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Congress Expected to Level Tax Benefit for Transit and Car Commuters

A federal policy that has encouraged Americans to drive to work instead of taking the bus or the train won’t tilt the playing field toward car commuters so much.

Those who take the bus or train to work will soon enjoy the same tax benefits as those who drive. Photo: Wikipedia

People who take the bus or train to work should soon be eligible for the same tax benefits as people who drive. Photo: Wikipedia

A bill that extends provisions of the tax code will permanently set the maximum transit commuter tax benefit at the same level car commuters get for parking expenses. Both classes of commuters can now pay for those costs with up to $255 in pre-tax income per month. The tax deal is expected to clear Congress this week, reports Forbes.

Currently, the monthly pre-tax expense for transit riders is capped at $130, while the cap for parking is set at $250. The mismatch primarily works against commuter rail and express bus services, which can easily cost more than $130 per month.

In recent years, lawmakers went back and forth between temporarily leveling the playing field and stiffing transit riders.

Jason Pavluchuk of the Association for Commuter Transportation applauded the measure, which would take effect in 2016. “This provision will eliminate the financial incentive to drive alone and will increase transit,” he said. “Further, this will help both transit riders as well as drivers who will benefit from less congested roads.”

While commuter tax benefit parity is an improvement, eliminating the benefit entirely would be better.

A report released last year by TransitCenter and the Frontier Group pointed out that commuter tax benefits amount to a gigantic transfer from low earners to high earners, who are best positioned to take advantage of them. Also, the maximum benefit may now be level for individual commuters, but in the aggregate the vast majority of these tax incentives will continue to go toward driving, an enormous subsidy that makes rush hour traffic congestion worse.

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The Best and Worst of the New 5-Year Transportation Bill

The trucking industry was a big winner in the transportation bill negotiations. Photo: Wikipedia

The trucking industry was a big winner in the transportation bill negotiations. Photo: Wikipedia

Smart people are wading through the 1,300-page transportation bill that came out of conference committee earlier this week, and we’re starting to get a clearer sense of how it will change federal transportation policy for the next five years.

The House voted to pass the bill by an overwhelming margin just moments ago, and President Obama has already pledged to sign it, so it’s as good as law at this point.

This bill is not a major shift for federal transportation policy. It’s mostly an extension of the status quo funded by some accounting gimmicks. But national advocates for sustainable transportation and safer streets were able to notch a few wins in an adversarial political climate.

In his round-up for Transportation for America, Stephen Lee Davis lists some of the rays of hope:

More support for smart transit-oriented development projects
Due in part to the hard work of T4America, Smart Growth America and LOCUS over the last year, transit-oriented development projects will be eligible for the low-interest TIFIA and RRIF federal financing programs. The small pilot program of TOD planning grants was also preserved; grants that help communities make the best use of land around transit lines and stops, efficiently locate jobs and affordable housing near new transit stations, and boost ridership.

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5-Year, $300 Billion “FAST Act” Will Extend Transpo Policy Status Quo to 2020

They’ve done it. Representatives from the House and Senate have emerged from conference committee with a five-year transportation bill, which is expected to be quickly approved and become first “long-term” bill in more than a decade.

Streetsblog was unable to confirm that Congress will be using this as the cover for its new transportation bill.

The discouragingly-named “FAST Act” is 1,300 pages long, and everyone with a stake in the legislation is still having their policy wonks sort through it. But here’s a very broad outline: The $305 billion bill reserves $48 billion exclusively for transit and $205 billion for highways. While state DOTs do spend most of their “highway” money on highways, much of that money can be spent on surface streets or “flexed” to other modes if the agencies want. (Also, the bill lays out funding guidelines for passenger rail, but that will have to be meted out through a separate appropriations package.)

Stephen Lee Davis of Transportation for America says the bill mostly continues the transportation policy of the last 10 years. It contains small initial increases for both highways and transit and then raises them at the pace of inflation. The Transportation Alternatives Program — the small pool of funding for walking and biking — was the only program that was capped with no built-in adjustment for inflation. It will rise from the current $817 million annual allocation to $850 million and then be held constant.

“This bill essentially doubles down on [current policy] with some small changes, and it locks it in for 2020” Davis said.

Because no one in Washington is willing to raise the gax tax, the bill includes $70 billion in subsidies for the Highway Trust Fund from other sources. The subsidy could have been bigger, but late in the game, lawmakers backed off the idea of a six-year bill that would have reportedly cost $100 billion over and above what the gas tax brings in.

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The Appalling Rollback of Truck Safety Provisions in the DRIVE Act

A battle is brewing over the Senate transportation bill’s approach to truck safety. Though large trucks are involved in crashes that kill nearly 4,000 people a year — a number that has grown by 17 percent over the past five years — the DRIVE Act actually rolls back what few protections exist.

The bill would allow longer and heavier tractor-trailers. Trucking companies would be able to double up two 33-foot trailers behind one truck, even in states that have banned such big loads.

The bill would also cut down on mandated rest periods for truckers, a long-simmering question. Right now, truckers have to rest for at least 34 hours between work weeks, with that 34-hour break including two overnights and the work week not including more than 70 hours of driving. The Senate bill would allow truckers to work 82 hours a week with less rest.

Perhaps most appalling, the DRIVE Act would let teenagers drive commercial trucks.

Yes, the bill would allow 18-year-olds to drive commercial trucks, despite the elevated crash risk of teenage drivers. A raft of legal provisions and insurance standards work to protect the public from notoriously unsafe teen drivers, who pose a danger to society even driving a VW bug, much less a big rig with two 33-foot trailers.

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Senate Transpo Bill Sinks Under the Weight of Its Own Chicanery

Last night, the Senate voted to proceed with the consideration of the transportation bill Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Barbara Boxer had worked out. It was just a day after the body had voted to block progress, objecting that they hadn’t had time to even look at the bill.

The policy elements of the bill are largely untouched from what we’ve already seen: the Environment and Public Works Committee’s DRIVE Act and the Commerce Committee’s section on rail and safety. Much of that was largely untouched from MAP-21.

A threat to eliminate TIGER was eliminated. A new formula-based multi-modal freight program is included. Some good language on Complete Streets appears to be gone. Advocates will feel better when the transit section gets fleshed out, and the Banking Committee is still MIA. This bill just doesn’t include earth-shaking policy changes.

But truly, the uproar over it has never been about policy. It’s all about funding. You know this because you haven’t been living under a rock for the last five years.

Because of the unreasonable and unyielding refusal on the part of just about everyone in the Washington political machinery to raise the gas tax, they’re left with a grab-bag of gimmicky pay-fors, or offsets, taken from other pieces of government programs. Here is the sad summary:

Image: ##http://crfb.org/blogs/senate-transportation-bill-finds-offsets-three-years-funding##CFRB##

Table: CFRB

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Senate Committee Moves to Eliminate TIGER Program in Next Transpo Bill

Normal, Illinois, transformed its downtown and improved its transportation options thanks to a TIGER grant. Photo: ##http://t4america.org/maps-tools/local-successes/normal/##Transportation for America##

A TIGER grant helped Normal, Illinois, create a more walkable downtown and new transit hub. Photo: Transportation for America

The Republican-controlled Senate is poised to eliminate the TIGER program, one of the few sources of federal funds that cities can access directly to improve streets and transit.

While the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s outline for its portion of a six-year bill was a marginal improvement on the status quo, the Commerce Committee’s portion, known as the rail and safety title, may wipe out a program with a proven track record of success. The committee plans to pass the bill tomorrow morning and send it to the full Senate.

The worst aspect is the elimination of the TIGER grant program, which in its 7-year history has provided funding for multi-modal projects that found little support from other federal programs. By working directly with cities and regional agencies, TIGER bypassed state DOTs more interested in big highway projects than enhancing transit, biking, and walking options.

The Commerce Committee cynically says its plan “formally authorizes the TIGER transportation grants program,” merely “refocusing” it on freight infrastructure. TIGER has always been a boon to freight projects that had trouble accessing federal dollars, but it has also funded projects to make streets safer, heal scars left by urban highways, and improve transit service. The committee can’t take eligibility away from those types of projects and still call the program “TIGER.”

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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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