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Budget Deal Is Good News for Transit

The House of Representatives is preparing to vote on that rarest of Capitol Hill treasures — a bipartisan budget deal. If both houses approve the deal, negotiated by Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, it will be the first time since 2010 that Congress has passed a budget.

Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray have reached a budget deal the House is expected to pass today.

Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray have reached a budget deal the House is expected to pass today.

The deal would erase some sequester cuts and split the difference between the House budget of $967 billion and the Senate proposal’s $1.058 trillion number. The final budget would come in at $1.012 trillion.

The deal would bring the discretionary budget to about $491 billion. If the modest increases are applied evenly across all non-defense agencies, it would mean that the Transportation and HUD (THUD) budget would still suffer a $1.58 billion cut from 2013 levels, according to David Burwell of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, but it’s $8 billion more than the House’s starvation bill of about $44 billion.

“This will allow all THUD programs to continue to operate with about a 2 percent cut from FY2013 levels,” Burwell said, “including TIGER, Amtrak, Transit New/Small Starts, etc.” A 2 percent cut starts to sound pretty good when you realize THUD was looking at a 7 percent cut before this deal materialized.

Given the fact that Senate Budget Committee chair, and co-author of this deal, Patty Murray also chairs the THUD Appropriations Subcommittee — and has “great affection” for the TIGER program, Burwell indulges the idea that “we may well get a strong TIGER in our stocking this Christmas, not a lump of coal.”

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Concrete Proposals for Raising Gas Tax Finally on the Table

After a lot of vague talk about transportation revenues since the passage of MAP-21 — “everything is on the table” and “we need to think outside the box” — real proposals are finally being presented.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer is introducing a bill to raise the gas tax by 15 cents a gallon. Photo: Michael Clapp/##http://www.opb.org/news/article/wyden-blumenauer-address-security-and-privacy-concerns/##OPB##

Rep. Earl Blumenauer is introducing a bill to raise the gas tax by 15 cents a gallon. Photo: Michael Clapp/OPB

A few months ago, House Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster told me, “The surest way to kill something is to get out there way far in front before anything is possible.” He said you’ve got to figure out when the timing is right.

Apparently, it’s right now.

Tomorrow, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) will introduce a bill to raise the federal gas tax by 15 cents a gallon, the amount suggested a few years back by the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission.

The proposal would go a long way toward solving the immediate problem: The Highway Trust Fund is projected to be flat broke by the time a new transportation bill needs to be negotiated next year. But it still doesn’t tie the tax to inflation or the price of gas, so Congress would still periodically need to take on the politically difficult task of voting to raise it. And in the long term, it could prove unsustainable to keep transportation funding tied to gas consumption, which is dropping with greater fuel efficiency and less driving.

Still, when Blumenauer announces his bill tomorrow, he’ll be flanked by people representing labor, business, transit, transportation reform groups, and road builders. All of those interests have been banging the drum for greater transportation investment for years. They are not picky about how the revenue gets raised.

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Lawmakers Score Conservative Bona Fides By Attacking Efficient Transport

Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Congressman Tom Graves (R-Georgia) have introduced a bill to eliminate federal involvement in transportation policy, which would spell disaster for funding that supports transit, biking, and walking. A largely symbolic vote in favor of “devolution” will allow Republican members of Congress to demonstrate their conservative bona fides.

Senator Mike Lee is one of 21 Republicans sponsoring a bill to eliminate the federal role in transportation. Image: ##http://blog.heritage.org/2013/11/15/changing-transportation-status-quo-empowering-states/## The Foundry##

Senator Mike Lee is one of 21 Republicans sponsoring a bill that would decimate funds for transit, biking, and walking. Image: The Foundry

The Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA) — get it? — is sponsored by 21 lawmakers, all Republicans. The Hill reports that the arch-conservative Heritage Action group will be scoring lawmakers on how they vote. The bill would reduce the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents over five years and turn all spending decisions over to state governments.

Heritage Foundation writer Emily Goff, in her report on TEA, specifically notes that the bill would decimate dedicated funds for transit, biking, and walking projects. Heritage sees that as a big plus:

Under the current highway bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, at least 25 percent of authorized funding for FY 2013 was diverted to non-general purpose roads and bridges. Transit, the largest diversion, received $8.5 billion, or 17 percent, of authorized funds. Other diversions include $809 million authorized for the transportation alternatives program (TAP), which pays for bicycle and nature paths, sidewalks, and community preservation activities, none of which reduce congestion or improve mobility for the motorists paying for them.

Heritage remains oddly silent on the massive subsidies that pay for roads. Nor do they seem to notice the enormous, wasteful boondoggles perpetuated routinely by states.

And Heritage doesn’t seem convinced that making transportation systems more efficient in the nation’s economic hubs, lowering the death toll from nearly 34,000 traffic fatalities per year, and reducing dependence on fossil fuels are in the national interest. Your state might not lie along a major freight corridor, but freight bottlenecks and delays cost all of us.

Conservative lawmakers have been trying unsuccessfully to enact devolution since the mid-1990s. House Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) has made it his mission to persuade even the most conservative of Republicans that the founding fathers and free-market thinkers including Adam Smith intended a strong federal role in transportation — and he intends to keep it that way.

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Was TIGER Eliminated in the Shutdown Deal?

Soon after the government shutdown ended, we heard murmurs that the TIGER grant program for innovative transportation projects had been a casualty of the negotiations.

Congress's inability to do anything has meant a temporary de-funding of TIGER. Photo: Wikimedia

Under the rules of the Office of Management and Budget, any program that was de-funded in either chamber’s bill would be de-funded in the continuing resolution (the temporary budget) until it can be replaced by an approved appropriations bill. That’s to ensure compliance with the Anti-Deficiency Act, which basically says Congress shouldn’t allocate money to a program for a given year if it’s later going to say that program has no budget for that year.

The House, as usual, de-funded TIGER in its budget proposal, while the Senate dutifully allocated $474 million for the fifth round of TIGER grants and another $550 million for a sixth round. Neither chamber passed the budget on the floor, but the OMB rule that ended up de-funding TIGER only requires that the bill be voted out of committee, which it was in both chambers.

Thankfully, this CR only lasts through January 15, 2014. But then what? Congress has four options:

  1. Pass a 2014 budget. Outlook: negative. Congress hasn’t passed a budget since 2009. It’s nice of the Senate to even bother going through the motions these days, which they didn’t for a few years. If Congress did, miraculously, agree on a budget to send to the president, it’s anyone’s guess whether TIGER would be included.
  2. Pass another continuing resolution through the end of FY2014. That would reinstate TIGER funding at last year’s levels, since there would be no risk of a full-year bill violating the Anti-Deficiency Act. Technically, the House could insist on a rider to the CR zeroing out TIGER, but those sorts of things severely gum up the process and it’s unlikely they’d bother for something so small and low-profile.
  3. Pass another short-term CR for just a few weeks or months. TIGER and just about everything else would remain in limbo.
  4. Shut down the government. It could happen.

Even worse: On January 15, when a new budget or CR will have to come into effect to prevent yet another government shutdown, they’ll have to deal with a new round of sequester cuts. Luckily, much of the painful part is already over. Though the 2014 cuts look big — $109.3 billion — that’s the reduction from pre-sequestration levels, not 2013 levels. “Only” another $20 billion needs to come out of the budget this time around, and almost exclusively from defense. So the most vulnerable transportation programs like New Starts and Amtrak, which come out of discretionary, not mandatory, spending, needn’t suffer too much.

That won’t stop the House from trying, of course.

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Feds Reject All Three NYC Applications for Latest Round of TIGER Grants

Without a TIGER grant, New Yorkers will have to wait a little longer for the next phase of the Bronx River Greenway (in red). Map: Bronx River Alliance

This morning, U.S. DOT announced the winners in the latest round of its highly-competitive TIGER grant program. While upstate New York won grants for two projects — a highway teardown in Rochester and a complete streets project in Olean — New York City missed out, with applications for ferry improvements, a greenway connection in the Bronx, and the redesign of a busy intersection in Downtown Brooklyn failing to make the cut.

DOT had applied for funding to implement the Brooklyn Bridge Gateway project, a long-anticipated reconstruction of the intersection of Tillary Street and Adams Street that would dramatically improve cyclist and pedestrian access to the Brooklyn Bridge. DOT, which had unsuccessfully submitted the partially-funded project for earlier rounds of TIGER funding before trying again this year, told Streetsblog it was looking at other federal funding sources to fill the gap.

The Parks Department applied for $27.5 million from TIGER to match $10 million in city funds for the completion a section of the Bronx River Greenway between Starlight Park and Concrete Plant Park. The Bronx project includes three bridges — two over the Bronx River and one over the adjacent Amtrak corridor. The project, delayed by negotiations over the Amtrak bridge, saw state funds dedicated to its construction expire in 2009.

A third application, from EDC, would have been dedicated to ferry infrastructure. Streetsblog has inquired with Parks and EDC to see how they plan to fund their projects without TIGER; we’ll let you know if we hear anything back.

New York City has previously won TIGER grants for Hunts Point freight rail infrastructure, Moynihan Station, the city’s Sheridan Expressway study, and the redesign of Fordham Plaza.

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Nine Days in September: Congress’s Chance to Break the Gridlock

I hope you all had a good Labor Day. Streetsblog is back to work today, and you probably are too. But Congress? Not until next week. Every time there’s a Monday holiday, Congress takes the whole week off, and they’re milking the last moments of their August recess.

Labor Day has come and gone, but for Congress, it's still the last week of August recess. Enjoy. Photo: KateNews2Day

It’s no wonder lawmakers are procrastinating. They have a lot of unpleasant business to tackle when they get back, and not a lot of time to do it.

The start of fiscal year 2014 is less than a month away, and there are only nine legislative days between now and then. In those nine days, Congress is going to have to make some decisions about spending — including transportation spending. In an ideal world, they’d also give some serious thought to passenger rail policy.

Here’s an overview of the major transportation issues Congress should be addressing.

First, the rail reauthorization

The five-year Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) expires September 30. This spring, Congressional Republicans confidently pledged that it would be reauthorized this year — and then promptly dropped the ball (though, according to a spokesperson for the House Transportation Committee, they are working on language for the bill and will continue to do so into the fall.)

The fact is, it would have been nice to have something new in place before PRIIA’s expiration, but it’s not actually necessary. The current bill will just keep rolling over until Congress actually bothers to pass a new one. It’s not like the surface transportation bill, which needs to be reauthorized or extended before it expires. (The transportation bill is funded with Highway Trust Fund money that doesn’t go through an appropriations process, and the contract authority for that money does need to be current in order for it to be spent.)

But lots of programs get appropriations every year without ever being authorized. (Think TIGER.) Amtrak was one of those for a long time — before PRIIA, there was no rail authorization in place for years.

“An authorization that doesn’t authorize sufficient funding and contains bad policies would be worse than no authorization,” said Malcolm Kenton of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. But a well-designed authorization — “if it gives Amtrak the resources it needs to grow and modernize without micromanaging the company or imposing too many specific mandates” — could be a huge boost for American passenger rail.

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Stuck With Bad Transit Options? There’s an App for That.

The next time your subway car is overcrowded, or your train is delayed, or your bus is bogged down in traffic, you can access a direct line to your members of Congress and let them know you’re not gonna take it anymore.

If you tell your members of Congress you're stuck, be specific about how they can unstick you. Image courtesy of BAF

Building America’s Future, a lobbying group for more federal infrastructure spending, just released their new app, “I’m Stuck,” designed to help constituents sound off to their representatives about their frustration with the state of U.S. infrastructure.

New York City bicycle advocate Joanna Oltman Smith joked on Twitter that the “‘I’m Stuck’ gripe app should auto-disable for drivers ‘stuck’ where transit options exist.” BAF’s call for more infrastructure spending is devoid of that kind of nuance. More roads, more transit, more repair funds, more broadband — they want it all. The app sends a broad message to Congress that Americans want more spending without being very specific about how or where or for what.

Luckily, the app does provide space for users to supply those details in an “Add Description” field.

That’s key, since you can’t trust Congress to take the right action, even if they do take action. So, enlightened drivers can write in, “I’m stuck in traffic and I wish I had better transportation options so I could get out of my car and take the train instead! Increase transit funding!”

Marcia Hale, president of BAF, says they hope users will push for more transit if they don’t think building lots of highways is the answer to the traffic jam they’re stuck in.

Without a note specifying otherwise, lawmakers could easily take commuters’ frustration to mean that they want roads expanded — and that’s not a real solution to traffic congestion.

The app isn’t just for drivers, however. Transit riders can signal their frustration with creaky rail systems or unreliable buses. And though there isn’t an explicit option for bicycle and pedestrian frustrations, that’s what the “other” category is for, if you ask me. If you just got sideswiped and you’re angry about poor safety and the lack of dedicated bicycle facilities in your town, tell your congressperson! No sidewalks? Register your complaint! They’re not your city council members — they’re not going to address the particular problem on your particular street. But they should know that their constituents want federal funding for all modes of transportation, not just driving.

Former Pennsyvania Gov. Ed Rendell, co-chair of Building America’s Future, told reporters this morning that he hopes the app will be “a permission slip from the American people” giving lawmakers political cover for spending more money on infrastructure. Let’s hope that permission slip comes with an asterisk, indicating that the American people want that money spent wisely, on infrastructure that will make us and our communities safer and healthier.

You only have to enter your personal information once and the app will figure out who your representatives are in Congress. Marcia Hale, president of BAF, emphasizes that they don’t intend for people to use the app while they’re driving — a message pops up when you open the app warning you not to.

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T4A Calls for Action Against Dreadful House Transpo Budget

Transportation for America is gearing up for a fight over transit, rail, and TIGER funding, and they’re asking supporters of smart transportation investments to make their voices heard.

The new budget put forth by the House of Representatives would zero out funds for TIGER, strip $400 million from Amtrak and raid $500 million from a fund for, of all things, repairing bridges.

The House and Senate have proposed two very different funding plans for transportation. Image: Transportation for America

But cooler heads and clearer vision prevailed at the Senate, where appropriators put forward a budget that would expand funding for transit and TIGER. The Senate proposal would also help Amtrak keep up with growing demand.

Projects like the Atlanta streetcar and Chicago’s Blue Line rehab were made possible with the help of TIGER, an innovative, merit-based transportation funding program for which demand has been overwhelming. Eliminating TIGER would close off a vital mechanism to fund cost-effective projects that curb traffic, improve safety, and reduce car dependence.

Transportation for America calls the House budget “unabashedly bad” and has issued an action alert asking supporters to contact their Senators to support a budget that invests more in sensible transportation options.

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How TIGER Transformed Transportation Planning — And Lived to Tell About It

When the buzz about a new, stimulus-funded, discretionary transportation grant program started to circulate in 2009, some environmentalists opposed it. They worried it would be a slush fund for the Federal Highway Administration, used to build unnecessary roads that would aggravate sprawl and pollution. But insiders knew that wasn’t how the new Obama administration would be handling things.

The CREATE freight rail project, funded by TIGER I and II, will relieve costly bottlenecks in Chicago -- but will benefit the entire country. Photo: Eno

TIGER, the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, has been praised from the left, right, and center for rewarding innovation, leveraging scarce dollars, breaking down modal silos, and funding non-traditional projects that don’t fit well under formulas.

Though Republicans have sometimes grumbled that the program has merely replaced Congressional earmarks with “administration earmarks,” or that it’s rewarded Democratic districts, they’ve continued to approve funding for the program. Even as House members have zeroed out high-speed rail funding for each of the last three years, they’ve gone along with five separate appropriations for TIGER without too much fuss.

Yesterday, the Eno Center for Transportation released a paper [PDF] investigating what TIGER has done well, what challenges remain, and what could be improved.

How TIGER changed the way states think about project planning

TIGER blew open the traditional processes for funding transportation. Rather than just submitting a list of projects on the wish list and getting formula funds in return, grantees had to pick their best projects with the greatest benefits; after the first round of grants they also had to have at least a 20 percent match from state, local, or private interests. TIGER has transformed the way transportation officials think, even beyond the grantees – failed applicants have sometimes gone back and tweaked projects, brought in new partners, lowered costs, and improved plans. TIGER has helped transportation officials around the country see a new, more strategic way to plan and carry out projects – a method that is beginning to be expected at the federal level.

Plus, state DOTs aren’t the only entities eligible to apply for TIGER grants – MPOs, port authorities, and transit agencies can apply on their own, too.

The intermodalism of the program has encouraged U.S. DOT to hasten the process of breaking down its own “modal silos” as well, with people from different modal agencies working together to select projects. Intermodalism is also a challenge: It’s not easy to compare a bike trail to a freight rail project or a highway interchange – they are judged on completely different metrics – but DOT has sought to choose the best projects put before them. And, as U.S. DOT Undersecretary Polly Trottenberg said at Eno’s panel discussion yesterday, of all the criticism of the program, there’s been almost no criticism of the individual projects they’ve selected.

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Obama’s 2014 Transpo Budget Calls for Higher Spending, HSR

The Obama Administration has put forward an opening bid in what are sure to be contentious 2014 budget negotiations, issuing a solidly progressive transportation budget that calls for increased overall spending and continued investment in passenger rail.

The 2014 transportation budget proposal put forward by the Obama Administration calls for increased infrastructure spending and continued focus on passenger rail. Image: Christian Science Monitor

The $76 billion transportation budget would represent a 5.5 percent, or $4 billion, spending increase over 2012 levels.

In addition, the president repeated his call for $50 billion in stimulus-style funding in 2014. Of this one-time funding infusion, $40 billion would be reserved for “fix-it-first” projects aimed at bringing the nation’s roads, bridges, and transit systems into a state of good repair. The other $10 billion would be offered on a competitive basis to “innovative” projects, through programs like TIGER.

The $50 billion infrastructure-spending stimulus is a proposal we’ve seen Obama float several times in the last few years. In the 2014 budget proposal it is again packaged as a jobs program.

“These investments would create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the first few years and in industries suffering from protracted unemployment,” the document says.

The administration’s budget also demonstrates that the president has not abandoned his high-speed rail ambitions. The budget proposes $40 billion for passenger rail programs over five years, aimed at making rail more widely accessible and convenient. It’s essentially his outline for a passenger rail (PRIIA) reauthorization. He even stuck to his goal of providing 80 percent of Americans with rail access, though years of funding setbacks have tempered his ambitions some — he now pledges that 80 percent of the population will have “convenient access to a passenger rail system, featuring high-speed service” — not that they’ll all have high-speed rail service.

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