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Posts from the Federal Transportation Bill Category

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Ranking the Sad Parade of Federal Transpo Funding Ideas From Worst to Best

The Highway Trust Fund is on a losing trajectory. But no one can agree on how to fix it. Image: Congressional Budget Office via America 2050

America’s transportation funding system is broken, and no one in charge has good ideas about how to fix it.

The problem seems simple enough: The federal transportation program is going broke because Washington has allowed the gas tax to be eroded by inflation for more than 20 years.

As obvious as raising the gas tax may be, America’s political leaders won’t touch it. Yesterday, The Hill reported that Congressman Bill Shuster, chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is ruling out a gas tax increase or any additional fees on driving to fund transportation.

Apparently, anything that might make driving a little more expensive is no longer politically palatable. Instead, President Obama and members of Congress have trotted out a series of proposals that range from one-off gimmicks to total fantasies that wouldn’t solve anything.

It can be hard to keep them all straight, so here’s our ranking of ideas to fix federal transportation funding, from worst to best.

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4 Things to Know as Transportation Bill Negotiations Heat Up

Lawmakers in Washington are just beginning their latest attempt to craft the first long-term transportation bill in roughly a decade. The current bill expires in just a few months, on May 31, but in Congress that’s an eternity. While it’s a long way from go time, the contours of the debate are starting to become apparent.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster (center, in white) and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (right, in the red tie) held a Twitter town hall to promote a long-term transportation funding plan. Photo: Bill Shuster via Twitter

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster (center, in white) and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (right, in the red tie) held a Twitter town hall last week to promote a long-term transportation funding plan. Photo: Bill Shuster via Twitter

Here’s how things are shaping up.

The White House Transportation Proposal and Anthony Foxx’s “Grow America Tour”

The Obama Administration has unveiled the broad strokes of a six-year transportation proposal, the “Grow America” plan, that would dramatically increase federal funding for transit and include key incentives to reform how state DOTs spend their billions.

Transportation Secretary Anthony set out on a four-day tour of some Southern states yesterday to promote the Grow America plan. Foxx has been enlisting local leaders to help build a push for reauthorization.

The Fight Over Transit Funding

Pushing in the opposite direction, bolstered by Koch brothers money, is the Tea Party wing of the GOP, which wants to end federal funding for anything that’s not highways.

Last week, a group of rural Republicans raised the prospect of eliminating the portion of the Highway Trust Fund that supports transit. Since Ronald Reagan signed the policy into the law in 1983, 20 percent of federal gas tax revenue has gone toward the nation’s rail and bus systems.

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Obama’s New Transportation Budget: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

With federal transportation funding on track to run dry by May 31, Washington lawmakers are gearing up again to reset national transportation policy… or, if that doesn’t work out, to limp along indefinitely under the status quo.

Unlike the U.S., China is opening high-capacity transit lines left and right. Photo of Beijing metro: Xinhua

Today President Obama unveiled his opening bid in this process. The $478-billion, six-year plan from the White House includes many of the proposals the administration unveiled last year. Congress didn’t advance those ideas then, and with the GOP now controlling both houses, chances remain slim for reforming highway-centric federal transportation policy.

But the White House budget document remains the best summary of the Obama team’s transportation policy agenda. The ideas are intriguing even if they’re politically improbable.

Here’s a look at the highlights [PDF].

The Good

Boosts Transit Funding: Obama proposes a large increase in transit funding, budgeting $23 billion in 2016 and a total of $123 billion to transit over six years. That would represent a 75 percent increase over current levels. The would go toward both expansions and the maintenance and improvement of light rail, BRT, subway, and commuter rail networks.

Promotes State DOT Reform: The Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation program would “create incentives” for state DOTs and other transportation agencies to reform how they approach road safety and congestion management. Funded at $1 billion annually, the program would fund initiatives like “distracted driving (safety) requirements or modifying transportation plans to include mass transit, bike, and pedestrian options,” the White House says.

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Koch-Funded Groups: Cut All Federal Funding for Walking, Biking, Transit

The Highway Trust Fund is going broke, but a group of conservatives is pretending that the problem is "squirrel sanctuaries." Image: Brookings

As inflation eats away at the gas tax, the Highway Trust Fund is going broke. But a group of conservatives is pretending that the problem is transit and “squirrel sanctuaries.” Image: Brookings

You know it’s time to fight over the federal transportation bill when the fossil fuel-soaked elements of the conservative movement start agitating to stop funding everything except car infrastructure.

Yesterday, a coalition of 50 groups, several funded by the Koch brothers, sent a letter to Congress arguing that the way to fix federal transportation funding is to cut the small portion that goes to walking, biking, and transit [PDF]. The signatories do not want Congress to even think about raising the gas tax, which has been steadily eaten away by inflation since 1993.

The coalition membership includes many stalwarts of the Koch network, including Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners, and the Club for Growth. The Koch brothers recently went public with plans to spend nearly $900 million on the 2016 elections.

The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card. Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is “regressive” because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can’t afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.

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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.