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Senate Committee Passes DRIVE Act Unanimously After Some Tinkering

Given the bipartisan gushing that accompanied the release of the DRIVE Act on Tuesday, it came as no surprise that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the bill unanimously yesterday, with more gushing for good measure.

The insertion of a few little words will make the DRIVE Act a virtual complete streets policy for the entire National Highway System (except interstates). Photo: ##http://www.ca-city.com/complete_streets/fundamentals.html##Crandall Arambula##

The insertion of a few little words into the DRIVE Act may lead to safer designs for walking and biking on major streets. Photo: Crandall Arambula

None of the 30-odd amendments offered for the DRIVE Act passed, but the committee leadership did accept some changes in what’s called a manager’s amendment, a group of amendments agreed to by the chair and ranking member and inserted into the bill. By and large, these small changes improved upon some provisions that were already a step up from the current law, known as MAP-21.

Transportation Alternatives Program: The bill had already improved upon MAP-21’s version of Transportation Alternatives Program by giving all biking and walking money directly to local governments instead of giving half to the state. But in its original form, the DRIVE Act allowed states to take back half that money, making the “improvement” symbolic at best. The manager’s mark struck that part, meaning local communities will have the certainty that they can spend 100 percent of their biking and walking funds without fear of having some taken away.

Complete Streets: Inhofe and Boxer added the word “safety” in a key place: a provision requiring traffic engineers to consider “the access and safety” of non-automobile modes on non-interstate roads. According to Caron Whitaker of the League of American Bicyclists, “These two changes taken together come very close to a Complete Streets policy for the National Highway System.”

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Inhofe’s DRIVE Act — Not as Big a Disaster as You Might Think

Sen. Barbara Boxer unveils yet another stab at a long-term transportation authorization bill -- this time, as the minority party. Photo: ##https://twitter.com/AliABCNews/status/613351204559699972/photo/1##Ali Weinberg/Twitter##

Sen. Barbara Boxer unveils another stab at a long-term transportation authorization bill — this time as a member of the minority party. Photo: Ali Weinberg/Twitter

No, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s new six-year bill, obnoxiously named the DRIVE Act (Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy) [PDF], won’t usher in a more enlightened era of federal transportation policy. But neither would it be a significant step backward. And with the realization setting in that further extensions of current law might be impossible, the DRIVE Act could actually become the nation’s first long-term transportation authorization in a decade.

As Brad relayed in his post this morning, the “big takeaway” from the new bill, according to the League of American Bicyclists, is that it “is not a coherent vision of the future, or even of the present.” True that.

Note that this bill does not include the transit title — it’s up to the Banking Committee to draft that.

What the bill does, mainly, is continue existing policies related to streets and highways — meaning it’s not the nightmare you might have expected under the chairmanship of climate denying Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. When you look closely, the DRIVE Act actually makes some improvements at the margins. Here are a few examples:

Design Standards: The bill explicitly sanctions the use of the NACTO street design guide along with the old FHWA and AASHTO engineering manuals. The NACTO guide includes designs that are much more appropriate for city streets where people outside of cars need safe and reliable transportation option.

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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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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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GOP Will Control the Senate in 2015 — What Does It Mean for Transportation?

The forecasting models were right: As the polls closed last night it quickly became apparent that Republicans will gain control of the Senate, with at least 52 seats now held by the GOP. The implications for transportation are immense. To understand what they are, first let’s look at what last night means for the prospects for a new transportation bill next year. Then we’ll get inside the committees for a nitty-gritty look at the leadership shakeup.

The Bill

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) will take the reins of the powerful EPW committee -- and he just can't wait to eliminate all federal bike/ped funding. Photo: ##http://www.inhofe.senate.gov/newsroom/photo-gallery/greater-oklahoma-city-chamber-of-commerce-fly-in##Office Sen. Inhofe##

Climate denying Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) will take the reins of the powerful EPW committee — and he just can’t wait to eliminate all federal bike/ped funding. Photo: Office of Sen. Inhofe

First and foremost, both chambers of Congress will be in GOP hands when the current transportation bill, MAP-21, comes due for renegotiation next spring.

Bicameral Republican control strongly suggests that the door to increased revenues is closed. (It was hardly open under a Democratic Senate, either.)

GOP control could make it challenging to extend the current law as well. Senators had to scrounge for ways to pay for MAP-21, settling for a grab-bag of gimmicks. There isn’t more loose change to be found under the cushions. And no one in Congress, on either side of the aisle, has the appetite for deficit spending.

Other scenarios don’t look much better. Republicans and Democrats could use the lame duck period between now and January to hammer out a revenue deal, for instance. That would benefit the Republicans by raising taxes on the Democrats’ watch (but after the elections, when they don’t have to worry about the Republican base slamming them for not fighting hard enough). With the funds in hand for a multi-year bill, the details of how to spend it would then get hammered out after the GOP takes control of the Senate.

This is unlikely, however. There’s enough that already has to be done during the lame duck, first of all. Second, the reluctance on both sides to raise revenues isn’t all show: Most members of Congress are truly unwilling to increase what they see as a middle-class burden, no matter who’s watching. Besides, House Speaker John Boehner doesn’t have the cohesion within his party to do something so strategic, and the Democrats might not even go along with it.

The other possibility, of course, is that instead of raising revenues to match desired expenditure levels, Congress can limit spending to match gas tax receipts. Former House Transportation Chair John Mica tried that a few years ago and it didn’t go anywhere. Many people think that idea has been tried and discarded, but others think it could easily return, given how few options remain.

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Bi-partisan Senate Bill Would Give Locals More Say Over Transpo Spending

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Improving local access to transportation funds would help build project’s like the multi-modal Atlanta BeltLine. Rendering: Atlanta BeltLine

When it comes to transportation funding, cities and towns occupy the bottom of the totem pole. The vast majority of federal transportation money goes to states, to the exclusion of local governments. That means state DOTs get tens of billions to spend on highways each year, while mayors and local agencies have to scrounge for money to improve transit, build sidewalks, or add bike lanes.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate Thursday could give local governments greater access to federal funding. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced the Innovation in Surface Transportation Act — Senate Bill 2819 [PDF] — which would set aside some federal transportation money for states to redistribute to cities and towns on a competitive basis.

Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker says municipalities around his state want access to federal transportation funds. Photo: Senator Wicker

Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker says municipalities around his state want access to federal transportation funds. Photo: Senator Wicker

The legislation would devote 10 percent of federal surface transportation funding — or about $5 billion per year — to local-level projects. The funds would be split up between the states, and in each state a panel would distribute the money on a competitive basis to local governments, transit agencies, and regional planning agencies.

Senator Wicker said the bill is supported by localities across Mississippi as well as the Mississippi Municipal League.

“Local officials in Mississippi are on the front lines of America’s transportation challenges but often lack the resources to pay for critical improvements,” he said in a statement. “This measure would enable these local leaders to have a larger role in deciding which projects merit consideration. In doing so, leaders could implement the most targeted and cost-effective solutions to meet unique and urgent infrastructure needs.”

Three other senators — Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania), and Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi) — have also signed on as sponsors. The Senate bill has a companion in the House — HR 4726, which has been held up in committee.

David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, a leading supporter of the measure, said he doesn’t expect the bill to be passed into law before the holiday recess. But support for the bill today, he said, could help shape the next transportation bill.

Transportation for America is asking supporters to email their senators and urge them to support the measure.

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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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371 City Leaders Ask Boxer For More Local Control Over Bike/Ped Money

Last week, 371 mayors and other city leaders wrote a letter [PDF] to Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, in support of local control over transportation dollars for bike and pedestrian projects.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard (R) gave a stirring speech in favor of local control in a Senate hearing, and the rest is history. Photo: ##http://bikeleague.org/content/371-mayors-congress-we-want-bikeped##Brian Palmer/Bike League##

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard (R) gave a stirring speech in favor of local control in a Senate hearing. Photo: Brian Palmer/Bike League

About two-thirds of the signatories are mayors, from cities as big as Philadelphia and Los Angeles and as small as McKenzie, Tennessee, and Lincoln, Alabama. There are also some city council members, city clerks, aldermen, village trustees, and regional league directors. Their collective voice represents tens of millions of constituents.

The civic leaders said that MAP-21 “reinforces the importance of local elected officials being at the table to ensure that we secure maximum economic and transportation benefits from available federal resources.” MAP-21 included a provision requiring 50 percent of money from the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) — which funds bike and pedestrian projects — to go directly to local communities, instead of being under the control of states.

The letter is the result of a Senate hearing in May, in which Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and other city leaders testified to the importance of local control over TAP funding. Boxer ended that hearing by affirming that TAP was a critical element of the transportation bill and, according to the Bike League’s Caron Whitaker, she asked Mayor Ballard, a Republican, to help her protect and promote the program by writing and circulating a sign-on letter for mayors to attest to its importance. “The letter, circulated by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities, is the result of that request,” Whitaker wrote.

The letter thanks Boxer for her “leadership” on TAP and urged her “to continue to affirm the role of local elected leaders as you advance legislation renewing MAP-21.” It also asks for a small technical change that would give metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) the power not just to choose bike/ped projects but to actually authorize the funding. The letter says that change is just one example of the minor modifications the signatories would like to see, but it doesn’t list any others.

It remains to be seen how Boxer will use the letter in Senate negotiations, but the mayors have sent a strong message that American cities and towns want more say over how to spend transportation dollars.

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Senators Murphy (D) and Corker (R) Propose 12-Cent Gas Tax Increase

There are several proposals on the table to stave off the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund (which pays for transit, biking, and walking projects too) in two months. Just now, two senators teamed up to announce one that might actually have a chance.

The R after Sen. Bob Corker's name might make all the difference for this proposal. Photo: ##http://www.corker.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Images.Display&ImageGallery_id=a36a3e1a-0103-b714-2285-f8fb90d613e1##Office of Sen. Corker##

The R after Sen. Bob Corker’s name might make all the difference for this proposal. Photo: Office of Sen. Corker

Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) have proposed increasing the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon over two years. The federal gas tax currently stands at 18.4 cents a gallon, where it has been set since 1993, when gas cost $1.16 a gallon. The senators’ proposal would also extend some expiring tax cuts as a way to reduce the impact on Americans.

“I know raising the gas tax isn’t an easy choice, but we’re not elected to make easy decisions – we’re elected to make the hard ones,” said Murphy. “This modest increase will pay dividends in the long run and I encourage my colleagues to get behind this bipartisan proposal.”

This proposal — while still not introduced as a formal bill — has far more potential than anything else that’s been offered. President Obama’s corporate tax scheme was dead on arrival, even though it had support from the Republican chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp. Rep. Peter DeFazio’s idea of a per-barrel oil fee and Sen. Barbara Boxer’s idea for a wholesale oil tax don’t have Republican support. Neither does Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s 15-cent gas tax hike, which was the most logical proposal on the table, until now. What the House Republicans want to do is fund the transportation bill by reducing Saturday postal service — a hare-brained scheme if ever there was one.

What gives this proposal a fighting chance, of course, is Bob Corker’s name on it. Not only is Corker a Republican, but he’s a respected leader on the Banking Committee. It’s also a sign that maybe, just maybe, as we stare down the barrel of a real funding shortfall, members of Congress might find the gumption to do what they all know needs to be done: raise the gas tax.

“In Washington, far too often, we huff and puff about paying for proposals that are unpopular, yet throw future generations under the bus when public pressure mounts on popular proposals that have broad support,” said Corker. “Congress should be embarrassed that it has played chicken with the Highway Trust Fund and allowed it to become one of the largest budgeting failures in the federal government. If Americans feel that having modern roads and bridges is important then Congress should have the courage to pay for it.”

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