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Boxer Announces Plan to Maintain Status Quo in Next Transpo Bill

Sen. Barbara Boxer, together with Sens. Carper, Vitter and Barrasso, announced their agreement to maintain the status quo with the next bill. Screenshot from press conference.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, together with Sens. Carper, Vitter and Barrasso, announced their agreement to maintain the status quo with the next bill. Screenshot from press conference.

Last year, while the House flailed in partisan misery, the Senate passed a transportation bill 74 to 22. When the bill was signed into law, it was considered one of the few real achievements of a deeply divided Congress. Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer got tremendous credit for enacting legislation three years in the making. And yet, it left a lot of good provisions on the cutting-room floor. While MAP-21 included some modest reforms, lawmakers missed an opportunity to prioritize transit, biking, and walking – modes that are gaining popularity and help achieve national goals like congestion mitigation and air quality improvement.

History appears to be repeating itself. This morning, Sen. Boxer (D-CA) joined with the rest of the “Big Four” of the EPW Committee — Ranking Republican David Vitter (R-LA), Transportation Subcommittee Chair Tom Carper (D-DE) and Subcommittee Ranking Republican John Barrasso (R-WY) — to announce that they had reached agreement on a set of principles to guide the next bill.

While it’s good news to hear the senators are working together and making progress, they’re not proposing any solutions to the nation’s dysfunctional transportation policy, which funnels billions of dollars to wasteful road expansions ever year. Below is a look at the guiding principles (verbatim, in bold) and what they mean:

  • Passing a long-term bill, as opposed to a short-term patch. You won’t find anyone who says they want a short-term bill. There is unanimous agreement that a two-year bill was inadequate and that the next bill must last five or six or even 10 years. The challenge has always been to find enough funding to pay for such a long bill. MAP-21 pulled coins out of the proverbial cushions to piece together a somewhat illusory pay-for to get MAP-21 passed. Even President Obama’s proposal for the next bill is just four years.
  • Maintaining the formulas for existing core programs. Ouch. A primary goal of transportation reformers is to tie more money to performance and merit instead of giving states no-strings-attached funding that tends to get wasted on highway expansion. Reforming the existing formulas could force states to prove that they’re spending money well, using a benefit-cost analysis in their decision making, and thinking smart about the future.

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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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Will Obama and the GOP Align on Plan to Fund Transpo With Tax Reform?

Today, both President Obama and Republican House Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp unveiled plans to pay for transportation with corporate tax reform. Few details have emerged about exactly how Camp plans to do this, but Politico has heard from Capitol Hill staffers that it would push $100 billion to $125 billion to transportation over an unspecified time frame.

While the revenue stream is still a mystery and appears to be extremely gimmicky, Obama’s spending plan looks good. It would raise the federal investment in transit by 70 percent annually, and also beef up intercity rail and the TIGER program. The Obama plan also calls for an increase in funding for state DOTs, but an outline released by the White House said “fix-it first” protections would be attached to make sure that this goes primarily toward road maintenance, not highway expansion.

The main talking point of Camp’s plan, meanwhile, is that it cuts the top corporate tax rate from 36 percent to 25 percent. The details of how that is going to shake down into a windfall for transportation are still hazy.

While it would seem to be a good sign that both the Democratic president and Republican Ways and Means chair agree on a mechanism to fund a long-term transportation bill, it’s far from a done deal. Sen. Max Baucus, who was gung-ho about tax reform, has left the Finance Committee and the Senate to become ambassador to China. His replacement, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, is very progressive on transportation but not so keen on tackling tax reform just yet. Insiders say that even House Republicans may be hesitant to embrace Camp’s tax reform plan when it has so little chance of going anywhere in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Obama just announced his plan at an event at St. Paul’s Union Depot, where DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx also announced the sixth round of TIGER funding, for $600 million.

Obama’s proposal is progressive and thoughtful — as are all of the transportation proposals he’s put forward in the past five years, all of which have gone nowhere. This plan tacitly acknowledges some of those failures: It renamed the High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program (which has been belittled for not being high-speed enough) “high performance and passenger rail programs.” Instead of more ambitious Obama priorities such as a National Infrastructure Bank, it leaves funding for the TIFIA loan program at $1 billion a year, where Congress set it in MAP-21.

The president says corporate tax reform would yield $150 billion for a one-time infusion into the Highway Trust Fund — twice what’s needed to ward off insolvency — to help fund his four-year, $302 billion plan. Though the size of the infusion is good news, it gives advocates pause. It’s still a one-time fix and not a real solution to the mismatch between transportation revenues and transportation needs. It totally severs the relationship between the revenue source for transportation investment and what the revenue is spent on.

And it’s all because practically no one on Capitol Hill is willing to call for anything that could possibly sound like a tax increase, even as the economy rebounds.

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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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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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A Better Way to Grade City Transportation Systems

How should we grade America’s transportation systems?

Measures of accessibility -- like the number of jobs in metro Minneapolis within a 20-minute morning drive -- can assess transportation systems without leading to the conclusion that highways and sprawl are the answer. Image: University of Minnesota

The big, headline-grabbing transportation metric right now is the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report, which holds up the lack of congestion as the ultimate sign of a well-functioning transportation system. By that measure, cities like Kansas City, Phoenix, and Detroit — where car commutes can be free-flowing but tend to cover long distances — come out looking great, while large metros that do a better job of providing non-automotive transportation options — like Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York — look like failures.

But TTI’s narrow focus on congestion has come under increasingly intense scrutiny in recent years, with critics pointing out that it is used to justify road-widening projects that purport to reduce congestion but mainly serve to encourage sprawl and lengthen commutes.

A study recently released by the University of Minnesota presents an interesting alternative to the TTI’s metrics. UMN Transportation Engineering Professor David Levinson recently analyzed metropolitan commuting according to a very different criterion: accessibility, or “the ease of reaching desired destinations.”

Levinson attempted to improve on the TTI report by tracking the time it takes for people in the 51 largest U.S. metro areas to reach jobs. His findings stand in stark contrast to the TTI’s report. Large metros like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago offered the greatest number of jobs within a 10-minute car commute, Levinson found.

While TTI’s methodology penalizes cities for locating homes and businesses close together, because that increases congestion, in Levinson’s analysis, higher concentrations of destinations are rewarded for helping to reduce travel times.

“There are two ways for cities to improve accessibility—by making transportation faster and more direct or increasing the density of activities, such as locating jobs closer together and closer to workers,” Levinson writes.

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Eight Burning Questions About Post-Election Transpo Policy and Politics

Friday's panel at the Bipartisan Policy Center. From left: Moderator Jeffrey Shane; Doug Foy, former head of Massachusetts' Office of Commonwealth Development; Janet Kavinoky of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Ryan Holeywell of Governing Magazine; Pete Ruane of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association; and David Traynham of The Boeing Company. Photo: Tanya Snyder

If I’ve learned one thing from all the meetings about transportation I’ve covered, it’s this: There is no progress without a solution on funding.

Every conversation about infrastructure turns on the question of how to pay for it. As the power of the gas tax declines, can it be restored or replaced? Does the political will exist?

Friday’s post-election debrief at the Bipartisan Policy Center was no exception. Judging by the first half of the forum, you’d think that the entire transportation program hangs in the balance of that one open question. And it might.

So let’s start with that:

Will the 113th Congress solve the funding crisis?

Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation opened the session by saying it’s easy to be optimistic about the future when the recent past has been so dismal. All participants agreed that U.S. DOT needs to focus on finding a sustainable funding source for transportation. Last year, the House proposed a 33 percent cut to keep spending in line with transportation revenues; Pete Ruane, president and CEO of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said the potential cut could be as high as 57 percent in 2014 if Congress doesn’t create new revenue sources.

David Traynham, a policy analyst at Boeing, said the new Transportation Secretary (if there is one) should make that his or her “signature issue,” the way distracted driving is Ray LaHood’s signature issue.

Though many people believe that an eventual switch to a mileage-based funding system is inevitable (though still politically toxic), the gas tax is still the most obvious solution – a “no-brainer,” according to Jeff Shane, former undersecretary of transportation under President Bush. But no matter what happens with the gas tax, said Doug Foy, who ran Mitt Romney’s Office for Commonwealth Development in Massachusetts, the country needs to relax its prohibitions on tolling. Under current law, only new lanes can be tolled, and only in a handful of places. That’s a big problem to Foy and others who believe that maintaining existing infrastructure is a far more pressing mandate than building new capacity.

“Take a state like Rhode Island,” Foy said. “I-95 is falling into ruin. It is literally coming apart at the seams… Rhode Island can’t afford to rebuild that road in place, let alone make it any bigger. If that road is not tolled, it will not be rebuilt.” He said federal support is far too low to take it on.

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How States Are Adapting to MAP-21’s Changes to Bike/Ped Funding

One state's plan for Transportation Alternatives: Utah will use some of its $6.4 million for Recreational Trails and Safe Routes to School, give some to metro areas, and spend the rest on any type of surface transportation they want. Image courtesy of UDOT

The current transportation law dealt a few hard knocks to bicycling and walking programs. One big one was the restructuring of the Transportation Enhancements program into something called Transportation Alternatives, which has to fund more types of projects with less money.

The idea is that each state’s TA money will get split in half. Fifty percent gets allocated to Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and Transportation Management Areas (TMAs) based on population. Let’s call that the “Local 50.” Then the state gets the other half – the “State 50” – and is supposed to distribute it via a competitive grant process.

Local 50: It’s not quite 50

The first thing to know is that even the Local 50 isn’t always entirely under local control. The Local 50 gets distributed according to population to whatever entity represents each area. For large metro areas and sometimes even small urbanized areas, there’s an MPO or TMA in charge. But for rural areas, sometimes it’s just the state that run things.

President Obama signed MAP-21 nearly five months ago, but states are still trying to figure out what it all means. Photo: Fastlane

Take Michigan, for example. The state is looking to get $26 million in Transportation Alternatives funds. Of that, $2.9 million comes off the top for Recreational Trails, a separate program with its own money (raised from off-road vehicle fees) that’s administered by the Department of Natural Resources, not MDOT.

That leaves $11.6 million each for the Local 50 and the State 50 in Michigan.

About $6.5 million of the Local 50 will go to the TMAs in jurisdictions of more than 200,000 people. But the rest of the money — over $5 million from that supposedly “Local” 50 — goes to the state to distribute.

That’s before you even get to the half that the state is supposed to control.

This is how the Cardin-Cochran amendment is being interpreted on the ground. The amendment was a creative and hard-fought way to make sure that some TA money actually went to the sorts of projects the old Transportation Enhancements program used to fund – primarily bike and pedestrian infrastructure, plus some safety education.

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Moving People or Moving Vehicles: How Should We Grade America’s Streets?

Darren Flusche is the policy director of the League of American Bicyclists.

Should the performance of this street…

…be measured like this road?

Under the new federal transportation bill, known as MAP-21, the performance of these two roads could be measured the same way — even though one is a bustling business district, and the other is an interstate highway. (Example provided by Transportation for America.)

MAP-21 expands the scope of the National Highway System by 60,000 lane-miles; now it will include many streets, called “primary arterials,” that don’t feel like highways at all. At the same time, the law directs U.S. DOT to set up performance measures for the $22 billion National Highway Performance Program – the largest transportation program under the new law – that will ultimately reward and penalize states for reaching or failing to meet these targets.

So, unless the performance measures are set appropriately, state DOTs will treat many streets that cut through neighborhoods essentially the same way they treat interstate highways: prioritizing speed over other factors. (Jonathan Maus at BikePortland has investigated what this could mean for his city, where he says local transportation leaders will have “much less leeway and independence to do innovative designs and to make changes to the streetscape without a potentially onerous process of seeking federal approval.”)

Which streets will that affect in your state? You can find the primary arterial routes that will be added to the NHS on the Federal Highway Administration’s website.

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