage. In Virgina, VMT increased from 54.8 billion in 1987 to 80.9 billion in 2009. That's a VMT increase of 48%, while motor fuel tax revenues increased by less than 4% (inflation adjusted) over the same period. This means that people are driving a lot more without paying the correspondingly higher taxes that would be needed to keep the transportation system fully funded.

Like the rest of the country, Virginia is facing ever greater demand for all modes of transportation, but it has not raised the primary tax funding these programs in 24 years. And in fact, due to inflation, that tax's value has been dropping.

The other jurisdictions in the region face the same issues.

Maryland last raised its gas tax in 1992. It's been declining ever since in inflation-adjusted dollars. The current tax of 23.5¢ was worth 37¢ of 2011 buying power in 1993. The high point for Maryland's gas tax was in 1933, when the 4-penny tax was worth 70¢ in 2011 dollars.

The District just raised its gas tax by 3.5¢ to match Maryland's, from 20¢ to 23.5¢. DC hit its peak in 1955, when its 6¢ tax was worth 51¢ in 2011 dollars.

Raising taxes is a hard proposition for many politicians these days, but if we're going to keep our transportation infrastructure competitive then we need to find new revenues. The gas tax may be all or part of the solution, and it is overdue to be raised.

It's been over 700 days since the transportation bill (SAFETEA-LU) expired. It's been extended 7 times since then. It's now set to expire on the 30th of this month. If Congress lets the extension expire, the federal gas tax will stop. So will construction projects and grants all over the country.

We need a new bill, not just an extension. And this bill needs to be more progressive than the last one. We need a bill that encourages complete streets, recognizes the ability of livable communities to affect transportation demand, and one that gives states and regions more flexibility to decide the best course.

But the only way we'll be able to catch up on our decaying infrastructure and prepare for the future is to deal with the decline of the value of the gas tax. Now that Congress is back in session, it's time to deal with this mess.

If our elected officials do decide to raise the gas tax, one way to stop continued inflationary slide in its value would be to make it a sales tax rather than an excise tax. So, instead of charging a tax each gallon, the tax could be levied on each dollar spent on gasoline.

Whatever the solution is, it won't be found merely by cutting bikesharing programs, even if that does make a good soundbite in Mr. Cantor's district.

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