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House Panel Calls on U.S. DOT to Measure Access to Economic Opportunity

A bill working its way through Congress may prompt federal officials to get a better handle on how transportation projects help or hinder access to jobs, education, and health care.

California Congresswoman Maxine Waters was one of the sponsors of the provision. Photo: Wikipedia

Representative Maxine Waters of California sponsored the provision. Photo: Wikipedia

The legislation, which passed out of a House Committee this week, calls for U.S. DOT to measure “the degree to which the transportation system, including public transportation, provides multimodal connections to economic opportunities, including job concentration areas, health care services, child care services, and education and workforce training services, particularly for disadvantaged populations.” Details of how the proposed metrics work would be determined by U.S. DOT in a formal rule-making process.

Sixty years of highway-centric transportation policies have systematically curtailed opportunity for poor Americans — spreading jobs and housing farther apart and limiting access to employment, especially for people without cars. Even today, projects like the Tampa Bay Express Lanes demolish properties in low-income urban areas to save time for more affluent suburban car commuters.

The provision in the House bill aims to make change through accountability. It won’t dictate policy, but it should illustrate how transportation policy decisions expand or diminish access to economic opportunity.

Advocates including PolicyLink and the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights campaigned for such legislation for years, but it was not included in the last federal transportation bill.

Read more…

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Congress Expected to Level Tax Benefit for Transit and Car Commuters

A federal policy that has encouraged Americans to drive to work instead of taking the bus or the train won’t tilt the playing field toward car commuters so much.

Those who take the bus or train to work will soon enjoy the same tax benefits as those who drive. Photo: Wikipedia

People who take the bus or train to work should soon be eligible for the same tax benefits as people who drive. Photo: Wikipedia

A bill that extends provisions of the tax code will permanently set the maximum transit commuter tax benefit at the same level car commuters get for parking expenses. Both classes of commuters can now pay for those costs with up to $255 in pre-tax income per month. The tax deal is expected to clear Congress this week, reports Forbes.

Currently, the monthly pre-tax expense for transit riders is capped at $130, while the cap for parking is set at $250. The mismatch primarily works against commuter rail and express bus services, which can easily cost more than $130 per month.

In recent years, lawmakers went back and forth between temporarily leveling the playing field and stiffing transit riders.

Jason Pavluchuk of the Association for Commuter Transportation applauded the measure, which would take effect in 2016. “This provision will eliminate the financial incentive to drive alone and will increase transit,” he said. “Further, this will help both transit riders as well as drivers who will benefit from less congested roads.”

While commuter tax benefit parity is an improvement, eliminating the benefit entirely would be better.

A report released last year by TransitCenter and the Frontier Group pointed out that commuter tax benefits amount to a gigantic transfer from low earners to high earners, who are best positioned to take advantage of them. Also, the maximum benefit may now be level for individual commuters, but in the aggregate the vast majority of these tax incentives will continue to go toward driving, an enormous subsidy that makes rush hour traffic congestion worse.

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The Best and Worst of the New 5-Year Transportation Bill

The trucking industry was a big winner in the transportation bill negotiations. Photo: Wikipedia

The trucking industry was a big winner in the transportation bill negotiations. Photo: Wikipedia

Smart people are wading through the 1,300-page transportation bill that came out of conference committee earlier this week, and we’re starting to get a clearer sense of how it will change federal transportation policy for the next five years.

The House voted to pass the bill by an overwhelming margin just moments ago, and President Obama has already pledged to sign it, so it’s as good as law at this point.

This bill is not a major shift for federal transportation policy. It’s mostly an extension of the status quo funded by some accounting gimmicks. But national advocates for sustainable transportation and safer streets were able to notch a few wins in an adversarial political climate.

In his round-up for Transportation for America, Stephen Lee Davis lists some of the rays of hope:

More support for smart transit-oriented development projects
Due in part to the hard work of T4America, Smart Growth America and LOCUS over the last year, transit-oriented development projects will be eligible for the low-interest TIFIA and RRIF federal financing programs. The small pilot program of TOD planning grants was also preserved; grants that help communities make the best use of land around transit lines and stops, efficiently locate jobs and affordable housing near new transit stations, and boost ridership.

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5-Year, $300 Billion “FAST Act” Will Extend Transpo Policy Status Quo to 2020

They’ve done it. Representatives from the House and Senate have emerged from conference committee with a five-year transportation bill, which is expected to be quickly approved and become first “long-term” bill in more than a decade.

Streetsblog was unable to confirm that Congress will be using this as the cover for its new transportation bill.

The discouragingly-named “FAST Act” is 1,300 pages long, and everyone with a stake in the legislation is still having their policy wonks sort through it. But here’s a very broad outline: The $305 billion bill reserves $48 billion exclusively for transit and $205 billion for highways. While state DOTs do spend most of their “highway” money on highways, much of that money can be spent on surface streets or “flexed” to other modes if the agencies want. (Also, the bill lays out funding guidelines for passenger rail, but that will have to be meted out through a separate appropriations package.)

Stephen Lee Davis of Transportation for America says the bill mostly continues the transportation policy of the last 10 years. It contains small initial increases for both highways and transit and then raises them at the pace of inflation. The Transportation Alternatives Program — the small pool of funding for walking and biking — was the only program that was capped with no built-in adjustment for inflation. It will rise from the current $817 million annual allocation to $850 million and then be held constant.

“This bill essentially doubles down on [current policy] with some small changes, and it locks it in for 2020” Davis said.

Because no one in Washington is willing to raise the gax tax, the bill includes $70 billion in subsidies for the Highway Trust Fund from other sources. The subsidy could have been bigger, but late in the game, lawmakers backed off the idea of a six-year bill that would have reportedly cost $100 billion over and above what the gas tax brings in.

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Just How Bad Is the Final House Transportation Bill?

Nobody was expecting the GOP-controlled House of Representatives to put together a transportation bill that did much for streets and transit in American cities.

Congress passed a 6-year transportation bill this morning. Yay? Image: Transportation Dems

The House passed a six-year transportation bill this morning. Yay? Image: Transportation Dems

And they were right — there’s nothing to get excited about in the bill. But neither is it the total disaster for walking, biking, and transit it could have been. So how does the House bill stack up against the current law? It’s looking a little worse.

Amendments to the bill were heard earlier this week, and the final bill was passed just hours ago. Some last-minute changes made it in, but in general not the ones that would help modernize the nation’s transportation policy and reduce our dependence on driving.

The final House bill includes a $40 billion funding patch to cover the gas tax shortfall, which means it now has funding for six years instead of three. But the new money is very gimmicky. At the last minute, Texas Re­pub­lic­an Randy Neuge­bauer introduced an amendment to raid the Federal Reserve’s Capital Surplus Account, and it was approved overwhelmingly.

Prior to that, House leaders had not indicated (or figured out) how they intended to pay for the bill. Yesterday, they refused to even hear an amendment from Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer to raise the gas tax.

Neugebauer’s amendment allowed lawmakers to pass the long-term bill industry and government agencies have been begging for without doing the responsible (and politically courageous) thing and finding a revenue source that doesn’t amount to a desperate one-shot.

Read more…

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3 Bright Prospects for a Better Transportation Bill

The developer of Portland’s Zidell Yards, a transit-oriented development by the car-free Tilikum Crossing, says access to federal financing programs is critical to meeting increased demand for walkable urban housing. Photo: Chatterbox

Yesterday we reported on some of the terrible amendments that might get tacked on to the House transportation bill this week. But there are also some good ideas with bipartisan support among the hundreds of amendments submitted by members of the House.

Here are three amendments that have the potential to improve transportation policy in the U.S. — should legislators give them the thumbs up in the next few days.

Amendments 18 and 101: Financing for Transit-Oriented Development

Amendments 18 and 101 would both make federal loans available for the construction of walkable places around transit stations.

Amendment 18 [PDF], sponsored by Dan Lipinski (D-Illinois), Mike Quigley (D-Illinois) and Bob Dold (R-Illinois), would open up $30 billion in federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing to transit-oriented development projects.

“It would expand the eligibility so it’s not just about fixing railroads and ties, it’s about fixing up the station and the area around the station,” said Stephen Lee Davis of Transportation for America.

Similarly, Amendment 101 [PDF], sponsored by the bipartisan pair of Donna Edwards (D-Maryland) and Barbara Comstock (R-Virginia), would open up $200 million annually in loans from the TIFIA financing authorized by the Senate’s DRIVE Act to transit-oriented development projects. It would also lower the minimum project cost to apply for TIFIA financing from $50 million to $10 million.

T4A’s Davis says financing is still a big obstacle to transit-oriented development, because banks have been slow to adjust to changing preferences.

“This is a way for them to get them done and meet the surging demand for housing near transit and hopefully bring down prices in the process,” he said.

Read more…

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House Dems: We Won’t Support a Transpo Bill That Cuts Bike/Ped Funding

House Democrats won’t stand for any cuts to federal funding for walking and biking infrastructure. That was the gist of a letter signed by every Democratic member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week.

Rick Larsen, a congressman representing parts of Washington State, rallied Democrats to support funding for biking, walking and transit. Photo: Rick Larsen

Rick Larsen, a congressman representing parts of Washington state, rallied Democrats to support funding for biking, walking, and transit.

Groups aligned with the Koch brothers and their organization Americans for Prosperity have pushed to eliminate all federal funds for walking, biking, and transit. While Democrats are in the minority in the House, by coordinating as a bloc around this issue, they’re making it harder for the extreme elements in the Republican Party to roll back active transportation funding.

The letter, initiated by Washington representative Rick Larsen, states that Democratic committee members won’t support any bill that undermines the “Transportation Alternatives” program — the small pot of money dedicated to walking and biking.

“For the House transportation bill to be bipartisan, it must not cut funding for TAP or make policy changes that undermine the local availability of these dollars,” reads the letter, addressed to the committee’s two ranking Democratic members, Peter DeFazio (OR) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC):

Communities of all shapes and sizes — rural, urban and suburban — are clamoring for TAP dollars to give their residents lower-cost transportation options that reduce road congestion, improve safety for children and families, and boost quality of life. These types of projects are also essential to helping cities and counties increase property values, grow retail sales and attract tourism. While MAP-21 gave states the option of transferring up to half of TAP funds to other transportation priorities, just 10 percent of TAP funds have been transferred — clearly showing the demand for these funds across the country. This is a good program and it deserves to continue.

Congress has yet to make much progress on a long-term transportation bill to replace the previous bill, MAP-21, which expired last year. During the last transportation bill reauthorization process, biking and walking programs took a big hit. In an email to Streetsblog, Larsen said, “I do not want to see that happen again.”

Read more…

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Brace Yourself: Here Comes Another Attack on Bike/Ped Funding

Projects like this pedestrian-friendly streetscaping in Bayonne, New Jersey, might not get built without the crucial support of the federal Transportation Alternatives Program. Photo: ## Conservancy##

Projects like this sidewalk in Bayonne, New Jersey, might not get built without the crucial support of the federal Transportation Alternatives Program. Photo: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

If petty Congressional attacks on bike/ped funding were a drinking game, you’d be drunk by now. And now two House Republicans want to pour you another shot.

Reps. Sam Johnson (TX) and Vicky Hartzler (MO) have introduced a bill to eliminate the Transportation Alternatives Program, the largest source of federal funding for biking and walking projects. TAP is today’s curtailed and underfunded version of what used to be known as Transportation Enhancements. Without it, simple infrastructure we all depend on — sidewalks, trails, crosswalks, bike lanes — would get even less support from the federal transportation program. Other activities that mitigate the environmental damage caused by roads, like stormwater management, would also lose an important source of funding.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy warns that the (perfectly-named) Right-of-Way for American Drivers Act of 2015 (H.R. 2609) could be offered as an amendment to a transportation funding bill that will be voted on as early as today. If not, the measure could find a home in the next transportation reauthorization, due in less than two months.

“Programs like TAP are in high demand,” said Patrick Wojahn, RTC’s director of government relations, in a statement. “Today, 12 percent of all trips in the United States are made by biking or walking. These active-transportation modes continue to grow as options for more and more Americans, yet we only invest 1.5 percent of surface transportation funds in these programs.”

Three hundred organizations from all 50 states and the District of Columbia have signed a letter [PDF] urging Congress to support TAP.

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House Votes to Slash Amtrak Funding Just Hours After Horrible Crash

Just hours after seven people were killed and hundreds injured in an Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia, the U.S. House voted to cut funding for the passenger rail service.

Photo: Wikipedia

Early reports suggest the derailment was caused by excessive speed — exactly the type of crash that could be avoided with a new safety system that Amtrak is in the midst of installing on the Northeast Corridor. Watchdogs have identified a lack of funds as one obstacle to timely implementation of the system, known as Positive Train Control.

Nevertheless, the House voted this morning to approve an appropriations bill that cuts Amtrak funding by $260 million.

According to the New York Times, the train was traveling 100 mph on a stretch of track near Frankford Junction where the advised limit is 50 mph:

That area, in the Port Richmond section of the city, does not have a safety system called Positive Train Control that can, among other features, automatically reduce the speed of a train that is going too fast.

MSNBC says the House vote came after a heated debate about whether insufficient infrastructure funding was responsible for the crash.

Federal safety officials have required Amtrak to install Positive Train Control by the end of 2015. A report issued by the Amtrak Inspector General at the end of 2012 [PDF] concluded that a “significant challenge” to meeting the deadline is “ensuring that Amtrak has enough funds available to implement PTC.”

John Olivieri, national campaign director for transportation at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, called the House vote unbelievable. “The nation’s intercity rail network has seen growing ridership and Americans increasingly are looking for alternatives to driving,” he said. “They should be increasing the Amtrak budget, not cutting it.”

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Putting TIGER Spending in Perspective

Federal spending on TIGER compared to the total cost of various U.S. highway projects. Image: Streetsblog

Federal spending on TIGER compared to the total cost of various U.S. highway projects. Image: Streetsblog

The House’s current transportation spending bill calls for reducing the share of federal spending that goes to TIGER, a grant program for sustainable transportation projects in cities, from $500 to $100 million. The budget, meanwhile, holds highway funding steady.

Indianapolis' cultural trail is one of about 200 projects that have been funded through TIGER over its four-plus year history. Image: Visit Indy

Indianapolis’s cultural trail is one of about 200 projects that have been funded through TIGER over its four-plus year history. Image: Visit Indy

TIGER is an enormously popular program. In its second year, it received close to 1,000 applications totaling $19 billion from communities in every U.S. state. At that time, there was just $600 million in funding available. Last year it was reduced to $500 million.

Despite its overwhelming popularity, TIGER is constantly in jeopardy. Yet transportation project austerity does not seem to apply to highways. To illustrate, we thought it’d be interesting to compare the cost of a few highway projects to total TIGER funding. Keep in mind that TIGER funds about 50 innovative projects annually, from the Indianapolis Cultural Trail to Cleveland’s University Circle Rapid Station. The result is in the graph above.

Now, a little about those highway projects:

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