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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.

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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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The House GOP’s Campaign Strategy: Do Nothing on Transportation

A Senate committee has unanimously approved a transportation bill. Three other Senate committees are holding hearings on the bill. But over in the House? Crickets.

Why is T&I Committee Chair Bill Shuster allowing the transportation bill to get lost in political maneuvering? Photo: ##http://shuster.house.gov/recent-photos/##Office of Bill Shuster##

Why is T&I Committee Chair Bill Shuster allowing the transportation bill to get lost in political maneuvering? Photo: Office of Bill Shuster

At a press conference last week, former transportation secretary — and former House Republican — Ray LaHood scolded his old colleagues for failing to take action.

He said there was “nothing happening in the House” on the transportation bill, The Hill reported.

“Nothing introduced, nothing debated, no discussion and we’re in a mess,” LaHood said. “We really are. The American people get it.”

LaHood is probably right. A few days after those remarks, Adam Snider reported in Politico that members of the House Transportation Committee, from both sides of the aisle, agree that the lame duck is the best — or even the only — time to work on a bill. Snider explained the reasoning:

Congress won’t be able to act on a long-term policy bill that could cost $100 billion in an election year. Next year is a new Congress with new members, making an immediate policy deep dive too difficult. But by the time everybody is up to speed in 2015, the presidential election cycle will be in full swing. And come January 2016, things will start all over with a new president and another new Congress and slate of lawmakers.

“If they try to talk about it now for six years, it will never get done,” said the Republican Snider talked to. “If they get to November and they have the guts to do something in the lame duck, that’s where the opportunity is.”

It’s a baldly political calculus for determining the future of the nation’s transportation systems, but that’s business as usual in Washington.

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Shuster “Encouraged” By Obama’s Transportation Funding Announcement

Bill Shuster is still digesting yesterday’s twin funding proposals from President Obama and Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp, but he’s “encouraged” by what he’s heard. Both proposals rely on corporate tax reform to plug the hole in the highway trust fund. Camp’s proposal would raise about $125 billion; Obama’s, $150 billion. Neither has yet released details on how their plans would work.

T&I Chair Bill Shuster wants to "build on" the reforms in MAP-21. Photo: ##http://www.heraldstandard.com/election/shuster-supports-romney-in-gop-primary/article_ba7064fe-de09-5e42-b291-e95983b33a45.html##Herald-Standard##

T&I Chair Bill Shuster wants to “build on” the reforms in MAP-21. Photo: Herald-Standard

“I never thought some of these other ideas were ever going to be in the cards,” the House Transportation Committee chair told reporters this afternoon.

Speaking today at the annual Washington meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), Shuster said he was hoping to get a surface transportation reauthorization bill done this summer. Sen. Barbara Boxer has put her committee’s timeline at mid- to late-spring, using August as a deadline, when federal highway funds are expected to run out. The current MAP-21 bill expires September 30, and Shuster is using that as his deadline.

Shuster told AASHTO that he’s committed to a “fiscally responsible” bill that doesn’t engage in deficit spending, and that he hopes to “build on the reforms in MAP-21,” some of which haven’t even been implemented yet.

“He kind of implied that we’re done with reform,” commented Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation after Shuster’s remarks. “I don’t think we’re done with reform by a long shot.”

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New Bill Would Make Bike/Ped Projects Eligible for Federal Loans

The day after President Obama’s State of the Union plea to improve economic opportunity for struggling Americans, New Jersey Democrat Albio Sires introduced a bill that he says will help meet that goal.

Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) has introduced a bill to extend low-interest TIFIA loans to communities -- especially low-income communities -- for street safety projects. Photo: ##http://paraclito.net/2010/11/04/albio-sires-por-la-libertad-de-cuba/##Paraclito##

Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) has introduced a bill to extend low-interest TIFIA loans to communities — especially low-income communities — for street safety projects. Photo: Paraclito

His bill [PDF] would build on the TIFIA loan program, which is so beloved by Congress its funding was expanded by a factor of ten in the MAP-21 transportation bill, up to $1 billion this year. Since the beefed-up TIFIA program will fund any proposal deemed creditworthy and only selects projects that cost at least $50 million, advocates for transit and active transportation have been concerned it will become merely a slush fund for toll roads.

Sires’ bill, the New Opportunities for Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure Financing Act — NOBPIFA for short (if you call that short) — would set aside 1 percent of TIFIA’s $1 billion and earmark that money for biking and walking. For these projects, TIFIA’s minimum project cost would be lowered to $2 million, making low-interest, long-term loans available to communities for improvements to their biking and walking networks.

Three co-sponsors have signed on to the bill. Two of them, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, are Republicans from the Miami area. Florida is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous states in the country for walking and biking.

In a statement, Sires tied the bill introduction to Obama’s State of the Union address:

Last night, President Obama called on Congress to help rebuild our middle class, and this bill would do just that. When we make our roads and sidewalks safer, we help connect workers to new jobs. We create communities where families want to live and businesses want to invest. And we give mothers and fathers peace of mind, knowing they aren’t sending their children to school on the unsafe sidewalks and roadways that exist in so many of our rural and urban communities.

The bill reserves 25 percent of project funding for low-income communities, “with the goal of creating a more equitable, safe roadway environment for all Americans.”

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The Next Transpo Bill: Can Congress Solve the Funding Problem?

From left to right, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Catepillar Group President Stuart Levenick, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Lawrence Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, testified before House transportation leaders today. The event kicked off a new transportation bill reauthorization process. Image: ##http://transportation.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=364867## House T&I Committee##

From left to right, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Caterpillar Group President Stuart Levenick, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, testified before House transportation leaders today. The event kicked off a new transportation bill reauthorization process. Photo: House T&I Committee

It’s that time again. Just 18 months after the passage of the latest federal transportation bill, known as MAP-21, Congress has to get serious about the next one. The first hearing on the bill that will replace MAP-21 took place today in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

With gridlock the order of the day in Washington, expectations for sweeping policy reforms are low. This round of legislating will focus mainly on how to pay for the federal transportation program. The speakers today, who represented interests ranging from the construction lobby to transit unions, all stressed the need for greater certainty and pushed for a funding mechanism to support a long-term, six-year bill.

Members of the committee heard testimony from Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Stuart Levenick of industrial manufacturer Caterpillar, and Larry Hanley of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Those who testified even went so far as to suggest an outright funding crisis would be preferable to another series of short-term extensions, like the endless foot-dragging that preceded MAP-21, which itself lasted barely longer than an extension. A scenario where lawmakers let funding for transportation totally run out would at least add a sense of real urgency to negotiations, the thinking goes.

Wisconsin Congressman Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) asked the panel which outcome they’d prefer, in the case of another stalemate between Republicans and Democrats in the House.

Reed responded, “I would err on the side of short-term pain.”

Those who testified pressed for bold solutions, including alternatives to the gas tax. ”What we need to do is have a conversation in this committee where we put all options on the table,” said Reed.

Hanley suggested Congress consider a tax on financial transactions, the so called “Robin Hood” tax, to fund a 100 percent increase in transit funding, which he said was warranted by growth in major cities and young people’s declining interest in driving.

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TIGER Funding Gets 20 Percent Boost in Final 2014 Spending Bill

In a rare instance of Congress producing some halfway decent news, funding for the federal TIGER program, which issues grants for multi-modal projects, will increase after the House and Senate unveiled the details of an omnibus budget bill yesterday.

Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski said the omnibus bill takes the transportation budget and other functions of government off "autopilot" for the first time since 2011. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/nasa_goddard/5613807476/?welcome##NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr##

Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski said the omnibus bill takes the transportation budget and other functions of government off “autopilot” for the first time since 2011. Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr

For the past few years, Congress has been unable to agree on a budget, so funding levels have essentially been frozen in place, and then various deals and sequesters have taken slices out without much strategy or forethought. “For the first time since 2011, no mission of our government will be left behind on autopilot,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski in a statement, noting that all 12 sections of the bill are complete.

The results for multi-modal transportation programs [PDF] are better than we’ve grown accustomed to. TIGER gets a 20 percent jump, from $500 million in 2013 to $600 million in 2014. The $500 million translated into $474 million in grants last year, with some taken out for planning and administration. A staffer said that $20 million of the 2014 amount is earmarked for planning, though some of that could go to help grantee communities with their planning.

Amtrak gets $1.39 billion — about $80 million more than last year, but the money comes with strings attached. The bill includes “policy reforms” for Amtrak, including overtime limits for employees and a prohibition on federal support for routes where Amtrak offers a discount of 50 percent or more off normal, peak fares — except where the loss from the discount is covered by the state and the state participates in setting the fares.

There’s nothing for high-speed rail. The Office of Sustainable Communities and its Integrated Planning and Investment Grants (formerly known as Regional Planning and Community Challenge grants) are also zeroed out.

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