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GOP Will Control the Senate in 2015 — What Does It Mean for Transportation?

The forecasting models were right: As the polls closed last night it quickly became apparent that Republicans will gain control of the Senate, with at least 52 seats now held by the GOP. The implications for transportation are immense. To understand what they are, first let’s look at what last night means for the prospects for a new transportation bill next year. Then we’ll get inside the committees for a nitty-gritty look at the leadership shakeup.

The Bill

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) will take the reins of the powerful EPW committee -- and he just can't wait to eliminate all federal bike/ped funding. Photo: ##http://www.inhofe.senate.gov/newsroom/photo-gallery/greater-oklahoma-city-chamber-of-commerce-fly-in##Office Sen. Inhofe##

Climate denying Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) will take the reins of the powerful EPW committee — and he just can’t wait to eliminate all federal bike/ped funding. Photo: Office of Sen. Inhofe

First and foremost, both chambers of Congress will be in GOP hands when the current transportation bill, MAP-21, comes due for renegotiation next spring.

Bicameral Republican control strongly suggests that the door to increased revenues is closed. (It was hardly open under a Democratic Senate, either.)

GOP control could make it challenging to extend the current law as well. Senators had to scrounge for ways to pay for MAP-21, settling for a grab-bag of gimmicks. There isn’t more loose change to be found under the cushions. And no one in Congress, on either side of the aisle, has the appetite for deficit spending.

Other scenarios don’t look much better. Republicans and Democrats could use the lame duck period between now and January to hammer out a revenue deal, for instance. That would benefit the Republicans by raising taxes on the Democrats’ watch (but after the elections, when they don’t have to worry about the Republican base slamming them for not fighting hard enough). With the funds in hand for a multi-year bill, the details of how to spend it would then get hammered out after the GOP takes control of the Senate.

This is unlikely, however. There’s enough that already has to be done during the lame duck, first of all. Second, the reluctance on both sides to raise revenues isn’t all show: Most members of Congress are truly unwilling to increase what they see as a middle-class burden, no matter who’s watching. Besides, House Speaker John Boehner doesn’t have the cohesion within his party to do something so strategic, and the Democrats might not even go along with it.

The other possibility, of course, is that instead of raising revenues to match desired expenditure levels, Congress can limit spending to match gas tax receipts. Former House Transportation Chair John Mica tried that a few years ago and it didn’t go anywhere. Many people think that idea has been tried and discarded, but others think it could easily return, given how few options remain.

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Why the Next Fight Over Bike/Ped Funding Won’t Be Like the Last

When Congress passed a two-year transportation bill in 2012, active transportation advocates had to scrape and claw for every penny of funding for walking and biking programs. When the dust settled, it seemed they would have to repeat the same old battles when the law expired.

Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN), who co-sponsored the Bike to Work Act this summer, is one of the bike community's new Republican friends in Congress. Photo: ##https://beta.congress.gov/member/erik-paulsen/1930##Congress.gov##

Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN), who co-sponsored the Bike to Work Act this summer, is one of the new bike-friendly Republicans in Congress. Photo: Congress.gov

Right now the current law is up for renewal in May, though it could very well be extended as-is with another short-term funding fix. But at some point, Congress will have to get serious about crafting and passing a new transportation bill. Will bike/ped funding be as contentious as last time?

Caron Whitaker of the League of American Bicyclists thinks not.

Of course, there will be some similarities, she told an audience at the Pro-Walk Pro-Bike Pro-Place conference in Pittsburgh yesterday. Two recent anti-bike amendments from senators Pat Toomey (R-PA) and David Vitter (R-LA) have already put national advocates on notice that they’ll be playing defense again.

With the funding question still totally unresolved, it’s unlikely the next bill will be flush with cash, so lawmakers are likely to start looking for “extraneous” things to cut, and some are sure to zero in on the tiny amount allocated to bike and pedestrian projects through the Transportation Alternatives Program. Whitaker guesses that advocates and grassroots supporters will have to mobilize three or four times in the next couple of years to fight off attacks like those.

Those are the similarities. But there are some significant differences, too.

There are now about 20 Congressional Republicans who reliably sign on to pro-bike legislation. The last time around, there were only three.

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Congress Hits the Snooze Button on Transpo Funding Until May

Someone had to cave and last night, it was the Senate.

Closed for the summer. Photo: ##http://www.capitol.gov/html/EVT_2010061578974.html##Capitol.gov##

Closed for the summer. Photo: Politic365

The upper chamber had fought as long as it could to adjust the House transportation bill so it wouldn’t expire when the GOP controls both chambers of Congress. But senators were never willing to actually let the Highway Trust Fund go broke. U.S. DOT would have started cutting back on reimbursements to state DOTs as of today in the absence of an agreement.

After the House rejected the Senate’s amendment yesterday, hours before representatives were due to return to their home districts for the five-week August recess, it seemed the Senate had no choice. Then, news broke that the House was going to stick around a little longer to keep fighting about the border crisis.

Could the Senate have taken advantage of the House’s presence to toss the football back to them, on the assumption that the last team holding it will get blamed for the fumble? Maybe. Maybe the House would have been the one to cave, then. Maybe they would have sent the transportation industry into a tailspin. In a recent poll, 85 percent of transit agencies said they would implement service cuts if that happened.

At least we were spared that. But perhaps not for long. Former U.S. DOT official Beth Osborne, now at Transportation for America, noted that each extension seems to be getting harder. “The easy ways to pay for the program are gone,” she said. “It’s going to get harder doing this with bubble gum and band-aids.”

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Dems Grudgingly Approve House Transpo Extension’s Disastrous Timeline

Yesterday, during the one-hour debate period over the House proposal to extend transportation funding through May 31, lawmaker after lawmaker stood up to condemn the bill. America needs a long-term transportation bill, they said. A short-term stopgap only creates more uncertainty.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer was one of just 10 Democrats to reject the House extension.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer was one of just 10 Democrats to reject the House extension.

And then they voted for it.

More Democrats than Republicans voted for it, in fact, despite standing up and declaring that “a short term solution is not enough” or that it’s “just another kick-the-can-down-the-road approach” or that it’s just “a little shuffling around of money so we can pretend… we’re not creating more debt.” But in the end, the Highway and Transportation Funding Act passed easily, with only 10 Democrats and 45 Republicans voting against it.

Peter Welch of Vermont was one of those no-voting Democrats. During the floor debate, he called the bill an “abdication of our responsibility.”

“Some folks are saying we need time to put together a long term bill,” he said. “We’ve had time. What we need is a decision.”

Earl Blumenauer is in favor of an extension, but only through the lame duck period after the election. He voted no as well, criticizing Republicans for failing to have a “deliberate, thoughtful process.”

“We have not had a single hearing on transportation finance in the Ways and Means Committee all year,” he said. “We didn’t have one the year before that. We haven’t had a hearing in the 43 months that the Republicans have been in charge.”

So here’s where things stand: The Senate Finance Committee has passed a largely similar bill, with the same amount of money coming out of slightly different funding sources.

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House Proposes 8-Month Transpo Bill in Hopes of a Republican Senate in 2015

While a six-year Senate transportation bill languishes in partisan purgatory, the House Ways and Means Committee has proposed an eight-month patch that would backfill the Highway Trust Fund until May 31, 2015. That would punt the transportation bill debate until a new Congress takes over — one that’s expected to have Republican majorities in both chambers.

Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp wants to let the next Congress deal with transportation funding. Photo: ##http://camp.house.gov/photos/##Office of Dave Camp##

Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp wants to let the next Congress deal with transportation funding. Photo: Office of Dave Camp

Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp earlier proposed “business tax reform” to fund transportation — as did President Obama — but even those powerful champions on both sides of the aisle weren’t enough to get traction on that idea.

The new Ways and Means proposal abandons both that idea and the Republican scheme to use post office cuts to offset losses to the Highway Trust Fund (which also funds transit and active transportation infrastructure, by the way). Instead, it opts for a smattering of fiscal gimmicks and fees unrelated to transportation with a previous record of success in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is trying to get the full chamber to consider his extension bill, the PATH Act — that stands for Preserving America’s Transit and Highways — which has its own complex web of pay-fors.

While the Senate bill has been larded up with amendments that are unlikely to go anywhere, neither bill, at its core, includes any policy changes. Both are just stopgap funding fixes, and substantially similar ones at that.

The only substantive difference between the House and Senate proposals is the length. Wyden’s bill would require further action after the elections (as lawmakers agree is necessary) but before the new Congress is seated. Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp explained in a statement why he opposes that plan:
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371 City Leaders Ask Boxer For More Local Control Over Bike/Ped Money

Last week, 371 mayors and other city leaders wrote a letter [PDF] to Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, in support of local control over transportation dollars for bike and pedestrian projects.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard (R) gave a stirring speech in favor of local control in a Senate hearing, and the rest is history. Photo: ##http://bikeleague.org/content/371-mayors-congress-we-want-bikeped##Brian Palmer/Bike League##

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard (R) gave a stirring speech in favor of local control in a Senate hearing. Photo: Brian Palmer/Bike League

About two-thirds of the signatories are mayors, from cities as big as Philadelphia and Los Angeles and as small as McKenzie, Tennessee, and Lincoln, Alabama. There are also some city council members, city clerks, aldermen, village trustees, and regional league directors. Their collective voice represents tens of millions of constituents.

The civic leaders said that MAP-21 “reinforces the importance of local elected officials being at the table to ensure that we secure maximum economic and transportation benefits from available federal resources.” MAP-21 included a provision requiring 50 percent of money from the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) — which funds bike and pedestrian projects — to go directly to local communities, instead of being under the control of states.

The letter is the result of a Senate hearing in May, in which Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and other city leaders testified to the importance of local control over TAP funding. Boxer ended that hearing by affirming that TAP was a critical element of the transportation bill and, according to the Bike League’s Caron Whitaker, she asked Mayor Ballard, a Republican, to help her protect and promote the program by writing and circulating a sign-on letter for mayors to attest to its importance. “The letter, circulated by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities, is the result of that request,” Whitaker wrote.

The letter thanks Boxer for her “leadership” on TAP and urged her “to continue to affirm the role of local elected leaders as you advance legislation renewing MAP-21.” It also asks for a small technical change that would give metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) the power not just to choose bike/ped projects but to actually authorize the funding. The letter says that change is just one example of the minor modifications the signatories would like to see, but it doesn’t list any others.

It remains to be seen how Boxer will use the letter in Senate negotiations, but the mayors have sent a strong message that American cities and towns want more say over how to spend transportation dollars.

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The House GOP’s Campaign Strategy: Do Nothing on Transportation

A Senate committee has unanimously approved a transportation bill. Three other Senate committees are holding hearings on the bill. But over in the House? Crickets.

Why is T&I Committee Chair Bill Shuster allowing the transportation bill to get lost in political maneuvering? Photo: ##http://shuster.house.gov/recent-photos/##Office of Bill Shuster##

Why is T&I Committee Chair Bill Shuster allowing the transportation bill to get lost in political maneuvering? Photo: Office of Bill Shuster

At a press conference last week, former transportation secretary — and former House Republican — Ray LaHood scolded his old colleagues for failing to take action.

He said there was “nothing happening in the House” on the transportation bill, The Hill reported.

“Nothing introduced, nothing debated, no discussion and we’re in a mess,” LaHood said. “We really are. The American people get it.”

LaHood is probably right. A few days after those remarks, Adam Snider reported in Politico that members of the House Transportation Committee, from both sides of the aisle, agree that the lame duck is the best — or even the only — time to work on a bill. Snider explained the reasoning:

Congress won’t be able to act on a long-term policy bill that could cost $100 billion in an election year. Next year is a new Congress with new members, making an immediate policy deep dive too difficult. But by the time everybody is up to speed in 2015, the presidential election cycle will be in full swing. And come January 2016, things will start all over with a new president and another new Congress and slate of lawmakers.

“If they try to talk about it now for six years, it will never get done,” said the Republican Snider talked to. “If they get to November and they have the guts to do something in the lame duck, that’s where the opportunity is.”

It’s a baldly political calculus for determining the future of the nation’s transportation systems, but that’s business as usual in Washington.

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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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