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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.

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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 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.

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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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