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Two “New Yorkers” Debated in Brooklyn and Transit Barely Got a Mention

Image: CNN

Image: CNN

Remember that time two Democratic presidential candidates had a nationally-televised debate in New York City and barely said anything about transit?

This week Bernie Sanders was endorsed by the Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union. Hillary Clinton, speaking in Manhattan, called transportation — referring to transit specifically — a “civil rights issue.” So you’d think the time had finally come for transit policy, and the millions of Americans who rely on buses and trains, to get some attention on the national stage.

But last night, transit policy got but a fleeting mention. When the topic of climate change came up, Sanders said the U.S. could create jobs by “rebuilding our rail system … our mass transit system.” That was it.

Nationally, the Democratic base is heavily concentrated in urban areas, and right now the candidates are vying for votes in the state with far and away the most transit riders. And yet there was no acknowledgment on stage of how transit can strengthen cities or reduce economic inequality, the dominant theme of the campaign.

Then again, when one candidate can’t swipe a MetroCard and the other apparently doesn’t know what a MetroCard is, it’s little wonder two “New Yorkers” would fail to say anything of substance about transit.

Streetsblog USA
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High Transportation Costs Make a Lot of HUD Housing Unaffordable

"Affordable" housing units with excessively high transportation costs shown in red, and affordable transportation costs in yellow in the Atlanta area (left) and Detroit area (right). Map: University of Texas

Maps of Atlanta (left) and Detroit (right) show HUD rental units with high transportation costs in red and those with affordable transportation costs in yellow. Maps: University of Texas

Rental assistance from HUD isn’t enough to make the cost of living affordable when the subsidies go toward housing in car-dependent areas, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Utah. The study evaluated transportation costs for more than 18,000 households that receive HUD rental subsidies, estimating that nearly half of recipients have to spend more than 15 percent of their household budgets on transportation.

HUD generally considers housing to be “affordable” if it consumes less than 30 percent of a family’s income. But that calculation doesn’t factor in the transportation costs that come along with different housing locations. A family that lives in a walkable neighborhood with good transit options will be less burdened with transportation costs — car payments, insurance, gas — than a family with the same income living in an area where they have to drive for every trip.

A broader picture of affordability comes from the “H+T index” popularized by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which holds that if housing accounts for 30 percent of a household’s budget, transportation should not account for more than 15 percent to keep total costs affordable.

In the new study, researchers developed a model to determine how much households receiving HUD rental assistance have to spend on transportation in several cities. They found a great deal of variation across metro areas. In San Antonio, for example, only 13.5 percent of the housing units were in locations where transportation costs would consume less than 15 percent of household income, while in Los Angeles the figure was 97 percent.

Read more…

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Sober Non-Partisan Analysis: America Wastes a Ton of Money on Highways

A good deal of the $46 billion the federal government pours into highway spending each year is going to waste, according to a new Congressional Budget Office report [PDF].

The conclusion won’t surprise regular Streetsblog readers, but it’s the source that’s interesting. The CBO is not an advocacy group or an ideologically-minded think tank. It’s a non-partisan budget watchdog charged with evaluating federal spending decisions, and it says federal highway funding is not well-spent.

For one, the CBO thinks too much is spent on road expansion and too little on maintenance. The construction of the Interstate Highway System made freight shipping and traveling between cities much more efficient, the report says, but since the system was completed in the 1970s spending on highways has been subject to diminishing returns. Current spending “has not shifted” to account for the “the importance of maintaining existing capacity,” the CBO writes.

Compounding the problem is induced demand. CBO points to a recent study finding that “the addition of new lanes is likely to have little effect on congestion within 10 years” as highway lanes fill with new drivers.

Read more…

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Obama’s Last Budget Lays Out a Smart Vision for American Transportation

The White House released its 2017 budget [PDF] this morning, which includes more detail about the exciting but politically doomed transportation proposal President Obama outlined last week. Obama’s plan doesn’t have a chance in the current Congress, but it shows what national transportation policy centered on reducing greenhouse gas emissions might look like.

Obama had an awesome transportation budget in him all along. Photo: Iowapolitics.com via Flickr

If only candidate Obama had campaigned on this transportation plan in 2008. Photo: Iowapolitics.com/Flickr

Last week’s release sketched out a $10 per barrel tax on oil to fund a $30 billion increase in annual transportation spending. The budget gives us a closer look at what that $30 billion would fund.

In total, $20 billion of it would go toward programs to reduce GHG emissions and give people better options to get around without driving. Here are the details — keep in mind that with the GOP firmly in control of Congress, this is more of an aspirational document than a politically feasible spending plan.

Transit

The budget calls for a $8 billion increase in annual capital funds for transit, bringing the total to about $20 billion. Of that, about $16 billion would be divvied up to metro regions by formula to support maintenance and expansion projects, about 60 percent. Another $3.5 billion would boost competitive grant programs for expansion projects. The budget recommends funding in FY 2017 for Los Angeles’s Westside Subway, Southwest Light Rail in Minneapolis, Albuquerque Bus Rapid Transit, and Honolulu commuter rail, among other projects.

Read more…

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Obama’s Politically Impossible Transpo Plan Is Just What America Needs

Even with a tax on oil, the U.S.'s effective gas tax rate would be the lowest in the industrialized world. Graph: Tony Dutzik via FHWA

Even with a tax on oil, the U.S.’s effective gas tax rate would be the lowest in the industrialized world. Graph: Tony Dutzik via FHWA

It may be “seven years too late,” as tactical urbanist Mike Lydon put it, but President Obama has released a transportation proposal that calls for big shifts in the country’s spending priorities.

Obama’s proposal would generate $30 billion annually from a $10-per-barrel surcharge assessed on oil companies. More importantly, the revenue is linked to a substantial shift in what transportation projects get funded. It’s the kind of thorough proposal, on both the revenue and spending sides of the equation, that Obama shied away from for most of his presidency. (It would only have stood a chance during his first two years in office.) While this Congress would never pass it, the proposal does lay down a marker for what smart federal transportation policy could be.

In a rough sketch laid out by the White House yesterday of the upcoming proposal, Obama calls for major increases in transit funding and investing in a network of efficient high-speed rail. Perhaps even more innovative is a $10 billion program to reduce carbon emissions from the transportation sector. This program, among other things, would fund states to better coordinate housing and job development with transportation. Obama’s proposal also calls for $2 billion to support research and development and the implementation of autonomous vehicles.

Not surprisingly, what has gotten the most press is the oil tax, which even Obama admits would likely be passed on to consumers through higher gas prices. Already, Republican Congressional leaders have called the proposal “DOA.”

Obama’s people have acknowledged the bill faces long odds in Congress, describing it as a conversation starter. An unnamed administration official told Politico the plan would help shift the nation’s transportation policy out of the Eisenhower era.

Read more…

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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.

Read more…

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The Highs and Lows of Hillary’s Bland Infrastructure Plan

We’re getting some insight into what White House transportation policy would look like in a Hillary Clinton administration, following the Democratic frontrunner’s release of a 5-year, $275 billion infrastructure plan yesterday. It’s not exactly a visionary plan, but despite its blandness it’s still likely to be DOA if Republicans retain control of Congress as expected.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Clinton’s “briefing” calls for $275 billion in infrastructure spending over five years, on top of the $250 billion transportation bill being finalized right now in Washington. Echoing the Obama administration she says the proposal will be paid for by the vague notion of “business tax reform” — not a gas tax increase or a fee on driving mileage.

The Clinton spending package is something of a grab bag of ideas for roads, transit, aviation, water, and internet infrastructure.

On the one hand, Clinton gestures toward reforming the way federal infrastructure dollars are spent, emphasizing “merit-based” project selection. This suggests the typical state DOT highway boondoggle would face greater scrutiny. She also recognizes the need to get more bang for the infrastructure buck, signals support for walking and biking infrastructure, and promises to target spending to address environmental degradation and social inequality. She devotes a paragraph to the need for more investment in transit, which she says is particularly important for low-income communities and communities of color.

Those are the good parts, sounding policy themes carried over from the Obama administration, whose TIGER program remains a rare example of what “merit-based” federal funding would look like.

On the other hand, the Clinton campaign repeats the Texas Transportation Institute’s talking point about how Americans waste 42 hours in traffic annually — a dubious claim used to beat the drum for more highway expansions. Clinton’s proposal does not contain a reference to “fix it first” policy — the idea that keeping existing roads in good shape should take precedence over building new ones. In fact, she wants to “fix and expand” roads and bridges, which sounds like business as usual — squandering billions on highway projects the nation doesn’t need.

There may be something for everyone in this plan, but there’s no consistent vision for a safe, equitable, sustainable transportation system.

Streetsblog USA
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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.