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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.”

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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:

Read more…

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Movement in Congress to Let Cities and Towns Access Federal Transpo Funds

A state-level funding grant program in Pennsylvania is helping fund this campus master plan for Drexel University in Philadelphia. Image: Transportation for America

A grant program in Pennsylvania is helping fund the campus master plan for Drexel University in Philadelphia. Image: Transportation for America

Finally, proof that Congress is capable of crafting smart transportation legislation and not just zany ways to avoid raising the gas tax.

A bipartisan coalition of 10 lawmakers is supporting the Innovation in Surface Transportation Act, which would help cities, counties, and other local governments directly access federal funding for transportation projects, according to Transportation for America.

The proposal, first floated last year, would let local governments compete for at least $5 billion of the $50 billion or so in federal transportation funds allocated to states each year.

Under the bill, local agencies in each state would apply for grants, with a statewide committee selecting winners. The committees could include, for example, local chambers of commerce, active transportation advocates, transit agencies, air quality boards, ports, and others.

The bill would make better use of federal transportation dollars for two main reasons:

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DeFazio, Norton, and Larsen Take on Dangerous Street Design

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is already proving that he’ll put some muscle into the fight for bike and pedestrian safety in his new post as ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Before even starting his new job as Ranking Member on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio is going to bat for bike and pedestrian safety. Photo: ## Maus/Bike Portland##

Before even starting his new job as ranking member on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio is going to bat for bike and pedestrian safety. Photo: Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland

DeFazio and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), top Democrat on the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, have signed on to fellow T&I Democrat Rick Larsen (D-WA)’s letter asking the Government Accountability Office to look into the recent rise in bike and pedestrian fatalities, which increased 6 percent between 2011 and 2012.

At the state and federal level, efforts to improve the safety of walking and biking often blame the victim — as the Governors Highway Safety Association did when it flagged the recent increase in cyclist fatalities without noting that biking rates have gone up much more. DeFazio and company are emphasizing a much more fundamental problem: street design.

In their letter, they state:

[W]e are concerned that conventional engineering practices have encouraged engineers to design roads at 5-15 miles per hour faster than the posted speed for the street. This typically means roads are designed and built with wider, straighter lanes and have fewer objects near the edges, more turn lanes, and wider turning radii at intersections. While these practices improve driving safety, a suspected unintended consequence is that drivers travel faster when they feel safer. Greater speeds can increase the frequency and severity of crashes with pedestrians and cyclists who are moving at much slower speeds and have much less protection than a motorized vehicle affords.

The GAO responds to lawmaker requests like these by investigating the matter and reporting back to help members of Congress develop a deeper understanding of the issues so they can set better policy. The GAO itself makes recommendations for improvement in the reports.

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Congress Trims TIGER (But Doesn’t Hack It to Pieces) in 2015 Spending Bill

Transformations like this one, in Lee County, Florida, are what TIGER is all about. Images: ## County##

Transformations like this one, in Lee County, Florida, are what TIGER is all about. Image: Lee County

The drama is over; the House and Senate have both passed the “cromnibus” spending bill [PDF] that funds government operations through the end of fiscal year 2015. And the Department of Transportation’s TIGER program survived.

While small, TIGER has proven to be a significant source of funding for local transit and active transportation projects, enabling cities, regions, and transit agencies to directly access federal support without going through state DOTs.

Back in May, Republicans proposed to cut the discretionary TIGER grant program by 83 percent and to limit TIGER grants to the GOP’s own myopic view of transportation priorities: roads, bridges, ports, and freight rail. They explicitly stated that the funds should not be used for “non-essential purposes, such as street-scaping, or bike and pedestrian paths.” As Streetsblog reported in May, they also wanted to cut eligibility for a bunch of projects related to transit, sidewalks, carpooling, safety, planning, and congestion pricing.

The final outcome is better than that but worse than 2014. TIGER got trimmed from $600 million in funding this year to $500 million in 2015, while the House didn’t get the ban on funding for active transportation projects that it wanted.

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Don’t Look Now, But the House Amtrak Bill Actually Has Some Good Ideas

The House's rail authorization proposal is harsh, but not as harsh as it would have been under the previous chair. Photo: ## Transportation Committee##

The House’s Amtrak proposal isn’t going to transform American passenger rail, but it might actually help around the margins. Photo: House Transportation Committee

Tomorrow, the House Transportation Committee will consider a bill that changes the nation’s policies on passenger rail. The proposal, while it includes some cuts, is a departure from the senseless vendetta many House Republicans have waged against Amtrak in the past. The National Association of Railroad Passengers, NARP, says the plan contains “commonsense regulatory and governance reforms.”

In an encouraging act of bipartisanship, the bill was crafted and introduced jointly by Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-PA), Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-WV), and the chair and ranking member of the rail subcommittee, Jeff Denham (R-CA) and Corrine Brown (D-FL). You can read the bill summary here [PDF] and the full text here [PDF].

The House bill would cut Amtrak funding by 40 percent next year. The reduction is less devastating than it appears, however, since it just brings authorized funding in line with the actual amounts Republicans have been appropriating in recent years. Congress was authorized to spend $1.96 billion on Amtrak in 2013, for instance, but the House only appropriated $1.41 billion. Advocates know the cuts could have been deeper.

The bill stops short of pushing for full privatization of the Northeast Corridor, the main part of the network that turns a profit, which Shuster and Amtrak Hater-in-Chief John Mica had pushed for previously. It does further separate the Northeast Corridor from the rest of the system, requiring Amtrak to reinvest NEC profits back into the NEC. House Republicans say the idea is to “eliminate Amtrak’s black-box accounting,” in which Amtrak (quite transparently, I may add) subsidizes money-losing long-distance service with the profits from the NEC.

Meanwhile, the bill continues the very long-distance services that come under constant fire from the GOP for inefficiency. After all, key GOP constituencies live in rural areas whose only long-distance transportation option may be Amtrak. Brookings has recommended dispensing with these routes, but Congress has found the politics of that too burdensome.

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