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Posts from the "House of Representatives" Category

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Will the SFMTA Gut Muni Improvements to Prop Up the Central Subway?

Central Subway construction on Stockon Street at the site of the planned Union Square Station. Photo: SFSU Xpress Magazine via Flickr

The Central Subway’s latest funding troubles with Congress have brought some burning questions to the surface: How far will the SFMTA go to prop up the project, and what will the price be for Muni riders?

The U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment to an annual appropriations bill last week that would block $850 million in federal funds for the project. The amendment could be stripped in conference with the Senate, but as the Bay Citizen revealed, SFMTA management is concerned that Congress may not deliver the $942 million — the majority of the project’s funding –  in a timely manner (assuming it comes through at all). The SFMTA had expected the funds to be approved in December 2011. If the agency doesn’t get the funds by September, according to the Bay Citizen, it will waste $4 million in staffing costs every month until it does.

When asked what the SFMTA’s backup plan is, agency spokesperson Kristen Holland didn’t provide one, stating only that the funding probably won’t be blocked because the “amendment is not in the Senate version and should be eliminated in conference.”

“The bottom line is that this project will improve transit for the city, region and state and has been vetted by every level of government and given high marks every step of the way,” Holland told Streetsblog.

But the project’s cost has already risen from the original estimate of $995 million (in 2011 dollars) to $1.6 billion, according to the SFMTA’s Central Subway blog. Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, said he’s worried the SFMTA may take funds from Muni’s existing service, its abysmally neglected maintenance department, or needed improvements like the Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP), which he says should be a higher priority than the Central Subway.

Though the SFMTA insists that the Central Subway won’t take funds away from other projects, Radulovich said the agency has already been digging into discretionary funds — the money that could be used for any project. ”That’s part of their funding plan,” he said. ”The trajectory this project is on is to take more and more and more funding from the necessary and essential improvements to Muni.”

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House Transportation Bill: What’s at Stake for the Bay Area

Reliable transit and safer streets in San Francisco and the Bay Area could be crippled by what U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has called ”the worst transportation bill [he's] ever seen” making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives.

As Streetsblog Capitol Hill has been reporting, H.R. 7, the federal transportation bill being pushed by House Republicans, would be disastrous for transit riders and crippling for programs that fund pedestrian and bicycle safety.

In the Bay Area, the damage would be especially severe: “California receives a huge share of the federal funding for public transportation because of our extensive systems, and the House bill could end up zeroing out federal support for transit,” said Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, a Bay Area transit advocacy group that lobbies at the state and federal level. Instead, transit “would have to battle in the ever-shrinking general fund.”

Transportation for America spokesperson David Goldberg told the San Francisco Examiner today that about $638 million annually could be withheld to Bay Area transit agencies, which “could ultimately lead to service cuts, fare increases and deferred maintenance on vehicles.”

Yesterday, Bay Area mayors Ed Lee of San Francisco, Jean Quan of Oakland, and Chuck Reed of San Jose expressed their opposition to the bill in an op-ed in the Examiner, calling on Congress to protect their cities’ transportation funding:

While roads and bridges are a critical component of California’s infrastructure, diverting vital funding for sustainable modes of travel is unwise. If this wrongheaded approach moves forward in the House, the nation’s transportation network will take a giant step backward to a “roads only” policy for dedicated funding…

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House Passes Transportation Extension Unanimously

Well, that wasn’t so hard.

House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica holds up a list of the 21 previous extensions of the aviation program.

The GOP-led House just approved a six-month extension of the transportation law. After about 45 minutes of debate, the chair called for a voice vote, and no one objected. In this way, a unanimous consent vote might be even easier to pass than a vote under “suspended rules” which require a two-thirds margin, because in this case, all members were not called back to the chamber to vote. The only people voting were the ones in the chamber at the time.

Of course, any member who was determined to oppose the bill could have made sure to be in the chamber. But if every member of the House had been called to vote on the measure, it would have been more likely to have at least one dissenter.

During the debate, members bickered over whether the FAA shutdown was the Democrats’ fault or the Republicans’ fault; whether the stimulus had enough money for infrastructure and whether it was spent well; whether it’s appropriate to cut infrastructure spending. But no one rose to object to a clean extension right now.

I would be remiss if I didn’t reprint, word for word, Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio’s impassioned – and highly partisan – speech in favor of higher overall spending levels. In the past, he’s often argued for more spending specifically for transit, but it appears he’s altered his message to appeal to the highway people too. Note that he’s asking not just for funding levels higher than the House’s idea of a 30 percent cut, but higher even than this extension, which keeps spending at current levels.

Here’s a video of DeFazio’s speech is here; transcribed below are some highlights.

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GOP Leader’s Infra “Compromise” Is Just Another Ploy to Kill Bike/Ped

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has put forth an idea that major news outlets are calling an “olive branch” to President Obama on infrastructure funding.

Eric Cantor's bold new compromise on infrastructure? Just Republican talking points. Photo: John Shinkle / Politico

Is he offering to increase spending levels over the starvation program being proposed by Republicans on the House Transportation Committee? No. Is he proposing to include performance measures, making sure that investments contribute to national transportation priorities? No. Is he baldly trying to eliminate bike/ped funding from the budget? You got it.

Cantor’s “compromise” is already a plank of the Transportation Committee’s plan. Cantor, and Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) want to “eliminat[e] the requirement that states must set aside 10 percent of federal surface transportation funds for transportation museums, education, and preservation would allow states to devote these monies to high-priority infrastructure projects, without adding to the deficit.”

The pot of money he’s proposing to eliminate is called Transportation Enhancements, and the primary way the federal government supports active transportation. Republicans have been using the “10 percent” figure to drum up indignation over the “misuse” of transportation funds, but it’s important to note that Transportation Enhancements make up 10 percent of the surface transportation program, which is less than a quarter of the entire federal aid highway program. Enhancements actually make up about two percent of all federal highway aid.

That’s two percent for biking and walking, which together make up 12 percent of trips. Larry Ehl of Transportation Issues Daily predicted yesterday that bike/ped funding — even though it represents a tiny proportion of the total transportation tab — would be a stumbling block in extending the current transportation bill. Indeed, it’s a major point of contention in debates over the whole bill.

It’s ridiculous, given that the vast majority of the bill is still for highways. But here comes Eric Cantor, trotting out party-line gimmicks and convincing the media it’s a breakthrough.

Know what would be a real breakthrough, Mr. Cantor? When Congress comes back into session tomorrow, pass a clean extension of SAFETEA-LU without any strings attached or budget cuts required. Then work with the Senate to pass its bipartisan bill, which itself is the product of serious compromise with some of the most conservative members of the Republican party. The bill holds spending at current levels, plus inflation; it agrees with the House on a major expansion of the TIFIA loan program; it includes some performance measures; and it preserves dedicated funding for bike/ped. Now what’s so hard about that?

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It’s Official: Congress’s Next Spitting Contest Will Be Over the Gas Tax

Since the 112th Congress convened in January, the federal government almost shut down, the government almost defaulted on its debts, and the FAA was temporarily shuttered. It’s the Crisis Congress, thriving on the chaos of catastrophe. Next up: a bruising fight over funding the transportation system.

Grover Norquist wasn't content to just bring us to the brink of default. Photo by Gage Skidmore

A few weeks ago, Ben Smith at Politico mentioned in a short post that the gas tax was expiring September 30. If not extended, all but 4.3 cents of the 18.4-cent federal gas tax would disappear. Extending the gas tax has always been an easy, bipartisan move that happened more or less automatically. (Raising it to a reasonable level is another story entirely.)

When Smith first wrote about the gas tax expiration, it was the first some had heard of the issue. Others were monitoring it cautiously, just in case the Tea Party or other antitax crusaders decided to kick up a stir. But media reports confirm that those forces are preparing for battle.

House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica has proposed a bill based on the current gas tax, and his office has confirmed that he supports keeping it at 18.4 cents. But according to Platts news service, Republican members on key committees are “still deciding what to do about the federal gasoline tax.”

The demigod of the tax-haters, Grover Norquist, has decided to take up the banner, after enough news organizations asked if he was going to. “ATR will be urging people to look at ending the federal gas tax either cold turkey or phasing it out as soon as possible and allowing states to simply go raise their own taxes, rather than send the money to Washington and get it back with strings,” Norquist told Platts in an email.

Even other right-wing small-government types part company with Norquist there. Politico quotes Heritage Foundation and Reason Foundation experts as saying the gas tax “has to” be renewed and that a “cold turkey” end to the gas tax, as Norquist appears to be pondering, would be “chaotic.”

That seems to be fine by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) of “You lie!” fame. (Chaos is sort of his thing.) His local TV network, WJBF, quotes Wilson as questioning the federal gas tax. “Sadly, it has been used in large cities to subside a transportation system, the subway systems of New York, Chicago, San Francisco. We need to look at this carefully. And, I believe the money should be spent where it is raised and that is by the drivers of Georgia and South Carolina.”

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The Latest Target of House Spending Cuts: EPA’s Smart Growth Office

For much of this week, the House has been debating next year’s appropriations bill for Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. The bill includes harsh cuts to many key safety and environmental programs, including the EPA’s Smart Growth Office. According to the Obama administration’s statement of policy on the bill, “The bill terminates funding for EPA’s Smart Growth program, which contributes to efforts to assist communities in coordinating infrastructure investments and minimizing environmental impact of development.”

San Francisco's Mint Plaza won an EPA Smart Growth award last year. Photo: SF Weekly

Smart Growth America opposes the cut, calling it “shortsighted” and saying it would be “detrimental to economic growth.” According to SGA:

The EPA’s smart growth programs assist communities on a diversity of projects, like creating a range of housing and transportation choices for residents and workers, growing local economies, protecting the environment and public health, and improving local infrastructure. For example, the rural communities of Driggs and Victor in Idaho received a Smart Growth Implementation Assistance award to help identify steps to redevelop their downtown economies. Hundreds of other communities across the country have received similar assistance under the smart growth program, but these economically vital efforts would come to an end under the House legislation.

Four Democrats sent a letter to their House colleagues yesterday asking them to oppose the cuts.

“The program, with its voluntary, market-driven approach, has directly assisted communities across the country, helping them increase economic development, protect the environment and public health, improve their infrastructure, and ensure efficient use of government services,” the letter stated. “The Smart Growth programs face such high demand that they are only able to help 9 percent of current applicants.”

The House has been voting on amendments for the past few days, essentially approving further cuts and rejecting anything that would restore funding.

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Mica and Rail Supporters Meet Halfway

Members of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association on Capitol Hill with Rep. John Mica (center) on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of USHSR.

At a meeting with members of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association Tuesday, House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica softened his stance somewhat on his plan to privatize the Northeast Corridor.

He acknowledged that the proposal is “controversial” and said that was why he framed it in a separate bill, apart from the rest of the reauthorization. He said he’s “heard the concerns” about the plan. A member of his staff said that the original plan was being portrayed as transferring Amtrak’s assets away from it, while leaving Amtrak holding the bag on the debt. “Which, when you put it that way, does sound sort of unfair,” the staffer said, indicating that issues like those are being worked out.

Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, said he was glad to see Mica striking a more cooperative tone. “His initial bill and his initial hearing was a little bit ‘This is it; take it or leave it’,” Kunz said. “Now he’s recognizing there needs to be a bit more cooperative action.”

The committee isn’t easing up on everything, though. The staffer also stated that the committee was giving inter-city and passenger rail “a temporary rest” while it focuses exclusively on high-speed rail. “It does not serve the two programs well to be ‘smooshed,’ or put together and consolidated the way they have been and then have most of the projects that receive funding not be high-speed rail in any way, shape, or form.”

In response to the Congressional Research Service’s conclusion that the rail privatization scheme could run into constitutional problems, Mica’s staffer was dismissive, saying CRS merely warned that some courts could find it to be a violation, and they should be careful. (Sounds like a finding of unconstitutionality to me.)

As he often does, Mica spoke of his high-speed rail plans as a way to rescue high-speed rail from the Obama administration’s mismanagement and bungling. He often jokes about the “gift that keeps on giving”: the original $8 billion allocated for high-speed rail, some of which has been returned by gun-shy states and re-allocated.

Mica asserted that the involvement of the private sector is “non-negotiable” – which Amtrak itself would agree with, as it’s already seeking private sector partners. Mica gave Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman credit for being on board. “Boardman sees that you cannot [upgrade the NEC to high speeds] – at least in his lifetime – under the current proposal,” Mica said. He also said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is “willing to negotiate.” But he cast blame on Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who he said are willing to give “none of the pie” to private investors.

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Mica: Why Are the Democrats Picking On Me?

We were sad to see that Rep. Mica was sad to see that the Democrats were sad to see that the House transportation proposal is an unmitigated disaster for transportation policy.

Yes, many people spoke to the committee during its series of listening sessions -- but did the committee listen?

As Alice reported last week, Democrats on the committee called the GOP plan a “road to ruin” and “a cruel imitation of a proposal.” They say the low funding levels will cripple the transportation industry and undermine the economic recovery. Clearly, they are concerned that the plan promoted by their own committee contradicts their priorities and values.

But Mica says it’s just a “personal and partisan attack.”

“Nearly every proposal detailed in the preliminary outline was adopted with input gathered during bipartisan hearings and meetings across the country,” Mica said in a statement.

The listening tour the committee embarked upon was impressive, and they heard from scores of stakeholders. But many of those stakeholders pleaded for a higher gas tax or another mechanism to bring in additional revenues, in order to avoid exactly the scenario that Mica’s proposal creates: the starvation of the transportation sector.

Many also advocated for greater performance measures, to ensure that, if the pot is going to be smaller, at least the money is used to its maximum potential. But the House bill does away with several discretionary programs, preferring formulas, and delegates decision-making to the states, rather than set national goals and priorities.

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More Responses to Mica Transpo Bill: Lots of People Think It’s a Rotten Idea

In the 24 hours since Rep. John Mica has unveiled his proposal for the next six years of transportation policy and funding, my inbox has been flooded with responses from advocates, lawmakers, policy wonks, and everyone in between, giving their perspective on the bill’s potential impacts. I posted some yesterday, but they just keep a-comin’.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), chair of the Surface Transportation Subcommittee of the Commerce Committee and a member of the Committee on Environment and Public Works: “Repairing and improving infrastructure is a proven way to create jobs and reinvigorate the economy, yet Republicans want to slash funding, let our roads and bridges fall into a state of further disrepair and take more jobs away from workers. In New Jersey transportation is the lifeblood of our economy and we cannot afford to be stuck in more traffic or let our aging infrastructure degrade any further. I will fight this plan and work in the Senate for a stronger investment so that New Jersey and states across the country can use transportation projects to create jobs, ease commutes, boost the economy and modernize our infrastructure.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) (via Twitter): “Rep. Mica plan to cut infrastructure is job-killing, future-suffocating, pessimistic vision of US as ‘can’t do’ nation.”

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO: “It is astonishing and unconscionable that the House Republican leadership would push a surface transportation re-authorization bill that would gut current infrastructure investment by a third and obliterate over half a million jobs in the next year alone… It defies imagination that the Republican leadership and Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would turn their backs on the needs of our country and pretend it is good government.”

Janet Kavinoky, executive director of transportation and infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “It is clear the Committee has been constrained by the House-passed budget as the investment levels are unacceptable. Cuts will destroy – rather than support — existing jobs and will not enable creation of the additional jobs needed to put the 16.3% of unemployed workers in the construction industry back to work.”

Barbara McCann, executive director of the National Complete Streets Coalition: “Representative Mica’s proposal ignores the millions of Americans who are now using the nation’s highways – by foot, bicycle and bus. By failing to include a complete streets provision, the bill would allow states to continue to build multi-lane roads through communities where pedestrians are left to tramp through the grass, bus riders are forced to run across dangerous intersections, and bicycle riders have nowhere to go. In addition, the proposal would eliminate the very modest dedicated funding for bicycling and walking, claiming these are ‘non-highway’ or ‘non-transportation’ activities. In fact, bicycling and walking make up 12 percent of the nation’s trips. Add in those getting on and off public transportation, and it turns out a good portion of the nation’s so-called ‘highway’ travel is make up of people who are not in private automobiles. Unfortunately, safety statistics bear this out: 67 percent of all pedestrian fatalities in the last ten years took place on federal-aid roads.”

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Mica’s Transportation Proposal: Responses Flood In

The GOP transportation proposal is now online.

Here are some early reactions.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chair of the Senate Banking subcommittee with jurisdiction over public transportation: “It used to be that Republicans understood that transportation investment was necessary to spur economic growth and create jobs. Now, I guess they think if we give the rich enough tax breaks they will get off the golf course, get in a bulldozer, and start building roads.”

Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), chair of the full Senate Banking Committee: “Transit systems are one of the most efficient and reliable forms of transportation… Proposals to cut public transportation funding, as contemplated in the House, won’t just make it harder for Americans to get to a job interview or the grocery store; cuts will also slow job growth at a time when we need it most. Construction workers, mechanics, employees of bus manufacturers and rail car suppliers, and many other hard-working Americans will lose their jobs if these cuts occur.”

Caron Whitaker, campaign director of America Bikes: “The Mica bill is short-sighted; it focuses on cuts rather than return on investment. The bicycling industry supports over a million jobs and brings in over $17 billion in federal, state, and local taxes. That’s a great return for the $700 million federal investment in biking and walking facilities.”

James Corless, director of Transportation for America: “Chairman Mica’s proposal to give states broader latitude needs strong provisions for accountability on national goals, such as economic prosperity, energy independence, equal access to opportunity and environmental stewardship. However, this emphasis on the state level cannot come at the expense of the places that are feeling the brunt of our inadequate investments to this point: local communities in both urban and rural locales. We are particularly concerned at the proposal to eliminate dedicated funding that helps provide more safe options for walking and biking. While Chairman Mica indicated an intent to preserve the historic share of 20 percent for transit, the overall effect is a devastating cut that leaves us well short of the amounted required to meet rising demand for transit service, especially in this time of severe fiscal constraints.”

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