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Boxer Announces Plan to Maintain Status Quo in Next Transpo Bill

Sen. Barbara Boxer, together with Sens. Carper, Vitter and Barrasso, announced their agreement to maintain the status quo with the next bill. Screenshot from press conference.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, together with Sens. Carper, Vitter and Barrasso, announced their agreement to maintain the status quo with the next bill. Screenshot from press conference.

Last year, while the House flailed in partisan misery, the Senate passed a transportation bill 74 to 22. When the bill was signed into law, it was considered one of the few real achievements of a deeply divided Congress. Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer got tremendous credit for enacting legislation three years in the making. And yet, it left a lot of good provisions on the cutting-room floor. While MAP-21 included some modest reforms, lawmakers missed an opportunity to prioritize transit, biking, and walking – modes that are gaining popularity and help achieve national goals like congestion mitigation and air quality improvement.

History appears to be repeating itself. This morning, Sen. Boxer (D-CA) joined with the rest of the “Big Four” of the EPW Committee — Ranking Republican David Vitter (R-LA), Transportation Subcommittee Chair Tom Carper (D-DE) and Subcommittee Ranking Republican John Barrasso (R-WY) — to announce that they had reached agreement on a set of principles to guide the next bill.

While it’s good news to hear the senators are working together and making progress, they’re not proposing any solutions to the nation’s dysfunctional transportation policy, which funnels billions of dollars to wasteful road expansions ever year. Below is a look at the guiding principles (verbatim, in bold) and what they mean:

  • Passing a long-term bill, as opposed to a short-term patch. You won’t find anyone who says they want a short-term bill. There is unanimous agreement that a two-year bill was inadequate and that the next bill must last five or six or even 10 years. The challenge has always been to find enough funding to pay for such a long bill. MAP-21 pulled coins out of the proverbial cushions to piece together a somewhat illusory pay-for to get MAP-21 passed. Even President Obama’s proposal for the next bill is just four years.
  • Maintaining the formulas for existing core programs. Ouch. A primary goal of transportation reformers is to tie more money to performance and merit instead of giving states no-strings-attached funding that tends to get wasted on highway expansion. Reforming the existing formulas could force states to prove that they’re spending money well, using a benefit-cost analysis in their decision making, and thinking smart about the future.

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Chuck Schumer Proposes Making Bike-Share Memberships Tax Deductible

If you drive to work, the IRS allows you to pay for parking with pre-tax money. Same goes if you take the train or the bus (though transit commuters can’t claim as much tax-free earnings as car commuters). People who ride their own bikes are also eligible to deduct some associated costs. But if you get to work using Citi Bike, Divvy, Nice Ride, or any of the other bike-share systems sprouting up in American cities, you get no such assistance from Uncle Sam.

Those to use bike share to commute to work may soon be eligible for the same tax benefits everyone else receives. Photo: Steven Vance

People who ride bike-share to work may soon be eligible for tax benefits like other commuters. Photo: Steven Vance

New York Senator Chuck Schumer wants to change that by treating bike-share memberships like other commuting costs. Schumer plans to add an amendment to a Senate package of tax benefit extensions that would specifically list bike-share memberships as an eligible expense for transportation fringe benefits.

“Bike share programs are an efficient, healthy, and clean form of mass transportation, and they should be treated the same way under the tax code as we treat car and mass transit commuters,” he said in a statement yesterday.

The amendment would allow commuters to deduct up to $20 per month in bike-share expenses from their taxable income, the same as regular bike commuters. That would make the entire cost of an annual bike-share membership tax-deductible. Chicago’s Divvy, for instance, is prices at $75 per year, NYC’s Citi Bike costs $95, and at the very high end of the spectrum, Deco Bike in Miami Beach costs $150. For commuters, a low-cost transportation option could become an even better bargain.

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A Bill to Make American Streets Safer Surfaces in the Senate

Has the moment finally arrived for a national complete streets law?

Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas. Photo:

Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas. Photo: City of Austin Public Works Department/Flickr

A bill creating incentives for transportation agencies to design safe streets for everyone — pedestrians and cyclists in addition to motorists — is back on the floor of Congress this week. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) are sponsoring the Safe Streets Act of 2014, which would require all states to develop complete streets policies for federally funded roads within two years. A companion piece of legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives last year.

Exemptions would be allowed, with special approval, on limited access highways, in very rural areas, or if the agency could demonstrate the cost was “excessively disproportionate” to the anticipated bike or pedestrian traffic.

In the last 10 years, 47,000 pedestrians have been killed on American roadways, thanks in part to street designs that make walking dangerous. Two-thirds of pedestrian deaths occur on federally funded roads, according to Senators Schatz and Begich.

“Our legislation provides commonsense solutions to consider the needs of our seniors and children, encourage alternative forms of transportation, and make our roads and communities safer for everyone,” said Schatz.

Groups including the National Association of Realtors, Smart Growth America, and AARP cheered the bill’s introduction.

“Safe mobility options … are essential to the independence and well-being of mid-life and older Americans,” said Joyce Rogers, senior vice president of government affairs at AARP, in a press release. “Fully one-fifth of persons age 65 and above does not drive. Yet almost half of respondents to an AARP survey of persons age 50 and above said they cannot safely cross the main roads in their neighborhoods. “

Schatz and Begich are seeking additional sponsors. The full text of the bill is not yet online.

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Senators Seek to Shield Motor Vehicle Crash Data From Public View

A new bill introduced by Senators John Hoeven (R-ND) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) would further entrench rules that make it difficult for crash investigators to access black box data from cars.

Sen. John Hoeven is again championing drivers' rights, even at the expense of crash investigations. Photo: ##http://sayanythingblog.com/entry/senator-hoeven-convinces-feds-to-withdraw-calorie-limits-from-school-lunches/##Say Anything Blog##

Sen. John Hoeven is again working, now at the federal level, to limit access to key data about car crashes. Photo: Say Anything Blog

Nearly all light passenger vehicles have event data recorders (EDRs) installed in them, which record everything from speed to seat belt use, though the data is erased almost immediately unless a crash is detected. As we’ve reported in the past, with current EDR technology, a collision with a person that isn’t in a car often isn’t forceful enough to trigger an event record at all.

But EDRs that do record crash events can take some of the “he said, she said” out of the ensuing investigation and provide some needed accountability for dangerous driving. As it happens, a lot of politicians are mobilizing to limit that accountability.

Hoeven and Klobuchar introduced a bill last week (though they previewed it in the fall) that would make all data collected by a car’s black box the property of the car owner. The data could only be accessed by anyone else on the order of a judge or for a small number of other scenarios.

In a proposal last year to make EDRs mandatory in all new cars, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also emphasized that the data is the sole property of the car owner. That rule is expected to take effect this fall.

Currently, 14 states have passed laws restricting black box data to the car owner. Bill sponsor Hoeven signed one of those into law when he was governor of North Dakota. The national bill would force this approach across the country and make it that much harder for investigators to promptly access crash data.

Cars are increasingly connected to the digital world, and drivers routinely allow detailed information about their movements to be accessed by third parties. Google’s traffic reports, for instance, are crowd-sourced from information from millions of drivers’ smart-phones, and the company can now let you know when the restaurant you’re passing has a happy hour special you might like.

The information collected by EDRs is actually much less invasive — it just records the moments leading up to a collision. About the only thing that data can be used for is to determine the cause of a crash and who was culpable, and for some reason a lot of senators want to make that harder for law enforcement.

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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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Budget Deal Is Good News for Transit

The House of Representatives is preparing to vote on that rarest of Capitol Hill treasures — a bipartisan budget deal. If both houses approve the deal, negotiated by Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, it will be the first time since 2010 that Congress has passed a budget.

Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray have reached a budget deal the House is expected to pass today.

Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray have reached a budget deal the House is expected to pass today.

The deal would erase some sequester cuts and split the difference between the House budget of $967 billion and the Senate proposal’s $1.058 trillion number. The final budget would come in at $1.012 trillion.

The deal would bring the discretionary budget to about $491 billion. If the modest increases are applied evenly across all non-defense agencies, it would mean that the Transportation and HUD (THUD) budget would still suffer a $1.58 billion cut from 2013 levels, according to David Burwell of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, but it’s $8 billion more than the House’s starvation bill of about $44 billion.

“This will allow all THUD programs to continue to operate with about a 2 percent cut from FY2013 levels,” Burwell said, “including TIGER, Amtrak, Transit New/Small Starts, etc.” A 2 percent cut starts to sound pretty good when you realize THUD was looking at a 7 percent cut before this deal materialized.

Given the fact that Senate Budget Committee chair, and co-author of this deal, Patty Murray also chairs the THUD Appropriations Subcommittee — and has “great affection” for the TIGER program, Burwell indulges the idea that “we may well get a strong TIGER in our stocking this Christmas, not a lump of coal.”

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Was TIGER Eliminated in the Shutdown Deal?

Soon after the government shutdown ended, we heard murmurs that the TIGER grant program for innovative transportation projects had been a casualty of the negotiations.

Congress's inability to do anything has meant a temporary de-funding of TIGER. Photo: Wikimedia

Under the rules of the Office of Management and Budget, any program that was de-funded in either chamber’s bill would be de-funded in the continuing resolution (the temporary budget) until it can be replaced by an approved appropriations bill. That’s to ensure compliance with the Anti-Deficiency Act, which basically says Congress shouldn’t allocate money to a program for a given year if it’s later going to say that program has no budget for that year.

The House, as usual, de-funded TIGER in its budget proposal, while the Senate dutifully allocated $474 million for the fifth round of TIGER grants and another $550 million for a sixth round. Neither chamber passed the budget on the floor, but the OMB rule that ended up de-funding TIGER only requires that the bill be voted out of committee, which it was in both chambers.

Thankfully, this CR only lasts through January 15, 2014. But then what? Congress has four options:

  1. Pass a 2014 budget. Outlook: negative. Congress hasn’t passed a budget since 2009. It’s nice of the Senate to even bother going through the motions these days, which they didn’t for a few years. If Congress did, miraculously, agree on a budget to send to the president, it’s anyone’s guess whether TIGER would be included.
  2. Pass another continuing resolution through the end of FY2014. That would reinstate TIGER funding at last year’s levels, since there would be no risk of a full-year bill violating the Anti-Deficiency Act. Technically, the House could insist on a rider to the CR zeroing out TIGER, but those sorts of things severely gum up the process and it’s unlikely they’d bother for something so small and low-profile.
  3. Pass another short-term CR for just a few weeks or months. TIGER and just about everything else would remain in limbo.
  4. Shut down the government. It could happen.

Even worse: On January 15, when a new budget or CR will have to come into effect to prevent yet another government shutdown, they’ll have to deal with a new round of sequester cuts. Luckily, much of the painful part is already over. Though the 2014 cuts look big — $109.3 billion — that’s the reduction from pre-sequestration levels, not 2013 levels. “Only” another $20 billion needs to come out of the budget this time around, and almost exclusively from defense. So the most vulnerable transportation programs like New Starts and Amtrak, which come out of discretionary, not mandatory, spending, needn’t suffer too much.

That won’t stop the House from trying, of course.

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Government Shutdown to End, Leaving Transit Agencies to Pick Up the Pieces

Congratulations, gentle Congresspeople. You have come up with a deeply flawed solution to a problem only you would create. Never mind that it set up another showdown three months from now. The good news is the government shutdown is almost over, for the moment. More than 18,000 furloughed U.S. DOT officials can return to work.

Stoddard County, Missouri, was planning to take all 10 of its transit vehicles out of service today because the shutdown had dried up funds. Photo: Stoddard County Transit

While highway work continued practically uninterrupted and more than 24,000 air traffic controllers kept the skies safe, the shutdown halted funding reimbursements to local transit agencies from both federal and state entities. The North Carolina DOT’s public transportation division ceased operations entirely, furloughing 22 federally funded positions. Stoddard County, Missouri, planned to shut down its transit system today, threatening to lay off all seven of its drivers and strand many people who depend on the service. Nearby counties appeared to be on the brink of following suit.

In California, environmental reviews were stalled and project delivery times — which Congressional Republicans were dead set on accelerating with the last transportation bill — were extended.

In Hampton Roads, Virginia, two transit expansion studies were halted due to the hold-up of federal support.

Moody’s Investors Service declared GARVEE bonds, issued to help fund transit, to be the single most vulnerable kind of debt in the shutdown. The name, after all, is an acronym for “Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles” — and if you can’t anticipate any revenue from federal grants, you’re kind of screwed.

As the shutdown hit, it also sent FTA employees home early from the American Public Transportation Association’s annual meeting in Chicago. Many had gone there hoping to maximize their time with transit officials from around the country, since the sequester had slashed the agency’s travel budget and they don’t get to have as many face-to-face meetings as they used to. FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff called the shutdown “maddening,” “demoralizing,” “insulting,” and “unnecessary.”

It’s unclear when furloughed employees will return to work.

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Nine Days in September: Congress’s Chance to Break the Gridlock

I hope you all had a good Labor Day. Streetsblog is back to work today, and you probably are too. But Congress? Not until next week. Every time there’s a Monday holiday, Congress takes the whole week off, and they’re milking the last moments of their August recess.

Labor Day has come and gone, but for Congress, it's still the last week of August recess. Enjoy. Photo: KateNews2Day

It’s no wonder lawmakers are procrastinating. They have a lot of unpleasant business to tackle when they get back, and not a lot of time to do it.

The start of fiscal year 2014 is less than a month away, and there are only nine legislative days between now and then. In those nine days, Congress is going to have to make some decisions about spending — including transportation spending. In an ideal world, they’d also give some serious thought to passenger rail policy.

Here’s an overview of the major transportation issues Congress should be addressing.

First, the rail reauthorization

The five-year Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) expires September 30. This spring, Congressional Republicans confidently pledged that it would be reauthorized this year — and then promptly dropped the ball (though, according to a spokesperson for the House Transportation Committee, they are working on language for the bill and will continue to do so into the fall.)

The fact is, it would have been nice to have something new in place before PRIIA’s expiration, but it’s not actually necessary. The current bill will just keep rolling over until Congress actually bothers to pass a new one. It’s not like the surface transportation bill, which needs to be reauthorized or extended before it expires. (The transportation bill is funded with Highway Trust Fund money that doesn’t go through an appropriations process, and the contract authority for that money does need to be current in order for it to be spent.)

But lots of programs get appropriations every year without ever being authorized. (Think TIGER.) Amtrak was one of those for a long time — before PRIIA, there was no rail authorization in place for years.

“An authorization that doesn’t authorize sufficient funding and contains bad policies would be worse than no authorization,” said Malcolm Kenton of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. But a well-designed authorization — “if it gives Amtrak the resources it needs to grow and modernize without micromanaging the company or imposing too many specific mandates” — could be a huge boost for American passenger rail.

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