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In Obama Budget, a Glimpse of What Beefed-Up Transit Funding Could Do

Nashville BRT is among the transit upgrades in line for funding in 2015. Image: Nashville Public Radio

The budget proposal released by President Obama yesterday fleshes out the transportation ideas put out by the White House last week and includes specific grants for transit upgrades and expansions in 2015, but many of them won’t be part of this budget unless Congress agrees to increase funding for transportation.

The White House budget proposes $17.6 billion for the Federal Transit Administration, an increase of about $7 billion from current levels. This would give transit agencies significantly more resources to rehab existing infrastructure and build rail and bus expansions.

Most of the additional funding — more than $5 billion — would come in the form of bigger distributions to transit agencies by formula. On top of that, money for transit expansion projects would grow by more than $500 million, a new $500 million program would help fund bus rapid transit projects, and $500 million would be set aside for “a new competitive grant program that will encourage innovative solutions to our most pressing transportation challenges.”

Enacting these changes is unlikely, because Obama will have to win Congressional support for funding transportation with corporate tax reform. But a look at the FTA budget provides a sense of how much more can be done for transit each year, given new resources.

The increased funding for transit expansion would go toward light rail in Baltimore, an extension of Boston’s Green Line, and commuter rail in Orlando, among other projects. Portland’s Columbia River Crossing — the sprawl bridge/light rail project that apparently just won’t die – is also on the list.

A round of smaller grants that also need Congressional approval would fund bus rapid transit projects in Nashville, Oakland, El Paso, Eugene, and Vancouver, as well as $50 million to advance Fort Lauderdale’s streetcar plans.

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Inside Obama’s Transpo Budget: “Historic Increase” in Transit Funding

A few more details about the Obama administration’s proposal for a new transportation bill surfaced today when the president unveiled his 2015 budget proposal.

The topline numbers came out last week and look good for transit, biking, and walkability. The White House’s four-year, $302 billion surface transportation plan proposes an “historic increase” in transit funding — from $12.3 billion to $22.3 billion annually. The budget also proposes $600 million in annual TIGER spending, a new program with $4 billion annually to help modernize state departments of transportation, and $19.1 billion for intercity rail spread over the next four years.

The President's budget proposal calls for significant increases in funding for passenger rail. Image: Flickr

The White House budget proposal calls for significant increases in funding for transit. Photo: Trimet/Flickr

While White House transportation proposals have gone nowhere, with Obama at odds with House Republicans, there’s a slim chance that the administration and the GOP will align this time over how to pay for the program.

The budget document released today offers more information on the White House’s plan to keep wasteful highway expansion in check. The budget introduces a new program that appears to be aimed at reforming old-fashioned state DOTs. The administration proposes $4 billion annually for a new program it calls “Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation,” which is “designed to create incentives for state and local partners to adopt critical reforms.” The administration says this funding would be intended to be spent on “modifying transportation plans to include mass transit, bike, and pedestrian options,” and “peak travel demand management,” such as tolling or congestion pricing programs.

The budget document also promises “a fix-it-first approach for highway and transit grants”:

States and localities have incentives to emphasize new investments over improving the condition of the existing infrastructure. The Administration’s reauthorization proposal will underscore the importance of preserving and improving existing assets.

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Let’s Do the Time Warp Again: U.S. DOT Fails to Get Travel Forecasting Right

The U.S. Department of Transportation seems to be stuck in a bizarre time warp.  For nine years in a row Americans have decreased their average driving miles. Yet U.S. DOT’s most recent biennial report to Congress on the state of the nation’s transportation system, released last Friday, forecasts that total vehicle miles will increase between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030.

Times have changed. Why hasn't DOT gotten the memo? Image: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/5124536635/##Flickr/James Vaughan##

Times have changed. Why hasn’t DOT gotten the memo? Image: Flickr/James Vaughan

Just how out of whack is that forecast? Consider the following:

  • Vehicle travel hasn’t increased by even 1 percent in any year since 2004. Yet the U.S. DOT assumes that driving will increase at a rate significantly faster than that every year on average through 2030.
  • The new report uses for one of its two scenarios the same flawed forecasting model that has overestimated vehicle travel 61 times out of 61 since 1999.
  • In a particularly absurd twist, the U.S. DOT forecast doesn’t even get the past right. The report “projects” (based on 2010 data) that Americans drove 5 percent more miles in 2012 than they actually did. To hit the DOT forecast for 2014, Americans would need to increase their driving by 9 percent this year alone.

Why should we care about all this? With transportation funds increasingly scarce — and especially with Congress due to reauthorize the nation’s transportation law — policy-makers need good guidance about where to invest. A sensible approach, especially given the recent decline in driving and increasing demand for transit, would be to plow a greater share of those limited resources into expanding access to public transportation and active transportation modes while focusing highway spending on fixing our existing roads and bridges.

Instead, the U.S. DOT’s travel forecast is used as justification to propose a dramatic increase in highway spending to fund all the new and expanded highways that the DOT presumes we’ll need to accommodate all of those imagined new cars and drivers. The agency asserts that the nation would need to spend between $124 billion and $146 billion each year to maintain and improve the highway system — numbers that are sure to find their way immediately into highway lobby press releases and be repeatedly cited in congressional hearings.

What makes the DOT forecast so bewildering is that the agency — elsewhere in the very same document — acknowledges the strong possibility that many of the factors that have caused the recent drop in driving may be long-lasting. The report states:

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Obama to Propose Four-Year Transpo Bill Funded By “Business Tax Reform”

President Obama will unveil a proposal for a $302 billion, four-year transportation bill during a speech today in Minnesota, according to an announcement from the White House. A fact sheet from the administration indicates the proposal would increase dedicated funding for transit more than funding for highways.

Obama will appear in St. Paul, Minnesota today to announce a new transportation plan he says is part of his "year of action." Photo: PRX.org

Obama will appear in St. Paul, Minnesota today to announce a new transportation plan. Photo: PRX.org

The proposal would represent a 38 percent spending increase over the current $109 billion, 2-year law, known as MAP-21, and is the most concrete long-term transportation bill proposed by the Obama administration, which has never put forward a funding stream until now.

The $300 billion spending plan does not raise the gas tax. Instead, it calls for directing some $150 billion from “business tax reform” to help shore up the Highway Trust Fund, which is set to go broke late this summer. The White House has not released more information about how the funding stream would operate, but the press release calls it ”one-time transition revenue,” so the idea seems to be that in four years, a different revenue stream would have to be identified.

The White House announcement said Obama’s proposal “will show how we can invest in the things we need to grow and create jobs by closing unfair tax loopholes, lowering tax rates, and making the system more fair.”

Such a funding method would represent a major break from relying on the gas tax to pay for the national transportation program. The gas tax hasn’t been raised in two decades, and inflation and rising fuel efficiency have eroded its value. In 2012, the federal gasoline tax brought in $35 billion, but the feds allocated $54 billion in transportation spending, with other sources, including general tax revenues, making up the difference.

Obama will also announce the upcoming $600 million round of funding for TIGER, US DOT’s popular competitive grant program for local transportation projects, which has already been approved by Congress. The program has funded $1 billion in city transit projects, nearly as much for intercity rail, and $153 million in biking and walking projects since it was introduced in 2009.

More details about the president’s “vision for a 21st century transportation infrastructure” will be available after the speech today in St. Paul, which will take place inside the city’s restored Union Depot train station.

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In Sly Fashion, Cuomo Skirts Requests for Bike-Ped Funding

Last week, nearly three dozen advocates from across the state went to Albany to meet with legislators, asking for dedicated bike-pedestrian funding from the state. But some timely announcements by Governor Cuomo put a damper on their request.

The most recent federal transportation bill cut dedicated bike-pedestrian funding to New York state by 30 percent, or $12 million each year. Elected officials and advocates are asking the governor to make up the shortfall and then some by adding a dedicated bike-pedestrian item in the state budget. So far, the governor hasn’t included the fund in his budget, and it’s increasingly likely it will be up to the state legislature to press the issue.

Instead of committing state funds, the governor has made a series of announcements about giving existing federal money to bike-pedestrian projects. To the public, it looks like the governor is giving lots of new money to active transportation, but one advocate says it’s a sly budgeting maneuver designed to “cut us off at the knees.”

On January 14, advocates organized by the New Yorkers for Active Transportation coalition held a press conference in Albany calling on Cuomo to add bike-pedestrian funds to the state budget. The next day, Cuomo announced that the state would be awarding $67 million in federal money to these projects. It was a welcome boost for projects like the Pulaski Bridge bike lane, but it caught advocates off-guard because the state hasn’t allocated bike-pedestrian funds in four years, and last month’s announcement was significantly larger than the amount they were expecting.

“That’s money that the state’s been sitting on,” said Josh Wilson, executive director of the New York Bicycling Coalition. “Our entire campaign has been made more difficult by the very timely announcement of federal funding awards.”

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Why Is It Still So Hard to Find Out How States Are Spending Transpo Money?

Summary of Nationwide Findings for Bicycling and Walking Projects by Project Type. Image: Advocacy Advance

Based on available information, 88.7 percent of all state transportation projects include nothing for walking and biking. Image: Advocacy Advance

You would be lucky to get half as much information about a $5 million transportation project in your state as you can get from a toothpaste tube about how to brush.

That sad comparison comes from a new report by Advocacy Advance (a project of the League of American Bicyclists and the Alliance for Biking and Walking). The report — “Lifting the Veil on Bicycle & Pedestrian Spending: An Analysis of Problems & Priorities in Transportation Planning and What to Do About It” [PDF] — compares bike/ped spending in State Transportation Improvement Programs, the spending plans state DOTs have to publish at least once every four years.

Advocacy Advance took a look at bike/ped spending in all 50 states. Here's part of Ohio's scorecard. The state got two As, a B- and a D for data transparency. Image: Advocacy Advance

Advocacy Advance took a look at bike/ped spending in all 50 states. Here’s part of Ohio’s scorecard. Image: Advocacy Advance

While toothpaste directions average six sentences, the average state DOT project description is just one sentence.

And when trying to decipher how your state is spending millions of dollars on a given transportation project, you shouldn’t be surprised to come across something like this: “SH 28, SALMON SB, SHARED USE PATHWAYS, PHS I.” That’s all Idaho tells the public about how its transportation dollars are being spent.

“Generally, state advocates know about the STIP but they don’t see it as a useful place to put their time because there are so many issues with it,” said Ken McLeod, the author of the Advocacy Advance report. “It’s hard to produce data from it that’s actionable for them or their constituents. So there’s some frustration at the state and local level, knowing that there’s this document with great potential that’s unrealized.”

McLeod dug deep to determine what projects involved bike/ped spending. He separated out bike-only, ped-only, and bike-and-ped projects, and then separately categorized larger road projects with a bike/ped element. And he looked beyond DOTs’ “bike/ped” coding to determine for himself when a project invested in infrastructure for walking and biking.

Advocacy Advance used the data to produce scorecards for each of the 50 states. (Since the District of Columbia isn’t a state and so doesn’t have to produce a STIP, it was left out of the analysis.)

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New Bill Would Make Bike/Ped Projects Eligible for Federal Loans

The day after President Obama’s State of the Union plea to improve economic opportunity for struggling Americans, New Jersey Democrat Albio Sires introduced a bill that he says will help meet that goal.

Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) has introduced a bill to extend low-interest TIFIA loans to communities -- especially low-income communities -- for street safety projects. Photo: ##http://paraclito.net/2010/11/04/albio-sires-por-la-libertad-de-cuba/##Paraclito##

Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) has introduced a bill to extend low-interest TIFIA loans to communities — especially low-income communities — for street safety projects. Photo: Paraclito

His bill [PDF] would build on the TIFIA loan program, which is so beloved by Congress its funding was expanded by a factor of ten in the MAP-21 transportation bill, up to $1 billion this year. Since the beefed-up TIFIA program will fund any proposal deemed creditworthy and only selects projects that cost at least $50 million, advocates for transit and active transportation have been concerned it will become merely a slush fund for toll roads.

Sires’ bill, the New Opportunities for Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure Financing Act — NOBPIFA for short (if you call that short) — would set aside 1 percent of TIFIA’s $1 billion and earmark that money for biking and walking. For these projects, TIFIA’s minimum project cost would be lowered to $2 million, making low-interest, long-term loans available to communities for improvements to their biking and walking networks.

Three co-sponsors have signed on to the bill. Two of them, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, are Republicans from the Miami area. Florida is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous states in the country for walking and biking.

In a statement, Sires tied the bill introduction to Obama’s State of the Union address:

Last night, President Obama called on Congress to help rebuild our middle class, and this bill would do just that. When we make our roads and sidewalks safer, we help connect workers to new jobs. We create communities where families want to live and businesses want to invest. And we give mothers and fathers peace of mind, knowing they aren’t sending their children to school on the unsafe sidewalks and roadways that exist in so many of our rural and urban communities.

The bill reserves 25 percent of project funding for low-income communities, “with the goal of creating a more equitable, safe roadway environment for all Americans.”

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De Blasio Calls for More Local Control of Federal Transpo Funds

Photo: ##http://usmayors.org/82ndWinterMeeting/## U.S. Conference of Mayors##

At a convening of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington today, Mayor Bill de Blasio made reference, without really naming it, to the single biggest demand of transportation reformers going into the negotiation for the next national bill: local control.

Bicycle advocates successfully fought for local control over some bike and pedestrian dollars precisely because they know that those dollars get lost in a highway vortex at the state level. State bureaucracies don’t think about the local projects that make a big difference in mobility and sustainability in cities and towns. But mayors sure do.

That’s why Transportation for America has rebranded itself as a coalition of local leaders, instead of national organizations. It’s found that it’s most effective when it brings mayors, MPO officials, and business leaders to Congress than when it brings a bunch of Beltway policy wonks. Lawmakers listen to them.

And so rather than rally behind a long menu of policy reforms, T4 is now putting its energy into just one: local control.

And that’s the song Bill de Blasio was singing today. He noted the importance of local control on a number of issues, and transportation was chief among them.

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The Next Transpo Bill: Can Congress Solve the Funding Problem?

From left to right, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Catepillar Group President Stuart Levenick, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Lawrence Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, testified before House transportation leaders today. The event kicked off a new transportation bill reauthorization process. Image: ##http://transportation.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=364867## House T&I Committee##

From left to right, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Caterpillar Group President Stuart Levenick, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, testified before House transportation leaders today. The event kicked off a new transportation bill reauthorization process. Photo: House T&I Committee

It’s that time again. Just 18 months after the passage of the latest federal transportation bill, known as MAP-21, Congress has to get serious about the next one. The first hearing on the bill that will replace MAP-21 took place today in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

With gridlock the order of the day in Washington, expectations for sweeping policy reforms are low. This round of legislating will focus mainly on how to pay for the federal transportation program. The speakers today, who represented interests ranging from the construction lobby to transit unions, all stressed the need for greater certainty and pushed for a funding mechanism to support a long-term, six-year bill.

Members of the committee heard testimony from Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Stuart Levenick of industrial manufacturer Caterpillar, and Larry Hanley of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Those who testified even went so far as to suggest an outright funding crisis would be preferable to another series of short-term extensions, like the endless foot-dragging that preceded MAP-21, which itself lasted barely longer than an extension. A scenario where lawmakers let funding for transportation totally run out would at least add a sense of real urgency to negotiations, the thinking goes.

Wisconsin Congressman Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) asked the panel which outcome they’d prefer, in the case of another stalemate between Republicans and Democrats in the House.

Reed responded, “I would err on the side of short-term pain.”

Those who testified pressed for bold solutions, including alternatives to the gas tax. ”What we need to do is have a conversation in this committee where we put all options on the table,” said Reed.

Hanley suggested Congress consider a tax on financial transactions, the so called “Robin Hood” tax, to fund a 100 percent increase in transit funding, which he said was warranted by growth in major cities and young people’s declining interest in driving.

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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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