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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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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: ##http://bikeportland.org/2012/03/27/rep-defazio-takes-us-inside-the-transportation-fight-and-the-republican-psyche-69482##Jonathan 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: ##http://www.leegov.com/gov/dept/sustainability/Documents/Lee%20County%20TIGER%20v%20Grant%20Narrative.pdf##Lee 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: ##http://transportation.house.gov/uploadedfiles/railpacket.pdf##House 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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Why the Next Fight Over Bike/Ped Funding Won’t Be Like the Last

When Congress passed a two-year transportation bill in 2012, active transportation advocates had to scrape and claw for every penny of funding for walking and biking programs. When the dust settled, it seemed they would have to repeat the same old battles when the law expired.

Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN), who co-sponsored the Bike to Work Act this summer, is one of the bike community's new Republican friends in Congress. Photo: ##https://beta.congress.gov/member/erik-paulsen/1930##Congress.gov##

Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN), who co-sponsored the Bike to Work Act this summer, is one of the new bike-friendly Republicans in Congress. Photo: Congress.gov

Right now the current law is up for renewal in May, though it could very well be extended as-is with another short-term funding fix. But at some point, Congress will have to get serious about crafting and passing a new transportation bill. Will bike/ped funding be as contentious as last time?

Caron Whitaker of the League of American Bicyclists thinks not.

Of course, there will be some similarities, she told an audience at the Pro-Walk Pro-Bike Pro-Place conference in Pittsburgh yesterday. Two recent anti-bike amendments from senators Pat Toomey (R-PA) and David Vitter (R-LA) have already put national advocates on notice that they’ll be playing defense again.

With the funding question still totally unresolved, it’s unlikely the next bill will be flush with cash, so lawmakers are likely to start looking for “extraneous” things to cut, and some are sure to zero in on the tiny amount allocated to bike and pedestrian projects through the Transportation Alternatives Program. Whitaker guesses that advocates and grassroots supporters will have to mobilize three or four times in the next couple of years to fight off attacks like those.

Those are the similarities. But there are some significant differences, too.

There are now about 20 Congressional Republicans who reliably sign on to pro-bike legislation. The last time around, there were only three.

Read more…

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Congress Hits the Snooze Button on Transpo Funding Until May

Someone had to cave and last night, it was the Senate.

Closed for the summer. Photo: ##http://www.capitol.gov/html/EVT_2010061578974.html##Capitol.gov##

Closed for the summer. Photo: Politic365

The upper chamber had fought as long as it could to adjust the House transportation bill so it wouldn’t expire when the GOP controls both chambers of Congress. But senators were never willing to actually let the Highway Trust Fund go broke. U.S. DOT would have started cutting back on reimbursements to state DOTs as of today in the absence of an agreement.

After the House rejected the Senate’s amendment yesterday, hours before representatives were due to return to their home districts for the five-week August recess, it seemed the Senate had no choice. Then, news broke that the House was going to stick around a little longer to keep fighting about the border crisis.

Could the Senate have taken advantage of the House’s presence to toss the football back to them, on the assumption that the last team holding it will get blamed for the fumble? Maybe. Maybe the House would have been the one to cave, then. Maybe they would have sent the transportation industry into a tailspin. In a recent poll, 85 percent of transit agencies said they would implement service cuts if that happened.

At least we were spared that. But perhaps not for long. Former U.S. DOT official Beth Osborne, now at Transportation for America, noted that each extension seems to be getting harder. “The easy ways to pay for the program are gone,” she said. “It’s going to get harder doing this with bubble gum and band-aids.”

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A Bipartisan Policy Breakthrough That Could Save Local Economies

Beth Osborne was deputy assistant secretary for policy, and then acting assistant secretary, at the U.S. Department of Transportation from 2009 until March, when she joined Transportation for America.

Members of Congress love to talk about local control. And with good reason: American voters tell pollsters over and over again that they trust the elected officials closest to them more than any others.

Local communities do a good job channeling limited federal funds into small-scale, big-impact projects like this streetscape project in Bayonne, New Jersey. Photo: ##http://images.ta-clearinghouse.info/1-Ped-Bike-Facilities/Bayonne-StreetscapeBayonne-NJ/##TrADE##

Local communities do a good job channeling limited federal funds into small-scale, big-impact projects like this streetscape project in Bayonne, New Jersey. Photo: TrADE

Not only that, but most Americans live in cities, towns and suburbs, with 85 percent in metropolitan areas, according to recent census estimates. And 90 percent of gross domestic product — the economy — is generated in those places.

So why is rhetoric so far from reality when it comes to transportation funding?

When the federal transportation program was up for renewal two years ago, members of Congress from both parties repeatedly invoked “local control” as a goal. But the resulting law, MAP-21, actually reduced local latitude over transportation spending.

Pots of money that had been available to fix local bridges, provide alternatives to congested corridors, make better connections to transit or address safety issues for kids on their way to school — as just a few examples — were consolidated and shrunk. When all was said and done, local communities had access to less than 15 percent of the money in the bill. Metropolitan areas over 200,000 — where 65 percent of Americans live — got only 8 percent, according to federal data.

As a result, the one small pot of discretionary money available to local communities — the TIGER program — has been wildly oversubscribed, as I saw firsthand as one of the leaders at the U.S. DOT overseeing the program from 2009 until last March.

My time at DOT taught me two big lessons: First, the innovative solutions are coming from locals. And second, they have nowhere near enough resources to implement them.

Across the country, communities and regions are developing forward-looking plans to squeeze efficiencies out of transportation networks expected to move growing numbers of cars, pedestrians, transit riders, bicycles and freight. They are struggling to fund unmet repair needs. They worry that the economic potential they see will evaporate unless they can invest in a high-quality transportation network.

That’s why the bipartisan Innovation in Surface Transportation Act (HR 4726) is so important. The bill, introduced by Representatives Rodney Davis (R-Illinois) and Dina Titus (D-Nevada), would make good on the MAP-21 authors’ promise of more local control by reserving a share of each state’s federal dollars for grants to local entities. It would ensure that at least an additional $5 billion of the roughly $50 billion sent to states each year will be used to support local priorities.

Grants would be awarded by a committee of state and local officials along with a range of stakeholders, based on the strength of the proposal: Will the project yield a strong return on investment? Does it improve safety and reliability? Does the community have its own funds committed to the plan?

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House Bill Would Give Cities and Towns More Say Over Transpo Spending

U.S. Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL) introduced the legislation alongside Chris Koos, mayor of Normal, Illinois, introduced the new bill last month. Photo: Transportation for America

U.S. Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL) introduced the legislation alongside Chris Koos, mayor of Normal, Illinois, last month. Photo: Transportation for America

A bill to give local governments greater access to transportation funds has bipartisan sponsors in the House of Representatives.

The Innovation in Surface Transportation Act, introduced late last month, would let local communities access a much more significant share of federal transportation funds. The legislation would set aside a share of various federal programs that flow to state departments of transportation, which would be distributed to cities and towns through a competitive grant process. The amount of funding reserved for local governments would add up to $5.6 billion per year.

Normal, Illinois' up-and-coming Uptown area will receive a boost, thanks to $33 million in federal funding that will help move the Amtrak station to this central location. Photo: Transportation for America

The bustling Uptown area in Normal, Illinois, will receive a boost thanks to $33 million in federal funding that will help move the Amtrak station to this central location. Photo: Transportation for America

The grants would be awarded by a committee of state and local officials, based on nine criteria, including potential to attract private investment and to promote “multimodal connectivity.” (Full text here [PDF].)

Currently, less than 15 percent of federal transportation funds are allocated to localities, according to Transportation for America.

The legislation is sponsored by Congressman Rodney Davis (R-Illinois) and Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-Nevada). Sponsors say the bill will help ensure that increasingly scarce transportation funds are directed toward the highest-priority projects.

“This bill recognizes our nation’s fiscal realities by giving preference to projects that strengthen the return on investment, encouraging public-private partnerships and increasing transparency so that every federal dollar spent goes a little bit further,” said Davis.

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