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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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Level the Commuter Playing Field By Reducing the Tax Break for Parking

Happy New Year, transit riders! Congress has a special present: Some of you will be getting a tax increase this year.

Some transit riders will get a tax hike this year. Image: ##http://watchdog.org/81498/ohio-bill-increases-penalties-for-assaulting-transit-workers/## Ohio Watchdog##

Some transit riders will get a tax hike this year. Image: Ohio Watchdog

Legislation that puts tax subsidies for transit commuters on equal footing with car commuters has been allowed to expire by Congress. That means people who drive to work can deduct up to $250 in parking expenses each month from their taxable income. But for transit riders, the new limit is $130.

Last year the two were equal at $245, thanks to some shrewd last-minute maneuvering by lawmakers in New York and Massachusetts. This year, no such luck, straphangers. Drivers, on the other hand, get a little bump up.

Many observers — from outlets including Time and the New Jersey Star-Ledger — have pointed out that this is obviously backward policy. And they’re absolutely right: It’s a bad idea to provide an additional financial incentive to commute by car, which has so many negative consequences for society, from air pollution to increased congestion.

Common sense dictates that at the very least, there should be equity between the tax incentives for transit commuters and car commuters. While the path of least political resistance seems to be to raise the maximum transit benefit again, the fact is that most American transit commuters (though definitely not all) would not be affected by that.

Congress should instead achieve commuter tax benefit parity by reducing the incentive for parking so that it’s equal to the transit tax break, especially since deficit reduction is purportedly a high priority on Capitol Hill.

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Will Old Transit Systems Eat Up All the New Starts Grants?

The first Core Capacity grant of the New Starts program will ease overcrowding on Chicago's red and purple lines. Photo: Michael Boyd/##http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/how-to-fix-the-el-cta/Content?oid=3473194##Chicago Reader##

The first Core Capacity grant of the New Starts program will ease overcrowding on Chicago’s red and purple lines. Photo: Michael Boyd/Chicago Reader

One of MAP-21’s many mixed blessings was the New Starts Core Capacity program. It expanded eligibility for New Starts grants — normally reserved as capital assistance for new transit lines — to existing corridors. To qualify, the system just had to show that the improvements would expand the capacity of the line by at least 10 percent.

The double-edged sword is this: The expanded mission didn’t come with any more money. In fact, the Federal Transit Administration saw its funding for New Starts/Small Starts frozen for several years, and then faced a 7 percent cut with the sequester for 2014. Luckily, the budget deal appears to have saved them from that, and though details are still forthcoming, it may mean a more modest 2 percent cut. Less horrific than was feared, perhaps, but still less money for more eligible projects.

That’s led some people to fear that the smaller, newer systems New Starts has traditionally targeted could lose out to legacy systems in major transit markets like New York and Boston. Those concerns came out last week during a Highway and Transit Subcommittee hearing in Congress, focusing on the new program.

“With the expanded eligibilities, one could see a potential situation in which a handful of expensive projects in large urban areas could monopolize the New Starts funding over several years,” said subcommittee chair Tom Petri (R-WI) in his opening remarks. “This could come at the expense of funding opportunities for new public transportation systems in the rest of the country.”

The first New Starts Core Capacity grant to an existing line was put in the project pipeline last month — for Chicago’s red and purple lines, a $4 billion project.

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