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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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Advocates to Boxer: Save Funds for Safe Streets, Don’t Let House Gut NEPA

A new federal funding and policy bill for transportation could be a boost for California's employment rate, but advocates worry if the Senator rushes or capitulates to some demands from House Republicans, it could have bad long-term effects for the environment and/or pedestrian safety. Image via KABC/Los Angeles

(Note: Much of this story comes from “Making Lawmakers Answer for Pedestrian Deaths in Their Districts” that appeared on Streetsblog Capitol Hill yesterday.)

No matter how you count it, California is a dangerous place for pedestrians. A recent report by Transportation for America showed that nearly 7,000 pedestrians were killed in California’s streets between 2001 and 2010.  Now, thanks to an addendum to T4America’s annual  ”Dangerous by Design” report, we can now quantify the death toll by Congressional district. After Florida, California has the most districts with high numbers of deaths. Californians can see how dangerous their Congressional District has been by clicking here.

This places Senator Barbara Boxer in a tough place. As Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, Boxer is the Senate’s point person in dealing with far more conservative members of the House of Representatives when it comes to creating a transportation funding and policy bill that can pass both chambers and be signed by President Barack Obama.

Keeping pedestrians safe is just one consideration the Senator has to weigh, but advocates hope that it is a top one. “Having saddled communities with unsafe streets, it would be the height of cruelty for Congress now to take away resources and latitude from local communities trying to improve those conditions and save lives,” said James Corless, director of Transportation for America, in a statement.

When talking to their representatives, Transportation for America urges people to be very specific. Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin and Mississippi Republican Tom Cochran authored an amendment to the most recent draft of the transportation bill to keep some bicycle and pedestrian funding at the local level. Everyone who cares about safe streets should ask their representatives to support a transportation bill with the Cardin-Cochran amendment to keep at least some bicycle and pedestrian funding control at the local level.
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Boxer Changes Her Tone, Adopts a Fighting Stance

The transportation bill conference committee negotiations have been difficult and contentious, by all accounts — all except Senator Barbara Boxer’s account. The EPW chair has been optimistic when others have been bitter, consistently focusing on how much the two sides agree rather than the places where they’re still far apart.

Barbara Boxer sharpened her rhetoric yesterday about the House Republicans' foot-dragging on a transportation bill. Photo: Tanya Snyder.

But that seemed to change with her fighting words at a press event yesterday.

“I’ll be candid,” she said. “There is only one group standing in the way of a bill, standing in the way of three million jobs, standing in the way of thousands and thousands of businesses struggling right now — and those are the House Republicans.”

The seven other senators who joined her at the podium used even stronger words. New York Democrat Chuck Schumer decried the “militants, radicals, and extremists” among the House Republicans — not all Republicans, he was careful to note — who don’t believe the federal government should even be involved in building transportation infrastructure.

Do the math, said Sen. John Kerry. Every billion dollars invested in infrastructure yields an estimated 27,000 to 35,000 jobs. This is a $109 billion bill — “that’s several million jobs.” He echoed a point Schumer had made, that the economy is recovering but is being held back by lingering high unemployment in the construction sector. “Those folks would go to work tomorrow if this bill were passed,” Kerry said, adding that it was “an utter disgrace that people would say they’re with the American people and then refuse a bill that would put them back to work.”

“Where’s the speed bump? Where’s the road block?” asked Delaware’s Chris Coons. “It’s right there,” he said, pointing to the southern wing of the Capitol building, “in the House of Representatives.”

The senators were joined by a convoy of five large construction trucks behind them (breaking DC’s three-minute idling law), symbolizing the idling construction sector, one assumes.

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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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Dealbreaker: Senate Rejects House Budget Due to Lack of Car Subsidies

What’s keeping Congress from passing an extension to the federal budget? Democratic protection of automobile subsidies.

Top Senate Democrat Harry Reid vows to keep an clean-car subsidy in the budget, come hell or high water. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

After midnight last night, the House finally managed to narrowly pass a budget extension bill, but Senate leaders have already rejected it out of hand, since it includes about half the disaster relief they’d like and cuts $1.5 billion from a clean-fuel technology manufacturing program for the auto industry.

The disagreement is strong enough that it threatens to keep Congress in session longer than intended — likely through the weekend, and possibly even into next week’s scheduled recess.

That gives them a week, if necessary, to avert a government shutdown — the potential consequence of inaction on a bill to extend federal government spending past September 30.

Clean vehicles are great, but if Democrats really want to meet important environmental goals, just imagine how much good they could do by spending that $1.5 billion to implement better bus systems or provide emergency assistance to transit agencies struggling to keep up with higher ridership.

In addition to highlighting how Senate Democrats highly prize car subsidies, this situation also puts in perspective the brewing fight over the FY2012 budget. If Congress can’t even pass a simple extension to keep government operations for a few months, with just a few billion dollars’ difference, how will they ever agree to bridge the enormous gap between their visions for FY2012?

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Federal Support for Smart Planning Is on the Line Today

A Senate panel will vote today on two budget bills for FY2012, one of which is for transportation and housing programs. The draft of the bill isn’t available until after the subcommittee markup today, but Smart Growth America is calling attention to the fact that it’s important to make sure the bill includes funding for the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the partnership between USDOT, the EPA, and HUD.

Normal, Illinois' multimodal transportation center, funded with a TIGER grant from the Partnership. Image: Normal, Illinois

Through the partnership, the three agencies have coordinated transportation and land use policy to a greater extent than they did before, helping to curb sprawl and promote smart growth. This partnership has taken the federal agencies out of their “stovepipe” mentality and encouraged efficiency and collaboration at an unprecedented level. Why would lawmakers who want to reduce inefficiencies and waste in the federal government want to cut a program that has been so effective at doing just that?

Last fall, Mariia Zimmerman from HUD told Streetsblog that the Partnership has standardized guidelines to make it easier to apply for grants and eliminated some areas of inefficiency, overlap, and even direct contradiction among the agencies. But perhaps more importantly, she said the Partnership has transformed all of HUD, incorporating a focus on sustainability in all of the agency’s work.

A vote of support from the Senate would mean a lot to the Partnership, which saw its funding stripped in the House proposal for next year’s budget. But the Partnership isn’t the only potential casualty of the House plan: Highway and transit funding each get slashed by 34 percent, TIGER and TIGGER grants are cut entirely, high-speed rail gets nothing, the New Starts transit program gets slashed, and Amtrak is left gasping for air. If the Senate subcommittee doesn’t vote to save funding for these programs tomorrow, they have no chance.

See the Smart Growth America action alert for more information.

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The Senate’s “Dr. No” Says He’ll Block An Extension Unless Bike/Ped Is Cut

Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn is known around the Senate as “Dr. No” for his propensity to hold up key legislation, single-handedly, because it contains something not to his liking (or sometimes because he’s upset about something else entirely.) On Veterans Day in 2009, he shocked even his GOP colleagues by blocking veterans’ benefits because he wanted their cost to be offset. Because of a Senate rule requiring unanimity for certain votes, he alone has been able to block votes on wilderness protections, health care provisions, and disarmament in Uganda.

Dr. No paints a bullseye on bike/ped funding. Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images

Now Dr. No has his sights set on bicycle and pedestrian funding.

As calls for a “clean” extension to SAFETEA-LU poured in, Coburn made it clear last week he won’t get with the program. His spokesperson announced that Coburn would try to block the extension if Transportation Enhancements weren’t removed from the bill.

About two percent of the federal transportation budget goes to TE, and of that, 57 percent goes to bike/ped projects, with the rest funding streetscaping, historic preservation and other programs.

The GOP rallying cry against the miniscule amount of money for bicycle and pedestrian improvements is metastasizing. Earlier we reported that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was urging that dedicated funding for Transportation Enhancements be eliminated. And today, Cantor, along with House Speaker John Boehner, sent a letter to President Obama with the same demand:
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No Commitment to Bike-Ped Funding in Senate Transpo Bill Outline

The Senate EPW Committee just posted a transportation bill outline on their website, and despite previous assurances by committee chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA), there appears to be no dedicated funding for bicycling and pedestrian programs in the bill. The outline focuses on the consolidation of programs and streamlining project delivery, much like the House bill. The performance measures mentioned in the outline – while not necessarily a comprehensive list – don’t include emissions reductions, undoubtedly at the insistence of climate-denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), ranking member of the committee.

One of Chicago's celebrated new bicycling facilities, the Kinzie Street protected bike lane. Will any federal support for bike/ped projects remain after the next transpo bill passes? Photo: Josh Koonce/flickr

The outline confirms that the Senate is working on a two-year bill but does not include the dollar amount. “Consolidation” is the name of the game these days and the Senate plays along, making seven core surface transportation programs into five, including a new Transportation Mobility Program, which “sub-allocates” some funds to metropolitan areas, and a National Freight Program, which proponents of multi-modalism have long pushed for.

It preserves the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, which has funded some bike and pedestrian projects. Transportation Enhancements, another major way such projects are funded, will probably now be absorbed under CMAQ. It’s unclear whether the Recreational Trails program would move to CMAQ as well. But there are no explicit guarantees to actually set aside funds for these bike-ped programs, and how funding levels will shake out in the final analysis is anybody’s guess.

Like the House, the Senate bill offers states “the flexibility to fund these activities as they see fit” – which amounts to a revocation of the federal commitment to funding this work. Many states, absent a federal mandate, will spend virtually nothing on bike/ped infrastructure.

Bicycling advocates had asked for dedicated funding that doesn’t pit them against road projects, the same funding proportion as they had in SAFETEA-LU, and changes to Safe Routes to School. None of those features appear to be in this bill.

“It’s hard to know without seeing the details, but at first blush it doesn’t look good for bike and pedestrian issues,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. “Perhaps it’s to be expected that there’s nothing upfront in the language about protecting dedicated funding, given that it was a topic of some contention among the protagonists. But it’s pretty troubling to see no reference to any of the issues that affect cyclists and pedestrians – nothing about complete streets, nothing about dedicated funding.”

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25 Senators Demand Robust Transit Funding

In a letter to Finance Committee leaders [PDF], 25 senators today urged adequate funding for mass transit in the next transportation authorization bill.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) led 24 other senators in urging "strengthened" funding for transit. Photo: Examiner

The letter notes that public transportation systems find themselves in a budgetary crisis just as more and more people, driven by $4/gallon gas, are seeking out transportation options.

During the worst economic downturn in recent memory, we must identify new approaches for funding infrastructure projects. A truly long-term and prudent vision for a future transportation network will strengthen the role of public transportation in growing our communities and ensure that new funding strategies do not favor highway spending to the detriment of public transportation spending.

Americans want and deserve transportation options that reflect community priorities and values. At a time when deficit reduction is attracting the full focus of the Congress, we implore the Committee to strengthen the Mass Transit Account’s fair share of funding in the next surface transportation authorization to guarantee that our economic recovery continues and that we can be more self-reliant in meeting our transportation needs.

The letter doesn’t specifically ask for a larger share of surface transportation dollars than the 20 percent mass transit historically is allotted, but they do ask for transit’s share to be strengthened. Apparently, given the challenges implicit in getting 25 senators to agree on anything, that vague language was as specific as they could get.

In a statement on the letter, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chair of the Senate Banking subcommittee with jurisdiction over public transportation, pointed out the need for new transportation revenues — and the fact that the House is going in the opposite direction.

Congress is currently working on reauthorizing the surface transportation bill, which expires on September 30. If spending continues at current levels, the highway account could run out of money next year and the transit account shortly thereafter. The Senate Finance Committee is responsible for funding these accounts. The House of Representatives is currently developing a transportation bill that follows the Ryan Budget’s direction to cut surface transportation funding by 31 percent.

A list of senators signing on to the letter is after the jump.
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Obama Admin Will Make Its Transportation Push During the Next Congress

President Obama is “going to throw his support behind a six-year reauthorization of the transportation program” in Congress. That was the word today from Roy Kienitz, who represented the Transportation Department today as he testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

U.S. DOT's Roy Kienitz said that in some cases, federal funding should support reconstructing bridges to work for more than just cars. Concept for bike-ped path on Cleveland's Innerbelt Crossing: GreenCityBlueLake.

In a meeting with transportation reform advocates last week, Secretary Ray LaHood indicated that the administration’s proposal will drop early next year. Today Kienitz tipped his hat to the reform community in describing the goals the administration has in mind:

The first thing you have to do is name your goals if you want to make sure you’re pursuing them… Our strategic goals are pretty simple: economic competitiveness, safety, state of good repair of the existing system, environmental sustainability, and community livability.

Today’s hearing was about financing, however, and Kienitz acknowledged that the path toward those lofty goals is a little complicated. But he did give some hints about what the administration’s thinking. He said U.S. DOT is trying to foster a financing system that does a better job of matching the project to the need:

Some places they propose a transit investment, in some places we have to rebuild the bridges that already exist but configure it differently, whether it’s for bicycles, pedestrians, cars, or transit. Other places we need to invest in highway capacity – but that should be case by case. [emphasis added]

Kienitz also stood up for allocating funds without the constraint of formulas based on different modes of travel: “Right now… a highway dollar is only a highway dollar, and a transit dollar is only a transit dollar.” He said a project like Los Angeles’ ambitious transit expansion requires more money with more flexibility.

So he’s beating the drum for higher funding levels, and for finding a way to pay for it, and for doing it soon. “Given the economic situation right now,” he said, “it seems appropriate to frontload a significant share of that money, and we have suggested the first $50 billion to be made available as soon as possible.”

But “as soon as possible” looks to be at least four months away. Congress is already itching to get out of town, and leadership could adjourn the session as soon as tomorrow night. A lame-duck session after the election will deal with tax cut extensions and some other urgent matters. Big new initiatives like these will have to wait until the new Congress gets sworn in — one that will have a much different look if Republicans make the gains they’re hoping to make.