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Posts from the Federal Transportation Bill Category

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It’s Time to Stop Pretending That Roads Pay for Themselves

If nothing else, the current round of federal transportation legislating should end the myth that highways are a uniquely self-sufficient form of infrastructure paid for by “user fees,” a.k.a. gas taxes and tolls.

Highways have been massively subsidized for many years, but now it’s going to be harder to ignore. Graph: U.S. PIRG

With all the general tax revenue that goes toward roads in America, car infrastructure has benefited from hefty subsidies for many years. But at the federal level, the road gang could always argue that the gas tax paid for the Highway Trust Fund. Not anymore.

The gas tax has stagnated at the same rate since 1993, and the Highway Trust Fund has been bailed out so many times over the last decade, it’s hard to keep count. A long-term transportation bill was supposed to fix that. Instead, the six-year bill on its way to passage right now in Washington may finally bury the idea that American highways are wholly paid for by the gas tax.

Despite gas prices plummeting to barely more than $2 a gallon, and despite pressure from interest groups on both the right and left, Congress has never seriously considered raising the gas tax to cover the cost of the federal transportation program. That means roads are in line for way more subsidies.

It’s unclear exactly how much subsidy the final bill will contain, since the House and Senate bills have yet to be reconciled. But it looks like about $85 billion will be needed to fill the gap over six years. Part of that figures to come from raiding the Federal Reserve and part from a gimmicky one-shot tax on “repatriated” overseas corporate profits. Either way, we’re not talking about “user fees.”

In the House bill, the combined subsidy would account for a quarter of the $322 billion in transportation spending over six years. The subsidy will only get larger in future bills as the purchasing power of the gas tax continues to erode, unless Congress can overcome its aversion to asking drivers to pay for roads.

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Just How Bad Is the Final House Transportation Bill?

Nobody was expecting the GOP-controlled House of Representatives to put together a transportation bill that did much for streets and transit in American cities.

Congress passed a 6-year transportation bill this morning. Yay? Image: Transportation Dems

The House passed a six-year transportation bill this morning. Yay? Image: Transportation Dems

And they were right — there’s nothing to get excited about in the bill. But neither is it the total disaster for walking, biking, and transit it could have been. So how does the House bill stack up against the current law? It’s looking a little worse.

Amendments to the bill were heard earlier this week, and the final bill was passed just hours ago. Some last-minute changes made it in, but in general not the ones that would help modernize the nation’s transportation policy and reduce our dependence on driving.

The final House bill includes a $40 billion funding patch to cover the gas tax shortfall, which means it now has funding for six years instead of three. But the new money is very gimmicky. At the last minute, Texas Re­pub­lic­an Randy Neuge­bauer introduced an amendment to raid the Federal Reserve’s Capital Surplus Account, and it was approved overwhelmingly.

Prior to that, House leaders had not indicated (or figured out) how they intended to pay for the bill. Yesterday, they refused to even hear an amendment from Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer to raise the gas tax.

Neugebauer’s amendment allowed lawmakers to pass the long-term bill industry and government agencies have been begging for without doing the responsible (and politically courageous) thing and finding a revenue source that doesn’t amount to a desperate one-shot.

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3 Bright Prospects for a Better Transportation Bill

The developer of Portland’s Zidell Yards, a transit-oriented development by the car-free Tilikum Crossing, says access to federal financing programs is critical to meeting increased demand for walkable urban housing. Photo: Chatterbox

Yesterday we reported on some of the terrible amendments that might get tacked on to the House transportation bill this week. But there are also some good ideas with bipartisan support among the hundreds of amendments submitted by members of the House.

Here are three amendments that have the potential to improve transportation policy in the U.S. — should legislators give them the thumbs up in the next few days.

Amendments 18 and 101: Financing for Transit-Oriented Development

Amendments 18 and 101 would both make federal loans available for the construction of walkable places around transit stations.

Amendment 18 [PDF], sponsored by Dan Lipinski (D-Illinois), Mike Quigley (D-Illinois) and Bob Dold (R-Illinois), would open up $30 billion in federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing to transit-oriented development projects.

“It would expand the eligibility so it’s not just about fixing railroads and ties, it’s about fixing up the station and the area around the station,” said Stephen Lee Davis of Transportation for America.

Similarly, Amendment 101 [PDF], sponsored by the bipartisan pair of Donna Edwards (D-Maryland) and Barbara Comstock (R-Virginia), would open up $200 million annually in loans from the TIFIA financing authorized by the Senate’s DRIVE Act to transit-oriented development projects. It would also lower the minimum project cost to apply for TIFIA financing from $50 million to $10 million.

T4A’s Davis says financing is still a big obstacle to transit-oriented development, because banks have been slow to adjust to changing preferences.

“This is a way for them to get them done and meet the surging demand for housing near transit and hopefully bring down prices in the process,” he said.

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3 White Elephants That Help Explain America’s Infrastructure Crisis

American spends billions of dollars widening roads that don't need widening, like Wisconsin State Route 23.

America spends billions of dollars widening roads that don’t need widening, like Wisconsin State Route 23. Image: Google Maps

A new report by the Center for American Progress zeros in on an under-appreciated culprit in America’s much ballyhooed infrastructure crisis: All the money we waste on useless roads.

CAP highlights three “white elephant projects” that illustrate how billions of dollars in federal infrastructure funds are squandered thanks to a lack of accountability in the transportation funding process.

“States receive federal highway funding based on formulas set in law, which reflect political negotiations as opposed to objective measures of need or return on investment,” writes CAP’s Kevin DeGood. “This means that states are not required to demonstrate the social, environmental, or economic value of their projects.”

These three projects represent about $1 billion in frivolous spending — and that’s only a small fraction of what’s squandered on dubious road projects each year.

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House Dems: We Won’t Support a Transpo Bill That Cuts Bike/Ped Funding

House Democrats won’t stand for any cuts to federal funding for walking and biking infrastructure. That was the gist of a letter signed by every Democratic member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week.

Rick Larsen, a congressman representing parts of Washington State, rallied Democrats to support funding for biking, walking and transit. Photo: Rick Larsen

Rick Larsen, a congressman representing parts of Washington state, rallied Democrats to support funding for biking, walking, and transit.

Groups aligned with the Koch brothers and their organization Americans for Prosperity have pushed to eliminate all federal funds for walking, biking, and transit. While Democrats are in the minority in the House, by coordinating as a bloc around this issue, they’re making it harder for the extreme elements in the Republican Party to roll back active transportation funding.

The letter, initiated by Washington representative Rick Larsen, states that Democratic committee members won’t support any bill that undermines the “Transportation Alternatives” program — the small pot of money dedicated to walking and biking.

“For the House transportation bill to be bipartisan, it must not cut funding for TAP or make policy changes that undermine the local availability of these dollars,” reads the letter, addressed to the committee’s two ranking Democratic members, Peter DeFazio (OR) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC):

Communities of all shapes and sizes — rural, urban and suburban — are clamoring for TAP dollars to give their residents lower-cost transportation options that reduce road congestion, improve safety for children and families, and boost quality of life. These types of projects are also essential to helping cities and counties increase property values, grow retail sales and attract tourism. While MAP-21 gave states the option of transferring up to half of TAP funds to other transportation priorities, just 10 percent of TAP funds have been transferred — clearly showing the demand for these funds across the country. This is a good program and it deserves to continue.

Congress has yet to make much progress on a long-term transportation bill to replace the previous bill, MAP-21, which expired last year. During the last transportation bill reauthorization process, biking and walking programs took a big hit. In an email to Streetsblog, Larsen said, “I do not want to see that happen again.”

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Congress Set to Pass Yet Another Short-Term Transpo Funding Patch

Who says there's gridlock in Washington? Congress manages to pass a transportation extension every two months, on average. Photo: ##

Who says there’s gridlock in Washington? Congress manages to pass a transportation extension every two months, on average. Photo: Wikipedia

The 35th transportation extension in the last six years is about to pass. The House had passed a five-month extension, the Senate insisted on moving forward with its six-year bill, then the House proposed a three-month extension, and somehow that sounded great to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

To win McConnell’s support for the short-term patch, House leaders had to pinky-swear that they would work on a long-term bill just as soon as they get back from August recess. Seven states have already halted construction projects valued at $1.63 billion because of uncertainty at the federal level.

The three-month extension isn’t funded with sales of oil from the nation’s strategic reserve and it doesn’t include an extension of the Export-Import Bank’s authority, both controversial issues that threatened to gum up the works.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer warned he could encourage Democrats to vote no on the three-month bill, but it seems clear lawmakers are going to do what they need to do to avoid a shutdown and then head home for recess. The House is planning to celebrate its success by adjourning a day early.

The patch expires October 29. See you all then — same time, same place, same insufferable paralysis.

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Senate Transpo Bill Sinks Under the Weight of Its Own Chicanery

Last night, the Senate voted to proceed with the consideration of the transportation bill Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Barbara Boxer had worked out. It was just a day after the body had voted to block progress, objecting that they hadn’t had time to even look at the bill.

The policy elements of the bill are largely untouched from what we’ve already seen: the Environment and Public Works Committee’s DRIVE Act and the Commerce Committee’s section on rail and safety. Much of that was largely untouched from MAP-21.

A threat to eliminate TIGER was eliminated. A new formula-based multi-modal freight program is included. Some good language on Complete Streets appears to be gone. Advocates will feel better when the transit section gets fleshed out, and the Banking Committee is still MIA. This bill just doesn’t include earth-shaking policy changes.

But truly, the uproar over it has never been about policy. It’s all about funding. You know this because you haven’t been living under a rock for the last five years.

Because of the unreasonable and unyielding refusal on the part of just about everyone in the Washington political machinery to raise the gas tax, they’re left with a grab-bag of gimmicky pay-fors, or offsets, taken from other pieces of government programs. Here is the sad summary:

Image: ##

Table: CFRB

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Senate Committee Moves to Eliminate TIGER Program in Next Transpo Bill

Normal, Illinois, transformed its downtown and improved its transportation options thanks to a TIGER grant. Photo: ## for America##

A TIGER grant helped Normal, Illinois, create a more walkable downtown and new transit hub. Photo: Transportation for America

The Republican-controlled Senate is poised to eliminate the TIGER program, one of the few sources of federal funds that cities can access directly to improve streets and transit.

While the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s outline for its portion of a six-year bill was a marginal improvement on the status quo, the Commerce Committee’s portion, known as the rail and safety title, may wipe out a program with a proven track record of success. The committee plans to pass the bill tomorrow morning and send it to the full Senate.

The worst aspect is the elimination of the TIGER grant program, which in its 7-year history has provided funding for multi-modal projects that found little support from other federal programs. By working directly with cities and regional agencies, TIGER bypassed state DOTs more interested in big highway projects than enhancing transit, biking, and walking options.

The Commerce Committee cynically says its plan “formally authorizes the TIGER transportation grants program,” merely “refocusing” it on freight infrastructure. TIGER has always been a boon to freight projects that had trouble accessing federal dollars, but it has also funded projects to make streets safer, heal scars left by urban highways, and improve transit service. The committee can’t take eligibility away from those types of projects and still call the program “TIGER.”

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Senate Committee Passes DRIVE Act Unanimously After Some Tinkering

Given the bipartisan gushing that accompanied the release of the DRIVE Act on Tuesday, it came as no surprise that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the bill unanimously yesterday, with more gushing for good measure.

The insertion of a few little words will make the DRIVE Act a virtual complete streets policy for the entire National Highway System (except interstates). Photo: ## Arambula##

The insertion of a few little words into the DRIVE Act may lead to safer designs for walking and biking on major streets. Photo: Crandall Arambula

None of the 30-odd amendments offered for the DRIVE Act passed, but the committee leadership did accept some changes in what’s called a manager’s amendment, a group of amendments agreed to by the chair and ranking member and inserted into the bill. By and large, these small changes improved upon some provisions that were already a step up from the current law, known as MAP-21.

Transportation Alternatives Program: The bill had already improved upon MAP-21’s version of Transportation Alternatives Program by giving all biking and walking money directly to local governments instead of giving half to the state. But in its original form, the DRIVE Act allowed states to take back half that money, making the “improvement” symbolic at best. The manager’s mark struck that part, meaning local communities will have the certainty that they can spend 100 percent of their biking and walking funds without fear of having some taken away.

Complete Streets: Inhofe and Boxer added the word “safety” in a key place: a provision requiring traffic engineers to consider “the access and safety” of non-automobile modes on non-interstate roads. According to Caron Whitaker of the League of American Bicyclists, “These two changes taken together come very close to a Complete Streets policy for the National Highway System.”

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Inhofe’s DRIVE Act — Not as Big a Disaster as You Might Think

Sen. Barbara Boxer unveils yet another stab at a long-term transportation authorization bill -- this time, as the minority party. Photo: ## Weinberg/Twitter##

Sen. Barbara Boxer unveils another stab at a long-term transportation authorization bill — this time as a member of the minority party. Photo: Ali Weinberg/Twitter

No, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s new six-year bill, obnoxiously named the DRIVE Act (Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy) [PDF], won’t usher in a more enlightened era of federal transportation policy. But neither would it be a significant step backward. And with the realization setting in that further extensions of current law might be impossible, the DRIVE Act could actually become the nation’s first long-term transportation authorization in a decade.

As Brad relayed in his post this morning, the “big takeaway” from the new bill, according to the League of American Bicyclists, is that it “is not a coherent vision of the future, or even of the present.” True that.

Note that this bill does not include the transit title — it’s up to the Banking Committee to draft that.

What the bill does, mainly, is continue existing policies related to streets and highways — meaning it’s not the nightmare you might have expected under the chairmanship of climate denying Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. When you look closely, the DRIVE Act actually makes some improvements at the margins. Here are a few examples:

Design Standards: The bill explicitly sanctions the use of the NACTO street design guide along with the old FHWA and AASHTO engineering manuals. The NACTO guide includes designs that are much more appropriate for city streets where people outside of cars need safe and reliable transportation option.

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