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Posts from the Federal Funding Category

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It’s Time to Stop Pretending That Roads Pay for Themselves

If nothing else, the current round of federal transportation legislating should end the myth that highways are a uniquely self-sufficient form of infrastructure paid for by “user fees,” a.k.a. gas taxes and tolls.

Highways have been massively subsidized for many years, but now it’s going to be harder to ignore. Graph: U.S. PIRG

With all the general tax revenue that goes toward roads in America, car infrastructure has benefited from hefty subsidies for many years. But at the federal level, the road gang could always argue that the gas tax paid for the Highway Trust Fund. Not anymore.

The gas tax has stagnated at the same rate since 1993, and the Highway Trust Fund has been bailed out so many times over the last decade, it’s hard to keep count. A long-term transportation bill was supposed to fix that. Instead, the six-year bill on its way to passage right now in Washington may finally bury the idea that American highways are wholly paid for by the gas tax.

Despite gas prices plummeting to barely more than $2 a gallon, and despite pressure from interest groups on both the right and left, Congress has never seriously considered raising the gas tax to cover the cost of the federal transportation program. That means roads are in line for way more subsidies.

It’s unclear exactly how much subsidy the final bill will contain, since the House and Senate bills have yet to be reconciled. But it looks like about $85 billion will be needed to fill the gap over six years. Part of that figures to come from raiding the Federal Reserve and part from a gimmicky one-shot tax on “repatriated” overseas corporate profits. Either way, we’re not talking about “user fees.”

In the House bill, the combined subsidy would account for a quarter of the $322 billion in transportation spending over six years. The subsidy will only get larger in future bills as the purchasing power of the gas tax continues to erode, unless Congress can overcome its aversion to asking drivers to pay for roads.

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Let This RPA Vid Explain Why We Need More Rail Tubes Under the Hudson

The Regional Plan Association produced a nice explainer video on why the region needs to build more rail capacity under the Hudson River, the risks facing the existing train tubes, and what will happen if one of them has to be taken offline for repairs before another tunnel gets built.

The situation with the tunnels has heightened urgency because New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the ARC rail tunnel project so he could pay for roads. Not that New York’s Andrew Cuomo has been much help either: When pressed by reporters last summer, Cuomo abdicated responsibility for the century-old rail tubes.

Eventually, Christie and Cuomo said their states would foot half the bill if the feds picked up the rest, but no one really knows how much the project will cost.

The video is part of RPA’s campaign to prod state and federal leaders to action on expanding Hudson River rail capacity. Senator Cory Booker will participate in a related roundtable tomorrow.

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3 White Elephants That Help Explain America’s Infrastructure Crisis

American spends billions of dollars widening roads that don't need widening, like Wisconsin State Route 23.

America spends billions of dollars widening roads that don’t need widening, like Wisconsin State Route 23. Image: Google Maps

A new report by the Center for American Progress zeros in on an under-appreciated culprit in America’s much ballyhooed infrastructure crisis: All the money we waste on useless roads.

CAP highlights three “white elephant projects” that illustrate how billions of dollars in federal infrastructure funds are squandered thanks to a lack of accountability in the transportation funding process.

“States receive federal highway funding based on formulas set in law, which reflect political negotiations as opposed to objective measures of need or return on investment,” writes CAP’s Kevin DeGood. “This means that states are not required to demonstrate the social, environmental, or economic value of their projects.”

These three projects represent about $1 billion in frivolous spending — and that’s only a small fraction of what’s squandered on dubious road projects each year.

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House Dems: We Won’t Support a Transpo Bill That Cuts Bike/Ped Funding

House Democrats won’t stand for any cuts to federal funding for walking and biking infrastructure. That was the gist of a letter signed by every Democratic member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week.

Rick Larsen, a congressman representing parts of Washington State, rallied Democrats to support funding for biking, walking and transit. Photo: Rick Larsen

Rick Larsen, a congressman representing parts of Washington state, rallied Democrats to support funding for biking, walking, and transit.

Groups aligned with the Koch brothers and their organization Americans for Prosperity have pushed to eliminate all federal funds for walking, biking, and transit. While Democrats are in the minority in the House, by coordinating as a bloc around this issue, they’re making it harder for the extreme elements in the Republican Party to roll back active transportation funding.

The letter, initiated by Washington representative Rick Larsen, states that Democratic committee members won’t support any bill that undermines the “Transportation Alternatives” program — the small pot of money dedicated to walking and biking.

“For the House transportation bill to be bipartisan, it must not cut funding for TAP or make policy changes that undermine the local availability of these dollars,” reads the letter, addressed to the committee’s two ranking Democratic members, Peter DeFazio (OR) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC):

Communities of all shapes and sizes — rural, urban and suburban — are clamoring for TAP dollars to give their residents lower-cost transportation options that reduce road congestion, improve safety for children and families, and boost quality of life. These types of projects are also essential to helping cities and counties increase property values, grow retail sales and attract tourism. While MAP-21 gave states the option of transferring up to half of TAP funds to other transportation priorities, just 10 percent of TAP funds have been transferred — clearly showing the demand for these funds across the country. This is a good program and it deserves to continue.

Congress has yet to make much progress on a long-term transportation bill to replace the previous bill, MAP-21, which expired last year. During the last transportation bill reauthorization process, biking and walking programs took a big hit. In an email to Streetsblog, Larsen said, “I do not want to see that happen again.”

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Governors Want Feds to Pay for Half of Hudson Tunnel; They’ll Split the Rest

Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York sent a letter to President Barack Obama today with an offer: If the federal government picks up half the tab of building a new $20 billion Hudson River rail tunnel, the two states will split the rest [PDF].

It’s a step forward in negotiations as the governors try to secure grants from the federal government, which so far has only offered low-interest loans for the project. Ultimately, the Republican-controlled Congress must sign off on any federal funds for the rail tunnel.

The governors are also asking for expedited planning and environmental approvals, similar to how the Obama administration fast-tracked the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement.

In the letter, Christie and Cuomo peg the total cost of a rail tunnel at $20 billion. Numbers thrown around by agencies and officials have ranged from $14 billion to $25 billion, depending on the source and whether it includes related projects, like adding additional tracks from the tunnel to Newark.

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Cuomo and Christie Play Chicken With Trans-Hudson Train Commuters

It’s been almost five years since New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the ARC tunnel. Things haven’t improved since.

The existing two-track rail tunnel, already at capacity, has continued to shoulder growing ridership comprised mostly of NJ Transit commuters. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy added a dose of corrosive salt water to the century-old tunnels. Amtrak warns that one or both of the tubes must shut down in the next couple decades, forcing trains going both directions to share a single track. Commuters got a taste of this nightmare scenario just weeks ago when high-voltage power cables in the tunnel failed, cutting service to and from Penn Station.

Moving those commuters onto buses is unlikely. Like the rail tunnel, the Port Authority Bus Terminal is both falling apart and at capacity. Replacing and expanding that facility would cost up to $11 billion — a number the Port Authority is struggling to come to terms with.

Amtrak’s plan for a new tunnel, known as Gateway, has stalled without backing from Christie or his New York counterpart, Governor Andrew Cuomo. This morning, Senator Charles Schumer of New York pushed the governors to take the first of many necessary steps to getting the project built. Schumer wants a new partnership, which he’s dubbed the Gateway Development Corporation, to build the tunnel.

The partnership, comprised of Amtrak, the Port Authority, the MTA, and the two states, would be able to access a wide range of funding sources. “Amtrak can’t access federal mass transit funding. The Port Authority and regional transit agencies can’t access federal railroad dollars the way Amtrak can,” Schumer said, reported the Observer. “We’ll only get Gateway done by adding up several pieces of financing, with an eye toward getting the maximum amount possible from the federal government.”

Neither governor has yet agreed to the partnership. Last month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asked the governors to meet with him about the Gateway project, but the two executives want cash from the feds, not just loans, before they’ll commit to anything.

In fact, the governors — neither of whom hesitates to spend big on highways and airports — have tried to portray the rail tunnel between their two states as somehow not their problem.

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Congress Set to Pass Yet Another Short-Term Transpo Funding Patch

Who says there's gridlock in Washington? Congress manages to pass a transportation extension every two months, on average. Photo: ##

Who says there’s gridlock in Washington? Congress manages to pass a transportation extension every two months, on average. Photo: Wikipedia

The 35th transportation extension in the last six years is about to pass. The House had passed a five-month extension, the Senate insisted on moving forward with its six-year bill, then the House proposed a three-month extension, and somehow that sounded great to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

To win McConnell’s support for the short-term patch, House leaders had to pinky-swear that they would work on a long-term bill just as soon as they get back from August recess. Seven states have already halted construction projects valued at $1.63 billion because of uncertainty at the federal level.

The three-month extension isn’t funded with sales of oil from the nation’s strategic reserve and it doesn’t include an extension of the Export-Import Bank’s authority, both controversial issues that threatened to gum up the works.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer warned he could encourage Democrats to vote no on the three-month bill, but it seems clear lawmakers are going to do what they need to do to avoid a shutdown and then head home for recess. The House is planning to celebrate its success by adjourning a day early.

The patch expires October 29. See you all then — same time, same place, same insufferable paralysis.

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Senate Preserves TIGER Program While House Punts on Long-Term Bill

Advocates successfully mobilized to prevent the Senate from eliminating the multi-modal TIGER grant program in its long-term transportation bill, but that bill appears to be on hold for at least another five months after the House passed another short-term extension of the current law.


The TIGER program helps cities access federal funds to support projects like this riverfront greenway in Waterbury, CT. Image: Naugatuck Valley COG

Transportation for America reports that Senate Commerce Committee Chair John Thune struck the language eliminating TIGER after receiving 1,700 messages of support for the program.

However, another extension appears inevitable. While James Inhofe claims the Senate is just days away from passing his committee’s DRIVE Act, the House passed a five-month patch yesterday rather than take up the Senate’s bill.

Here are a few things to know:

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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: ## 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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Brace Yourself: Here Comes Another Attack on Bike/Ped Funding

Projects like this pedestrian-friendly streetscaping in Bayonne, New Jersey, might not get built without the crucial support of the federal Transportation Alternatives Program. Photo: ## Conservancy##

Projects like this sidewalk in Bayonne, New Jersey, might not get built without the crucial support of the federal Transportation Alternatives Program. Photo: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

If petty Congressional attacks on bike/ped funding were a drinking game, you’d be drunk by now. And now two House Republicans want to pour you another shot.

Reps. Sam Johnson (TX) and Vicky Hartzler (MO) have introduced a bill to eliminate the Transportation Alternatives Program, the largest source of federal funding for biking and walking projects. TAP is today’s curtailed and underfunded version of what used to be known as Transportation Enhancements. Without it, simple infrastructure we all depend on — sidewalks, trails, crosswalks, bike lanes — would get even less support from the federal transportation program. Other activities that mitigate the environmental damage caused by roads, like stormwater management, would also lose an important source of funding.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy warns that the (perfectly-named) Right-of-Way for American Drivers Act of 2015 (H.R. 2609) could be offered as an amendment to a transportation funding bill that will be voted on as early as today. If not, the measure could find a home in the next transportation reauthorization, due in less than two months.

“Programs like TAP are in high demand,” said Patrick Wojahn, RTC’s director of government relations, in a statement. “Today, 12 percent of all trips in the United States are made by biking or walking. These active-transportation modes continue to grow as options for more and more Americans, yet we only invest 1.5 percent of surface transportation funds in these programs.”

Three hundred organizations from all 50 states and the District of Columbia have signed a letter [PDF] urging Congress to support TAP.