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Road Interests Crowd Reauthorization Panels in Indiana and Chicago

Road interests continued to dominate the discussion as members of Congress wound their way through Chicago and Indiana this weekend, gathering feedback for the six-year transportation reauthorization bill.

While Streetsblog couldn’t be at every hearing, some of our dedicated Network bloggers were there to document discussions on state and regional transportation priorities, as expressed to the lawmakers.

Members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure take comments from leaders in Indianapolis. Photo: Curt Ailes, Urban Indy

Curt Ailes at Urban Indy caught the discussion from Indianapolis on Saturday, and was even able to join a group of citizens that addressed the Congressmen, speaking on behalf of the need for federal support of transit.

Ailes said he was impressed with comments made by John Mica (R-FL), who is Chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure:

Mr. Mica was the most inspiring Republican to speak when he talked about not expanding freeway rights of way for expansion projects. He cited a project in Florida that took the center safety lanes and converted them to general traffic lanes and noticed a 25% gain in capacity with no noticeable rise in accidents. He also pointed out at one point that he comes from business and has done the math on mass transit. This is why he supports spending on it.

But as the meeting continued, Ailes found himself disappointed in the decidedly car-centric state panel, which stood in contrast to members of the public, whose comments focused on livability, transit and other forms of alternative transportation: Read more…

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Just How Lame Will This Lame Duck Be?

The GOP has named the 22 members of its transition team and it’s ready to get to work. Don’t expect the work for these lawmakers to include any actual law-making, though. Not till January, anyway.

I-35

Three years after the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis killed 13 people, Congress still isn't treating infrastructure investment as an urgent matter. Photo: AP

The lame duck session, which begins Monday, has a long agenda. On the list of have-to’s:

  • Coming to some agreement about extending the Bush tax cuts, which expire December 31.
  • Passing a continuing resolution, basically a way of not actually passing a budget but avoiding a government shutdown.
  • Fixing the Medicare physician payments, which are set to drop at the end of the year.
  • Extending unemployment benefits, which are also due to expire (though Republicans are insisting on spending cuts before they’ll approve this, so it could be downgraded from a “have-to” to a “really-should”).

Don’t see the President’s $50 billion infrastructure down payment on there? Don’t expect to. And that continuing resolution means that Congress can get out of passing the FY 2011 appropriations bill for Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies. The bill passed in the House over the summer and was sent to the Senate. In general, no real spending measures will likely get voted on right now.

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Republicans Line Up to Oppose Obama’s Transportation Proposal

The critical multi-year transportation bill, which lawmakers have sidelined since last summer as they’ve quarreled about how to pay for it, looks to be back on the agenda after President Obama’s pugnacious Labor Day speech, in which he called on Congress to ramp up investment in transportation. The broad outline of Obama’s plan calls for rebuilding 150,000 miles of roads, constructing 4,000 miles of rail, and rehabilitating 150 miles of runway over the next six years.

Florida GOP representative John Mica

Florida GOP representative John Mica supported a long-term transportation bill in 2009, but quickly came out against the President's infrastructure plan this week. Photo: PBS/Blueprint America

While that may look like a lot of road spending compared to rail, transportation reformers see cause for optimism in the use of the word “rebuild” — which implies that the emphasis will be on fixing existing roads instead of constructing sprawl-inducing new highways. The outline also calls for “significant new funding” for the creation of new transit projects, and for ramping up investment in “safety, environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness, and livability.” Those criteria have all been hallmarks of the US DOT’s TIGER program, which distributes competitive grants to local transportation agencies from what has been a relatively small pot of money.

Congress typically authorizes a major transportation spending bill every six years, but political gridlock over the raising the gas tax or securing other funding streams has stalled the reauthorization of the bill since it expired in 2009. In the interim, lawmakers have passed a series of stopgap spending measures to keep the transportation system functioning, even as Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has lobbied hard for Congress to take up the full bill.

Monday’s proposal represents the first serious effort from the President to tackle America’s transportation policy inertia, which is preventing any significant progress from the highway-oriented status quo. Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, are undoubtedly eager to pass a bill that will show voters they’re doing as much as possible to address high levels of unemployment, which are making a Republican rout of the mid-term elections look increasingly likely.

Predictably, the GOP does not look willing to lend a hand. Republicans have already lined up against Obama’s proposal, and another protracted and nasty fight over a major White House initiative looks likely. Immediately after the announcement, House Minority Leader John Boehner released a statement opposing the plan, and on Tuesday he released another one calling the plan an “exercise in futility.”

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The Problems With Ports, or Why We Need a National Freight Act

Maybe you commute by train, or maybe you've switched from driving to biking. But your stuff is still traveling the country by diesel truck.

port_of_oakland_noaa.jpgContainers at the Port of Oakland. Photo: NOAA
Nearly a quarter of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions come from freight. The movement of goods from port of entry to a store near you throws enough particulate pollution into the air to shorten the lives of 21,000 people each year, according to the Clean Air Task Force.

The freight sector is lumbering under inefficient and outdated systems that cause pollution, public health problems, safety hazards, and delivery delays. There’s never been a coordinated national approach to solving these problems. And with no deliberate strategy, the default approach is often to build more highways.

As Stephen Davis of Transportation for America writes:

If a port is congested or wants to expand, there’s little available federal money to spend directly on rail or any other mode. Your choices are highways or highways. When a state or port does spend to improve operations, there is no accountability to make sure they’re actually reducing port/freight congestion, moving freight faster, or reducing air pollution in surrounding communities.

Enter the FREIGHT Act. (That’s the Focusing Resources, Economic Investment and Guidance to Help Transportation Act of 2010, with true Capitol Hill acronym panache.) The FREIGHT Act was introduced in the Senate toward the end of July and in the House a week later.

The bill focuses on areas known as "connectors," said Kathryn Phillips of the Environmental Defense Fund. “All the literature and studies say it’s the connector areas, the hubs, where you have the most congestion and environmental impacts.” The bill calls for troubleshooting at these bottlenecks, where products are transferred “from boat to truck to another truck to rail” and everything gets bogged down. Trucks get stuck in traffic; trains sit on the tracks; ships idle at port.

Communities near international ports pay the price. In Riverside, California, traffic gets tied up at 26 at-grade rail crossings 128 times a day when trains pass. Add to that the noise and pollution nearby neighborhoods must contend with.

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House Approves Transpo Spending Bill After Stripping Out $ for Livability

OberstarBlumenauer.jpgCongressmen
Oberstar and Blumenauer, here speaking together at the 2007 Bike
Summit, were on opposite sides of a dispute about increased funding for
livability programs yesterday. Photo: Bike Portland

The
House of Representatives passed its 2011 appropriations bill for
Transportation and Housing and Urban Development yesterday,
significantly increasing the amount going to both highways and transit
while decreasing spending overall. A fight over $200 million in funds
for the Obama Administration’s new livability initiatives, however,
showed that substantive changes in federal transportation policy will
remain difficult to achieve until Congress tackles the long-term
transportation reauthorization bill. 

First, a refresher on the difference between authorizations and
appropriations. Roughly speaking, authorizations set policy while
appropriations spend money based on those policies. Congress passes a
transportation appropriations bill, like the House did yesterday, every
year, while the transportation authorization is renewed less frequently.
The most recent authorization, SAFETEA-LU, passed in 2005 and was set to expire in 2009. It has been temporarily extended since then while Congress dithers over a new bill. 

According to The Hill,
the House’s $67.4 billion appropriations bill reduces spending overall
by $500 million from last year, and is $1.3 billion less than what the
Obama administration requested. Because major priorities are mainly set
in the federal transportation bill, the appropriations bill rarely
includes large shifts in policy.

On the biggest ticket transportation items, spending increased in
this appropriation. The $45.2 billion set for highways is $4.1 billion
more than last year’s bill provided for, according to The Hill, and $3.9
billion more than the administration asked for. Similarly the $11.3
billion in transit spending would be $500 million more than last year
and $575 million more than requested.

One squabble that broke out pitted some of Congress’s
most prominent proponents of sustainable transportation against each
other and ended with $200 million less for
livability initiatives — money that would have been used to help states
coordinate transportation, land use, and conservation policy. That
funding was proposed by Transportation
Secretary Ray LaHood and Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer. Fighting
fiercely against it were Congressmen Peter DeFazio and James Oberstar.
As chronicled by the League of American Bicyclists’ Andy Clarke, this wasn’t a fight about substance — all four have been champions for livability, overall — but about process and turf.

Read more…

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Obama Aide Defends Transit Safety Plan as Different from Rail Rules

Federal Transit Administration (FTA) chief Peter Rogoff today mounted a defense of the White House's transit safety plan, assuring some skeptical members of Congress that he does not want to "replicate" inter-city rail safety rules that have taken flak for impeding the development of viable U.S. train networks.

reagan_metro_station.jpgAs of last year, D.C.'s Metro had less than one full-time employee working on its safety panel. (Photo: VisitingDC.com)
Referencing the safety struggles of Washington D.C.'s Metro transit system, where oversight was relegated to an under-funded, effectively inactive committee before a series of rail accidents last year, Rogoff acknowledged that previous federal regulators were "complicit in wrongdoing" to some degree.

"[W]e engaged in at least helping the transit industry develop voluntary [safety] standards," Rogoff told the House oversight committee. "As a federal agency, I feel it's our obligation to identify what the safe practices [are]. The only way we can ensure there will be safe practices is to have mandatory standards."

The Obama administration's transit safety proposal [PDF] would seek to impose such mandatory standards for transit safety, requiring local agencies to meet a minimum threshold of compliance or be subject to federal monitoring. The president's budget for fiscal year 2011 would set aside about $30 million to help transit agencies pay for any safety upgrades required by the new federal oversight.

"It is not our goal to replicate the voluminous [Federal Rail Administration] rulebook for transit systems," Rogoff told lawmakers. The FRA's slate of safety standards have required Amtrak's Acela trains to stop short of maximum speeds and Caltrain commuter rail to delay introduction of lighter-weight cars, coming under fire from rail advocates.

But lawmakers' openness to debating the White House safety plan does not mean the FTA can count on passage this year. Leaders of the House transportation committee have indicated they do not aim to take up the transit safety bill as a free-standing measure, instead leaving the issue to the next six-year federal infrastructure bill -- which may not come to a final vote until next spring at the earliest.

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Transportation Filibuster Update: Bunning Won’t Yield to Fellow GOPer

Federal infrastructure funding and many U.S. DOT workers remain in
limbo today as Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) continues his one-man filibuster
of legislation extending the 2005 transport law, turning himself into a
Democratic target and a poster child for Washington gridlock.

art.bunning.gi_1.pngSen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) was heard quipping "tough s—t" as he began blocking an extension of transportation law. (Photo: CNN)

Sen.
Susan Collins (R-ME) took to the floor of Congress’ upper chamber this
morning to seek Bunning’s consent for a restoration of federal
transport law and a one-month extension of unemployment benefits, but
the cantankerous Kentuckian would not yield — even to a fellow
Republican.

The shutdown of federal reimbursement for road, bridge,
bike-ped, and transit spending is costing states and localities $183
million per day, according to House transportation committee estimates.

Bunning’s
action has the effect of a classic filibuster, but his official gambit
has been ongoing objection to a vote on extending infrastructure,
unemployment, and several other programs. That one-month stopgap would
cost $10 billion, which Bunning wants to see paid for by taking money
from the White House’s stimulus law.

Yet he has refused
Senate leaders’ offer to vote on his proposal to use stimulus money,
acknowledging that it lacks the votes to pass. In the meantime,
thousands more U.S. DOT employees, including Federal Transit
Administration workers, are facing forced furloughs today.

"The
timing could not be worse for a lot of
reasons," Nevada state DOT director Susan Martinovich said in a
statement released by the American Association of State Highway and
Transportation Officials (AASHTO). "States need every dollar
they can get to improve our aging roads and bridges and put people to
work. … We should be awarding contracts for
spring construction right now, but instead many states are forced to
delay, and in some cases cancel, projects."

Democrats openly
branded Bunning as the face of Senate GOP obstructionism, with several
majority-party lawmakers sending him direct cease-and-desist appeals.

"This
is completely
unacceptable," Senate environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer
(D-CA) wrote in a letter to Bunning. "We can’t have an economic
recovery if people can’t make ends meet and if transportation projects
grind to a halt."

But when Senate Democrats released
a new $150 billion jobs plan yesterday that would retroactively extend
unemployment benefits until 2011, an extension of federal
transportation funding was not part of the package.

Read more…

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Deja Vu Again: One-Man Senate Filibuster Imperils Federal Transport Law

A familiar script for Washington infrastructure watchers began to unfold last night on the Senate floor, as House-side resistance
to a 10-month extension of existing federal transportation law prompted
Democratic leaders to seek a quick deal on a one-month stopgap — the
fourth such short-term move in six months.

art.bunning.gi.pngSen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) (Photo: CNN)

But
one GOP senator, the notoriously irascible Jim Bunning (KY), objected
to the 30-day extension, which also would ensure continued payment of
federal unemployment benefits. When Democrats pleaded with Bunning to
drop his one-man filibuster effort, Politico heard the retiring Kentuckian offer a terse response: "Tough s–t."

If
an extension cannot be passed before the 2005 transportation law
officially expires at midnight on Sunday, the result would be a
quasi-shutdown of operations at U.S. DOT. A source at the agency told
Streetsblog Capitol Hill that all employees of the Federal Highway
Administration, save for its chief, would be sent home and states would
stop getting reimbursed for their spending on all road projects.

The
Federal Transit Administration would see a freeze of its own, the U.S.
DOT source said, with contract authority to fund local projects sitting
in limbo until Congress acts. Perhaps the most untimely delay would
occur at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA),
where regulators are ramping up their oversight efforts after the Toyota recall debacle.

"[I]t is simply unfair for one senator
to attempt to hold the Senate hostage,” Dick Durbin (D-IL), the upper chamber’s No. 2 leader, said last night in a statement.

Where does that leave Democrats? Working furiously to break through Bunning’s roadblock, even as more House members join transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) in raising objections to the Senate jobs bill that would keep existing federal programs intact until 2011.

Oberstar and about two dozen members of his panel take issue with the Senate jobs bill’s treatment of $932 million in grants
that would be spent this year as part of a 10-month extension of
existing transport law. Giving that money to states using the template
of 2009 earmarks — as the Senate jobs bill proposes — would direct
the majority of the money to four states, leaving 22 states with
nothing.

A letter sent earlier this week by 23 members of the
transportation committee asks for the grant money to be given out on a
"discretionary, competitive" basis. However, Oberstar spokesman Jim
Berard said in an interview that the chairman has offered a compromise
that would allocate the funding based on existing federal
transportation formulas.

Berard said that Oberstar would
prefer to see the $932 million allocated competitively to projects
rather than distributed by formula. But he acknowledged the reasoning
behind the Senate’s argument that applying for the funding would not
facilitate quick job creation. "If we’re not going to make it
competitive," Berard said, "at least let’s make it equitable."

At
the moment, the House appears unlikely to act on the jobs legislation
until at least next week, giving Oberstar and his panel more time to
reach agreement with senators — and heightening the drama of Bunning’s
Senate floor show.

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Little-Known Provision in Senate Jobs Bill Could Spark House Resistance

The Senate passed its jobs bill today by a 70-28 vote,
bringing Congress one step closer to a $20 billion transfer that would
keep the nation’s highway trust fund solvent until 2011 and extend the
2005 federal transportation law.

0131mnfederal_dd_graphic_oberstar.jpgHouse transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) (Photo: Capitol Chatter)

The bill’s future in the House appears bright, as Democrats in that chamber point to
the urgent need to pass legislation showing their commitment to
stemming the rising tide of unemployment. But members of the House
transportation committee, including chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN),
remain concerned about a little-discussed provision in the Senate jobs
bill that they consider an unfairly biased distribution of
infrastructure funding.

The Senate language in question would extend two grant programs
created by the 2005 federal transport law, often referred to by its
acronym of SAFETEA-LU.

Those programs were the Projects of Regional and National Significance (PRNS),
which allowed lawmakers to steer funds to multi-year proposals that
often had a transit or freight component, and the National Corridor
Infrastructure Improvement Program (NCIIP), which focused largely on earmarks for massive road projects (including Alaska’s infamous Bridge to Nowhere).

Extending
the PRNS and NCIIP grants through the end of 2010 would result in an
estimated $932 million of new funding. The House-passed jobs bill
would free up that money for a merit-based process, with all 50 states
eligible to submit their transport plans, but the Senate-passed jobs
bill would keep that money flowing to its 2009 beneficiaries, according
to Oberstar’s office.

What does that mean in practice? Of the
$932 million, 58 percent would automatically go to four states:
California, Washington, Louisiana, and Illinois. Nine other states
would get between $20 million and $50 million in 2010, and 22 states
would "not receiv[e] a penny," as 23 members of Oberstar’s committee
wrote yesterday in a letter to House Democratic leaders.

Here’s a longer excerpt from that 23-lawmaker letter:

Read more…

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eBART Extension Nears Bid, Rep Garamendi Tours Station Sites

ebart_dmu.jpgImages: BART
With bids for the eBART extension project expected in early February, newly elected Congressman John Garamendi from California's 10th District conducted a tour of the planned station sites of BART's 10-mile extension from Pittsburg Bay Point to Antioch. Garamendi joined BART Director Joel Keller, Brentwood Mayor Robert Taylor, and representatives from the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, BART, Tri Delta Transit and the State Route 4 Bypass Authority on a Tri-Delta bus for the tour.

The $462 million eBART extension is funded mostly through bridge tolls and a Contra Costa sales tax measure and will accompany the widening of Highway 4 to six and eight lanes along the corridor from the existing four lanes. 

BART Director Keller asserted eBART would finally be delivering on a BART promise to bring transit to eastern Contra Costa County. Keller said he routinely hears from his constituents that they have been paying taxes for decades and that cities like Antioch were upset that they didn't have the rapid transit that was promised when BART was originally built.

"The perception of taxpayers in my district is 'We've paid for BART, we should get BART," said Keller. eBART will use Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) technology and won't run on the traditional BART lines, a choice that was made for financial reasons. If BART were to build its traditional trains, the extension would cost $1.1 billion.

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