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Why the Senate Transportation Bill Will Devastate Transit

Transit officials lined up today to make clear that holding transit spending at current levels — as the Senate’s transportation authorization bill does — will put transit systems at risk of falling further into dangerous disrepair.

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are "woefully insufficient."

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are “woefully insufficient.”

The backlog for transit maintenance and replacement stands “conservatively” at $86 billion, according to the Federal Transit Administration. That backlog is expected to keep growing at a rate of $2.5 billion each year without a significant infusion of funds.

To put it another way, the country needs to spend $2.5 billion more per year – from federal, state and local sources – just to keep the state of the nation’s transit systems from getting even worse.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was determined to expose the shortcomings of the bill Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) recently shepherded through the Environment and Public Works Committee. While the bill’s transit title hasn’t been written yet, EPW has been clear about its intentions to keep spending at current levels plus inflation. That means no help toward the $2.5 billion boost needed to keep things from getting worse.

Menendez chaired a hearing today of the Banking Committee — the very committee tasked with writing the transit title within the framework established by EPW — to demonstrate the problem with the bill’s funding levels.

“By a simple yes or no,” Menendez asked the transit officials before him, “does anyone on the panel believe that current funding levels are enough to help you achieve a state of good repair?”

“They are insufficient,” answered Joseph Casey, general manager of Philadelphia’s SEPTA.

“Woefully insufficient,” added Beverly Scott, head of Boston’s MBTA and a nationally respected transportation visionary.

“No sir,” said Gary Thomas of Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

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How the Federal TIGER Program Revived a Cleveland Neighborhood

The "Uptown" development in Cleveland is part a way of construction that a TIGER grant helped catalyze in Cleveland. Photo: MRN

The “Uptown” development in Cleveland was catalyzed by a TIGER grant that helped relocate a rail station. Photo: MRN

Cleveland doesn’t look like a dying Rust Belt city these days in the Little Italy and University Circle neighborhoods. In fact, it looks like it’s thriving.

At the corner of Euclid and Mayfield, a new mixed-use development — MRN’s “Uptown” — is filling out, hosting a bookstore, a bakery, bars, and new apartments. Just across the street, the new home of the Museum of Contemporary Art sits gleaming, in the words of the New York Times, “like a lustrous black gem.” Another major office, retail, and residential project is planned a stone’s throw away.

biden_train

Vice President Joe Biden was in Cleveland Wednesday urging action to invest in infrastructure and preserve the TIGER program. Photo: Angie Schmitt

It’s hard to understate how remarkable this type of investment is in this area. Cleveland’s decades-long population decline has helped make it one of the weakest urban real estate markets in the country.

But this is a sweet spot in Cleveland. The Cleveland Clinic — Ohio’s largest employer — is less than a mile away. So are many of the city’s renowned cultural institutions — the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Orchestra, and Case Western Reserve University. About 50,000 people work in the area.

Even so, the new developments in Little Italy might never have happened if not for the U.S. DOT’s TIGER program. Greater Cleveland’s Regional Transit Authority received a grant from the third round of TIGER funding in 2011, which provided about $9 million to rebuild and move a rail station from East 120th to Mayfield Road, right in the heart of the growing neighborhood.

Local leaders in Cleveland had for years hoped to move the station to help build on the nearby assets. When the RTA applied for funding through TIGER, it was one of 828 projects seeking $517 million in funding. Just 46 of those applicants were awarded grants.

Despite the enormous demand for TIGER, it has been under the constant threat of elimination by the House GOP since the program was launched in 2009. A recent proposal put forward by House Republicans would turn TIGER from a multi-modal program that helps cities and metro areas directly access federal funds into a roads program. Meanwhile, the Senate has proposed a new transportation bill that fails to fund TIGER.

And that’s why Joe Biden was in Cleveland on Wednesday stumping for a new transportation bill that would preserve TIGER. ”This is what we should be doing all over the nation,” said Biden.

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President Obama’s Hollow Push for Infrastructure Investment

With the Tappan Zee Bridge behind him, President Obama made his case for more infrastructure spending. Photo: ##https://twitter.com/TheObamaDiary/status/466676032834387969/photo/1##TheObamaDiary/Twitter##

With an old highway bridge and the cranes building its replacement behind him, President Obama made his case for more infrastructure spending. Photo: TheObamaDiary/Twitter

This afternoon, President Obama stood by New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge and made a speech pressing Congress to do something about infrastructure investment. It’s part of his Infrastructure Week push for Congress to pass a fully funded transportation reauthorization bill. Many other groups are spending this week sounding the same horn.

“If they don’t act by end of summer, federal funding for transportation projects will run out. The cupboard will be bare,” Obama said today. “Nearly 700,000 jobs will be at risk.”

“So far, at least, the Republicans who run this Congress seem to have a different priority,” he said. “Not only have they prevented, so far, efforts to make sure funding is still in place for what we’ve already got, but their proposal would actually cut job-creating grant programs that funded high-priority transportation projects in all 50 states — they’d cut ‘em by about 80 percent.”

Indeed, Obama has submitted a bill to Congress calling to increase federal transportation investment to $302 billion over the next four years. The problem is, his plan to pay for it — using what he calls “pro-growth” business tax reform and the repatriation of offshore profits — is falling on deaf ears in Congress. Advocates criticize the plan as a one-time gimmick, not a long-term funding source.

The most obvious and simple method of raising more revenue in the long run is to increase the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993 and has lost an estimated 37 percent of its purchasing power. Experts say an increase of 10 to 15 cents per gallon is needed to fill the gap in the nation’s transportation funding.

But the Obama administration has been adamant in its refusal to raise the gas tax. Though former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came out in favor of a 10 cent hike almost as soon as he left office, he toed the official line while at U.S. DOT, insisting that a hike was a non-starter. At a Commerce Committee hearing last week, LaHood’s successor, Anthony Foxx, disappointed senators by dodging a question about increasing the gas tax, saying only that he would “listen to Congress.”

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Barbara Boxer’s Transportation Bill: Same As It Ever Was

The future of national transportation policy is pretty much like the present of national transportation policy, if the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has its way: underfunded and highway-centric.

This is your freight network, America. Enjoy. Photo: ##http://www.komu.com/news/licking-man-sentenced-for-arson-fires-at-truck-stops/##KOMU##

This is your freight network, America. Enjoy. Photo: KOMU

The bill released by Senator Barbara Boxer’s EPW Committee yesterday [PDF] rejects pretty much everything the Obama administration put forth in its bill, including permanent funding for TIGER and the elimination of red tape that prevents states from tolling interstates. The administration called for spending $302 billion over four years, while the EPW bill envisions a $265 billion budget over six years — although that figure does not include transit or rail.

And that’s part of the problem. The administration put forward a comprehensive, multi-modal transportation bill proposal. But in the Senate, the process is shepherded by EPW, and EPW only writes the highway component of the bill, then hands it over to the Banking Committee for the transit piece and the Commerce Committee for the rail and safety piece. And of course, nothing at all will happen unless the Senate Finance Committee can find a way to pay for it.

“It’s disappointing that the Senate is still operating under complete modal siloes and not thinking of this as a comprehensive system in any way, shape, or form,” said Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Boxer has long hinted that she doesn’t see much need to change the policies laid out in the current transportation bill, MAP-21, which was negotiated less than two years ago. And by that standard, she has delivered. While there are some updates to MAP-21, by and large, the EPW bill maintains the status quo right down to the level of funding, which is only adjusted for inflation.

Of the few changes included in the bill, the proposals are hit-or-miss. Here’s the rundown.

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Earth Day Resolution: Stop Building Projects Like the Zoo Interchange

zoo

Leading up to Earth Day, the New York Times ran an editorial, “Time Is Running Out,” lamenting the lack of urgency in the United States to prevent a very urgent problem: catastrophic climate change. Today, Brad Plumer at Vox explained why it may be too late to keep average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the threshold that climate scientists have been warning about.

There are many steps we’ll have to take to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But one of them is most definitely this: America has to stop spending billions on projects like Wisconsin’s Zoo Interchange and start getting serious about building places where people can get around by walking, biking, and taking transit.

The Zoo Interchange embodies America’s broken transportation spending system, which former US DOT official Beth Osborne described on Atlantic Cities today as “an entitlement for state departments of transportation to allocate for their own priorities.”

This single highway interchange, aimed at reducing delays for suburban car commuters in the nation’s 30th largest city, costs more than total federal spending on walking and biking annually.

The Zoo Interchange carries 300,000 cars per day. It is “Wisconsin’s oldest and busiest interchange,” according to the state. A big part of Wisconsin DOT’s justification for the Milwaukee interchange is “safety.” According to WisDOT, there were an average of 2.5 collisions a day on the interchange between 2000 and 2005 and nine were fatal.

By comparison, according to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, Americans make about 112 million walking trips daily. About 4,000 pedestrians are killed annually on American roads.

And yet, Wisconsin will spend more on this one sprawl-inducing highway project than the feds spend each year on all walking and biking projects combined.

Clearly, our priorities are out of whack — way out of whack.

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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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