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Bi-partisan Senate Bill Would Give Locals More Say Over Transpo Spending

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Improving local access to transportation funds would help build project’s like the multi-modal Atlanta BeltLine. Rendering: Atlanta BeltLine

When it comes to transportation funding, cities and towns occupy the bottom of the totem pole. The vast majority of federal transportation money goes to states, to the exclusion of local governments. That means state DOTs get tens of billions to spend on highways each year, while mayors and local agencies have to scrounge for money to improve transit, build sidewalks, or add bike lanes.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate Thursday could give local governments greater access to federal funding. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced the Innovation in Surface Transportation Act — Senate Bill 2819 [PDF] — which would set aside some federal transportation money for states to redistribute to cities and towns on a competitive basis.

Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker says municipalities around his state want access to federal transportation funds. Photo: Senator Wicker

Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker says municipalities around his state want access to federal transportation funds. Photo: Senator Wicker

The legislation would devote 10 percent of federal surface transportation funding — or about $5 billion per year — to local-level projects. The funds would be split up between the states, and in each state a panel would distribute the money on a competitive basis to local governments, transit agencies, and regional planning agencies.

Senator Wicker said the bill is supported by localities across Mississippi as well as the Mississippi Municipal League.

“Local officials in Mississippi are on the front lines of America’s transportation challenges but often lack the resources to pay for critical improvements,” he said in a statement. “This measure would enable these local leaders to have a larger role in deciding which projects merit consideration. In doing so, leaders could implement the most targeted and cost-effective solutions to meet unique and urgent infrastructure needs.”

Three other senators — Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania), and Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi) — have also signed on as sponsors. The Senate bill has a companion in the House – HR 4726, which has been held up in committee.

David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, a leading supporter of the measure, said he doesn’t expect the bill to be passed into law before the holiday recess. But support for the bill today, he said, could help shape the next transportation bill.

Transportation for America is asking supporters to email their senators and urge them to support the measure.

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Senators Murphy (D) and Corker (R) Propose 12-Cent Gas Tax Increase

There are several proposals on the table to stave off the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund (which pays for transit, biking, and walking projects too) in two months. Just now, two senators teamed up to announce one that might actually have a chance.

The R after Sen. Bob Corker's name might make all the difference for this proposal. Photo: ##http://www.corker.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Images.Display&ImageGallery_id=a36a3e1a-0103-b714-2285-f8fb90d613e1##Office of Sen. Corker##

The R after Sen. Bob Corker’s name might make all the difference for this proposal. Photo: Office of Sen. Corker

Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) have proposed increasing the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon over two years. The federal gas tax currently stands at 18.4 cents a gallon, where it has been set since 1993, when gas cost $1.16 a gallon. The senators’ proposal would also extend some expiring tax cuts as a way to reduce the impact on Americans.

“I know raising the gas tax isn’t an easy choice, but we’re not elected to make easy decisions – we’re elected to make the hard ones,” said Murphy. “This modest increase will pay dividends in the long run and I encourage my colleagues to get behind this bipartisan proposal.”

This proposal — while still not introduced as a formal bill — has far more potential than anything else that’s been offered. President Obama’s corporate tax scheme was dead on arrival, even though it had support from the Republican chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp. Rep. Peter DeFazio’s idea of a per-barrel oil fee and Sen. Barbara Boxer’s idea for a wholesale oil tax don’t have Republican support. Neither does Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s 15-cent gas tax hike, which was the most logical proposal on the table, until now. What the House Republicans want to do is fund the transportation bill by reducing Saturday postal service — a hare-brained scheme if ever there was one.

What gives this proposal a fighting chance, of course, is Bob Corker’s name on it. Not only is Corker a Republican, but he’s a respected leader on the Banking Committee. It’s also a sign that maybe, just maybe, as we stare down the barrel of a real funding shortfall, members of Congress might find the gumption to do what they all know needs to be done: raise the gas tax.

“In Washington, far too often, we huff and puff about paying for proposals that are unpopular, yet throw future generations under the bus when public pressure mounts on popular proposals that have broad support,” said Corker. “Congress should be embarrassed that it has played chicken with the Highway Trust Fund and allowed it to become one of the largest budgeting failures in the federal government. If Americans feel that having modern roads and bridges is important then Congress should have the courage to pay for it.”

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Transformation for America: T4A Reemerges With Focus on Local Control

John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, helped unveil the new Transportation for America. Photo by Stephen Lee Davis.

John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, helped unveil the new Transportation for America. Photo courtesy of T4.

Transportation for America has been in hiding. Perhaps you’ve noticed.

The coalition of over 500 organizations that came together to advocate for policy reform and adequate funding in the transportation reauthorization seemed to disappear for a little while after the dust settled on MAP-21. T4America, often called simply T4, provided analysis of the bill and helped reformers figure out how to make the most of it. And then T4 kind of went away.

The coalition was technically a campaign of Smart Growth America, and once the bill it was organizing around had passed — and was a pretty big disappointment — the group tried long and hard to figure out its next move.

Yesterday, Transportation for America announced that it had figured it out.

During the four-hour re-launch event T4 hosted in Union Station’s Columbus Room yesterday, there wasn’t much talk about organizational restructuring. Instead, panel after panel of mayors, MPO executives and other local officials talked about the challenges they faced and the solutions they’ve discovered as they sought to build stronger, more sustainable urban places. (More on that in a separate post.) But if you listened closely, you would learn all you needed to know about T4’s new direction.

“Some of the best decision-making and most courageous leadership is occurring at the local level,” said John Robert Smith, former Republican mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, and co-chair of Transportation for America. “That’s why we believe that more of the decision-making — and authority and accountability — should rest at local leadership.”

In the last go-round, Transportation for America tried to frame itself as a middle-of-the-road, agenda-free big tent, a broad coalition of disparate organizations asking for common-sense solutions for the nation’s transportation — and fiscal — problems. But somehow, it didn’t work that way. On the Hill, they were still seen as liberals trying to get everyone out of their cars.

They realized that their message resonated a lot more, and they made more inroads, when they brought local leaders to talk with their members of Congress.

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T4A: One in Nine American Bridges Structurally Deficient

There’s a new report out on the state of America’s bridges, and with it a new raft of disturbing statistics. Nearly one in nine, or 11 percent, are structurally deficient — meaning a bridge inspector has rated a major component of the structure to be in poor condition. The average age of a bridge in the United States is 43 years; the average design life, 50 years.

Despite the poor structural condition of America's bridges, states continue to spend on road expansion while neglecting maintenance. Image: Transportation for America

While state DOTs and other transportation agencies have been spending the bulk of their money expanding highways and promoting sprawl, there are 66,405 structurally deficient bridges in the United States. As Transportation for America points out in “The Fix We’re In For,” if you were to string together these aging bridges, they would stretch from Washington, DC, to Denver. A smaller number of these bridges are also “fracture-critical” — in danger of collapse if a major structural element fails.

James Corless, director of Transportation for America, said in a conference call today there is a backlog of bridge repair coming due and federal policy isn’t addressing the problem. MAP-21, the current transportation bill, eliminated dedicated funding for bridge repair, making it more tempting for states to spend on road expansion instead of maintenance. The largest federal pot of money available for repairs — the National Highway Performance Program — is open only to the highest class of highways, which encompasses only 10 percent of bridges.

The problem isn’t going away. While the proportion of structurally deficient bridges has decreased slightly since T4A’s last bridge report in 2011 (from 11.5 percent to 11 percent, thanks in part to the stimulus bill), the pace of repair is slowing. In 10 years’ time, nearly one in four bridges will be 65 years old, the average age of a structurally deficient bridge.

Lynn Peterson, secretary of the Washington Department of Transportation, commented on the findings during a T4A conference call today. She said even though her state rates well overall on bridge maintenance (Washington is the sixth-best in the country with less than 5 percent of its bridges rated structurally deficient), the collapse of the I-5 bridge of the Skagit River last month has refocused her agency on repair. A temporary replacement bridge opened today, less than four weeks after the collapse, which was caused by a truck collision. The bridge was not structurally deficient, but newer bridges are required to have built-in redundancy intended to prevent such a collapse.

“It’s always cheaper to do the maintenance of our bridges up front, rather than having to deal with an emergency such as this,” said Peterson.

In order to get a handle on the problem, T4A recommends prioritizing repair projects over expansions and removing funding restrictions on bridge repair.

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Seven Jiu-Jitsu Moves for Advocates to Use MAP-21 to Their Own Advantage

OK, truth: Raise your hand if you find federal transportation legislation intimidating and incomprehensible.

T4America's new document will help communities improve mobility and keep everyone safer. Photo: T4America

I thought so. Me too.

The problem, as you know, is that it’s enormously important that advocates not only understand the new transportation law, MAP-21, but that they understand it in granular detail so they can find the small opportunities buried in a depressingly large mass of disappointment.

So a big thank-you goes out to the folks at Transportation for America, who just released exactly the resource advocates need: a guide to the law called “Making the Most of MAP-21.”

In addition to providing a basic outline of the law and its relevant provisions (and omissions), the document contains some excellent how-to’s and talking points for advocates and project sponsors trying to squeeze funding for sustainable transportation projects out of programs biased heavily toward auto-oriented infrastructure. Here are a few of the excellent ideas that stand out:

Ask states to flex highway funds for bridge repair. One major hidden peril of MAP-21 is that it transferred the responsibility of repairing 460,000 bridges, which aren’t on the National Highway System (NHS), to the overburdened Surface Transportation Program, without adding any money for it. In fact, STP has $5 billion of new responsibilities under MAP-21 and only $1 billion of new money.

Source: T4America

Luckily, there’s a solution: States can flex up to half of their National Highway Performance Program (NHPP) funds, normally earmarked for NHS projects, to other uses. After all, NHS gets a disproportionate share of funding: “Although the NHS represents only five percent of all American roads, fully 58 percent of the highway program is committed to its upkeep,” the report says. Read more…

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How Seniors Get Stuck at Home With No Transit Options

According to AARP, 88 percent of seniors want to stay in their own homes as long as they can. But where are those homes? In auto-dependent suburbs. That’s where most Baby Boomers grew up, in the postwar era, and that’s where most of them have stayed – even as the largest (and longest-living) generation ever enters its golden years.

As baby boomers age, more of them are finding that auto dependent suburbia doesn't work for everybody. Photo: Transportation for America

However, more than 20 percent of seniors (age 65 and up) do not drive at all. In the spread-out, transit-poor communities where many of them live, seniors who don’t drive miss out on countless opportunities. According to a report released today by Transportation for America called “Aging in Place: Stuck Without Options”:

Absent access to affordable travel options, seniors face isolation, a reduced quality of life and possible economic hardship. A 2004 study found that seniors age 65 and older who no longer drive make 15 percent fewer trips to the doctor, 59 percent fewer trips to shop or eat out, and 65 percent fewer trips to visit friends and family, than drivers of the same age.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology conducted the analysis for the T4A report, finding that a large proportion of seniors lack transit access currently, and that in 2015, just a few short years away, 15.5 million seniors will find themselves without transportation options

“My generation grew up and reared our children in communities that, for the first time in human history, were built on the assumption that everyone would be able to drive an automobile,” said John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi and co-chair of Transportation for America.

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Transportation for America Calls on Congress to Fix Nation’s Bridges

Across the country, Highway Bridge Program funds fail to meet states' needs.

Residents in New York and Vermont were shocked in 2009 when the Champlain/Crown Point Bridge was suddenly closed without warning. At the time, the bridge carried about 3,500 cars between the two states daily. Today, those trips have to be taken by ferry or over the next closest bridge, 100 miles away.

Few people think that this could happen to their local bridge or highway overpass, but a snowballing epidemic of deferred maintenance could mean more and more bridge closings across the country. How we got here is the subject of Transportation for America’s new “Fix It” campaign, which was launched yesterday with the release of a special report on the country’s aging bridges. “The Fix We’re In For: The State of Our Nation’s Bridges” [PDF] aims to motivate Congress to significantly increase “common sense” funding for the repair, reconstruction and upgrading of existing bridges and overpasses. It addresses the political and fiscal challenges that transportation officials face in maintaining the infrastructure we already have. The report marks a significant contribution of data to the national transportation debate and presents an interactive online map that people can use to check the safety of the bridges in their area, offering a new level of transparency on the status of our bridges.

For politicians, spending money on maintaining roadways that do not present an immediate danger is simply not an easy sell to constituents. “Lots of legislators would much rather cut the ribbon on a new bridge rather than a new paint job,” says Andrew Herrmann, president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers and Advisory Council Chair for ASCE’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. “It’s just not as sexy.”

This is one reason why existing federal dollars that have been theoretically committed to fixing bridges have largely been spent elsewhere. The Highway Bridge Program, funded through SAFETEA-LU, does not require transportation agencies to prioritize maintenance of failing bridges, so policymakers have often chosen to spend this money on more politically palatable projects, such as increasing car capacity or simply patching budget holes.

While there has been some reduction in the number of structurally deficient bridges (2 percent from 1992 to 2010), such successes seem even smaller as more and more bridges fall into the “structurally deficient” category each year.

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The Silver Lining: 73 Percent of Transpo Ballot Measures Win

Ready for some good news? Voters around the country got to decide on 29 transportation-related ballot initiatives yesterday. According to an analysis by the Center for Transportation Excellence, transportation advocates and reformers won 73 percent of them. If you add in other initiatives that passed earlier this year, the victory rate jumps to 77 percent.

Voters in Michigan's Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties overwhelmingly approved a property tax renewal to fund local SMART bus service in their communities. ##http://wwj.cbslocal.com/tag/smart/##CBS##

Voters in Michigan's Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties overwhelmingly approved a property tax renewal to fund local bus service in their communities. Photo: CBS

“In the midst of an election framed as a revolt against the size of government and the scope of taxes and spending, we not only saw transportation investment measures meet the 10 year success rate average but exceed it,” said Jason Jordan, executive director of the Center for Transportation Excellence. “In all cases, there was a direct impact on taxpayers. And about 75 percent of the time we saw voters standing up and saying yes, we’re willing to pay for investment in our transportation infrastructure.”

Many of the initiatives were non-binding referenda, but they set the stage for concrete action later.

In five California counties, people voted for new automobile registration fees to pay for transportation improvements. Historically, sales taxes and property taxes (as well as the gas tax) have been the primary sources of revenue for these investments. California is opening up a whole new revenue stream.

California also adopted Prop 22, which bans state raids on transportation funds, and rejected Prop 23, which would have delayed implementation of the state’s new emissions standards until unemployment is reduced.

The 29 ballot measures decided last night aren’t the only ones this year. Back in April, St. Louis voters gave the green light to a half-cent sales tax increase to fund mass transit – the biggest tax increase any jurisdiction voted to give itself this year. It had failed in November 2008 but with some re-tooling and organizing, it got 63 percent of the vote in the spring.

David Goldberg, communications director of Transportation for America, agrees that the ballot measures were a reason to “take heart.”

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T4America Maps TIGER Grantees: Find One Near You

Thanks to Transportation for America for putting together this handy map of U.S. DOT’s TIGER grant recipients. It shows the geographical reach of the program, as well as the broad range of projects benefiting from the grants.

T4America says:

In two batches in February and October 2010, USDOT gave out a total of $2.1 billion for innovative transportation projects that address economic, environmental and travel issues at once. The TIGER program, as its known (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery), is a competitive and merit-based process to pick projects and should be a model for next transportation authorization.

“Almost all of these projects have two things in common,” said T4 America director James Corless. ”They will all create desperately-needed jobs while building critical transportation infrastructure, and they have a hard time getting funded under the outdated structure of the current federal transportation program. These projects in communities across the country will create good paying jobs, spur local economic development, and keep our metro and rural areas connected. The administration is responding to the demand for funding that can help make communities of all sizes more livable, more competitive and more connected.

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Angela Glover Blackwell on Equity, Infrastructure, and the President

The official ##http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2010/10/11/president-infrastructure-investment-work-needs-be-done-there-are-workers-who-are-rea##White House## photo of the president's meeting on infrastructure. That's Angela Glover Blackwell in the center, in the gold-checkered jacket.

The official White House photo of the president's meeting on infrastructure. That's Angela Glover Blackwell in the gold-checkered jacket.

On Monday, President Obama talked infrastructure with two governors, eight mayors, four former transportation secretaries (and the current one), two labor leaders – and one public interest advocate. That advocate was Angela Glover Blackwell, founder of the think tank PolicyLink and chair of the Transportation for America Equity Caucus, which launched last week. The roundtable discussed the president’s $50 billion infrastructure proposal, which is galvanizing transportation reformers as the contours come into sharper focus.

Blackwell spoke to Streetsblog about her meeting with the president, why transportation matters for social equity, and how people can help make the most of the current opportunity to reform national transportation policy.

Streetsblog: What was it like meeting with the president?

Blackwell: It was wonderful to be in a meeting with the president and the Treasury secretary and governors and mayors from around the country talking about infrastructure, with an emphasis on transportation. We’ve been focused on it for years, and it was encouraging to see it getting that level of attention and to see the President of the United States take an interest in transportation.

Angela Glover Blackwell

Angela Glover Blackwell

But I felt I had a tremendous responsibility to lift up the voices of low-income people and people of color and the communities where they live. It’s easy to talk about transportation and not talk about poverty, or the severe unemployment among Latinos and African Americans, those hit first and worst by this recession. I felt on my shoulders the responsibility to express that this has to be done in a way that impacts those who need it most. And the others there really heard what I was saying. Several referred back to what I had said, which was that transportation is a lifeline to opportunity in this country, and it’s way too important to leave to transportation professionals.

I also thought it was very important that at the top of the conversation, when the president came in, he turned to Governor Rendell and me to frame the conversation. He showed a lot of interest in talking about equity and inclusion.

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