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On Transpo Bill, Administration Wants Congress to Sort Out The Details

At a networking event for young transportation professionals yesterday, a member of the Department of Transportation’s policy team offered insight into the Obama administration’s strategy as it attempts to reset the nation’s transportation polices.

U.S. DOT Beth Osborne. Photo: Adam Voiland

U.S. DOT Deputy Assistant Secretary Beth Osborne. Photo: Adam Voiland

Federal lawmakers usually set transportation policy by authorizing a major spending bill every five or six years. The last of these bills — known as SAFETEA-LU — expired in 2009, but lawmakers’ efforts to agree on a reauthorization bill have languished in Congressional committees due to disagreements about how to pay for it.

Since SAFETEA-LU expired, Congress has passed stopgap spending measures to keep the system functioning; however, the lack of a coherent, long-term vision has left state and city transportation departments adrift and has made it challenging for them to plan strategically.

On Labor Day, President Obama put transportation near the top of his agenda by calling on Congress to tackle stagnant job growth by repairing and upgrading infrastructure. He asked Congress to ramp up investment in roads and rail, create a federal infrastructure bank that would help fund large and complex projects, reform the Balkanized structure of federal transportation spending programs, and make the nation’s transportation system safer and more livable. Advocates for shifting away from the highway-centric effects of current federal policy were encouraged by Obama’s use of the word “reform,” and the lack of any mention of expanding highways.

However, in many ways, Obama’s Labor Day proposal lacked specificity. Most notably, it offered little insight into how the administration expects Congress to pay for the next reauthorization. At yesterday’s event, the deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy at U.S. DOT, Beth Osborne, made clear the lack of specificity was by design. “I’ll be very honest. There aren’t a lot of details beneath what we put out to the public,” she said. “We really want to go at this in cooperation with Congress.”

And that process, she warned, won’t necessarily be a smooth one. While the last several authorizations have had plenty of funding, the program is broke this time around due to the dwindling power of the gas tax. “It’s not going to be as easy, but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing,” she said.

One of the administration’s priorities, she noted, will be to improve the livability of the nation’s cities and towns. Critics in Washington, she said, have told her that livability is hard to define, but that the concept has proven easy enough to grasp for people outside of politics:

Interestingly, I really only hear that inside the Beltway. When you travel with the Secretary nobody thinks it’s hard to define and nobody needs it defined. They know exactly what we’re talking about. And it is remarkable. This is not a regional thing, this is not a big community versus small community thing. People really get what you’re talking about. What we’re talking about with livability is a community that has transportation choices, different types of housing, and destinations close to your home. That’s it. Not a terribly complex concept.

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Postcards From Our National Transportation Funding Meltdown

At an event billed as a “town hall” held at USDOT headquarters yesterday, top department officials answered questions about the future of the nation’s road, rail, bus, and bike networks -- even as the prospects of passing a comprehensive transportation reauthorization bill anytime this year appear as dim as ever. Already, reauthorization of the transportation bill is nearly a year overdue, as lawmakers have failed to muster the will to pay for it.

cardin.jpgMaryland Senator Ben Cardin addresses the crowd yesterday. Photo: Adam Voiland
A plenary session that focused on the Mid-Atlantic region prior to the town hall provided a few glimpses of how the continued legislative deadlock is plaguing local agencies and preventing the evolution of transportation planning beyond the car-based status quo.

The head of the District Department of Transportation, Gabe Klein, called the current moment one of the scariest times in transportation history. He warned that lawmakers have difficult and uncomfortable decisions ahead about how to pay for the reauthorization bill.

Klein emphasized the need for diversified sources of funding for transportation investment, despite the political challenges. He noted, for example, that local jurisdictions, like DC, should have the latitude to explore congestion pricing as a way to raise revenue.

During the same panel, Richard Sarles, the interim general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) explained that his agency is spending much of its funding on efforts to improve the safety of its system after a catastrophic Metro collision last summer. With little clarity about what the future holds, Sarles warned that there simply aren’t funds available to address large expected increases in ridership on city transit systems in the coming years.

Reform-minded lawmakers, most notably House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Jim Oberstar (D-MN), have made it an urgent priority to reauthorize the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU, or, more commonly, the transportation bill). But with revenues from the stagnant gas tax flagging, lawmakers can’t agree on how to raise the funds needed for the bill, and they’ve postponed dealing with the problem by passing a series of emergency extensions.

The frustration was evident among attendees at yesterday's conference. "There’s no innovation right now," said Faramarz Mokhtari, a planner at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "The status quo is continuing."

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Former U.S. DOT Chief on the Worst-Case Scenario: 4 Years of Extensions

To a certain extent, hope springs eternal in federal transportation
circles. Even as state DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations
operate under the latest in a series of extensions of the
2005 law
that governs road, transit, and bike-ped spending, few are
willing to envision a future in which new legislation doesn’t pass by
next year.

AntiTaxProtesters.jpgAnti-tax protesters in Washington
state. (Photo: ConservativeThought.org)

After all, even the Obama administration — which last spring
called for an 18-month
delay
in taking up House transport committee chairman Jim
Oberstar’s (D-MN) infrastructure
measure
— has signaled a willingness to begin talks on broader
policy changes by next spring.

But that outcome assumes that Congress and the White House can
reach an agreement by early 2011 on how to find as much as $200 billion
to pay for a significant six-year investment in infrastructure.

Right now there remains only two practical options on the table:
paying for a new transport bill with general Treasury money, which would
amount to deficit spending at a time when White House aides profess mounting
concerns
about the nation’s red ink; and raising the federal gas
tax, which the president has flatly ruled out.

What would the worst-case scenario look like? It is rarely
mentioned on the record by Washington infrastructure watchers, but
former Transportation Secretary James Burnley IV outlined it neatly in
an interview this week with
D.C. Velocity
:

Read more…

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Senate Starts Work on New Transport Bill, With House Version as a Guide

The Senate today took its first steps towards voting on a new long-term federal transportation bill, with environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) vowing to take up a successor to the 2005 infrastructure law before 2011 and indicating she would use the House's already-introduced version as a framework.

091109_inhofe_boxer_ap_297.jpgSenate environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), at right, with ranking Republican Jim Inhofe (OK). (Photo: Politico)
Boxer described today's hearing in her panel as "the kickoff" of the upper chamber's drafting of new legislation governing U.S. road, transit, bridge, port, and rail policy. "Our intention is to hold a series of hearings and write the bill while you are still here and while Senator [George] Voinovich [R-OH] is still here," she told Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO), who will retire at the end of the year.

Such willingness to consider a new infrastructure bill before the Obama administration's preferred timeframe of next spring could help thaw the frosty relations between Boxer's panel and the House transportation committee, where chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) has raged against upper-chamber inaction for months.

But lawmakers and industry lobbies have a long way to go before they can sing from the same hymnal on the next transportation bill. Boxer asked representatives of the four lobbies appearing today -- the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), the National Construction Alliance (NCA) and the Associated General Contractors (AGC) -- to parse Oberstar's bill "literally, with a pen" and let senators know which provisions they favored or disliked.

"We're going to take their bill and work from it," Boxer said of the House, which has proposed a $500 billion plan that streamlines 108 categories of formula-based federal transportation spending into four and includes dedicated funding for metropolitan area priorities.

Read more...
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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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How Can Transit Backers Sway Conservatives? Oberstar Joins the Debate

In the years before partisan warfare became the norm in Washington,
transportation tended to unite both ends of the ideological spectrum.
Can rationality return to infrastructure policy debates that have
become subsumed by culture clashes between cyclists and drivers,
urbanists and suburbanites — and, of course, Democrats and Republicans?

6a00d83454714d69e20120a56823e7970b_320wi.jpgHighways and transit, side by side in Berlin. (Photo: Streetsblog.net)

That
question brought House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar
(D-MN) to a small meeting room on Capitol Hill today as conservative
transit advocate Bill Lind engaged assistant transportation secretary Polly Trottenberg, Reconnecting America president John Robert Smith, and urban developer Chris Leinberger in a spirited debate.

Lind focused on the themes of Moving Minds,
a book he co-wrote with the late conservative icon Paul Weyrich to
debunk many of the anti-transit, pro-roads myths trotted out by Randal O’Toole, Wendell Cox, and other pundits on the right.

"The
way we got to America’s national motto being ‘drive or die’ … is not
because of any sort of free market," Lind said today. "We got here
because of massive government subsidization of one competitor and the taxing of another."

But
the dialogue got interesting when Oberstar arrived, a cast on his arm
after taking a spill on a sheet of ice. He shared an anecdote about
former French President Charles de Gaulle’s support for rail before
hitting a familiar note, one best described as respectfully critical of
the Obama administration.

"Political will
– that’s what we’re lacking today and have been lacking for a long
time," Oberstar said, urging fellow policymakers "to reinvest in a
system that moves great numbers of people at the lowest cost."

In
a direct communication to Trottenberg, the White House’s representative
in the room, he added that he stands ready to take up a new federal
transportation bill "whenever this administration can find its
political will to support a financing mechanism."

Trottenberg
took the floor next, acknowledging "frustration" on the part of U.S.
DOT staff as they seek to build political support for the difficult
choices needed to raise revenue for large-scale reform. Read more…

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LaHood Talks Budget: “Very Bright” Future for Infrastructure Fund

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said today that he sees "very
bright" prospects for congressional approval of the Obama
administration’s $4 billion National Infrastructure Innovation and
Finance Fund, the new iteration of the long-discussed National Infrastructure Bank proposal.

lahood_large.jpgTransportation Secretary LaHood, at left, with the president. (Photo: NYT)

"There
is a great deal of interest in this concept in the Senate," LaHood told
reporters during a wide-ranging discussion of the White House’s transport budget for the fiscal year that begins in October.

Asked about resolving any differences between the administration’s Fund plan and a more bank-like entity envisioned by senior lawmakers, LaHood emphasized his openness to cooperation: "The idea is that we’d work with Congress on their ideas."

LaHood
also noted that the U.S. DOT’s $78.8 billion budget request for 2011,
which marks a 2 percent increase from last year’s levels, includes $50
million in grants for an issue that he has turned into a personal
signature for him — cracking down on distracted driving.

One
topic of particular interest was the White House’s continued assumption
of transfers from the general Treasury to the highway trust fund (HTF)
pending enactment of a new long-term federal transportation bill. As
the federal gas tax, last raised in 1993, remains static and lawmakers decline to discuss
an alternative funding source, the presidential budget document
projects that the HTF would need more than $11 billion to make it
through the current fiscal year.

LaHood
told reporters that while "we’ve gone along
with the short-term extensions" of the 2005 federal transport law, the
most recent of which expires at the end of this month, the White House
has always sought to postpone the next bill until 2011.

"The biggest dilemma for
all of us is finding $400 [billion] to $500 billion, given that the highway trust fund is insufficient to fund all the things we
want to do," the former House Republican added.

The
uncertain status of future HTF infusions prompted one reporter to ask
whether transportation spending would be subject to the president’s
proposed three-year freeze on discretionary accounts. (Indeed, today’s
budget includes a chart projecting that long-term transit funding would
remain flat.) Chris Bertram,
the U.S. DOT’s chief financial officer, said the budget’s funding
levels should be considered "placeholder, rather than frozen."

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Transit Riders Launch Grassroots Lobbying Push in Dire Political Climate

Advocates for urban transit riders in 14 metro areas climbed the Hill today to pitch lawmakers face-to-face on the need for extra federal transit operating aid, a grassroots lobbying effort that could face considerable challenges even as Democrats craft a new jobs bill with a focus on infrastructure.

geddies.jpgLee Gaddies of Detroit speaks at today's event. Photo: TEN

Today's event, organized by the Transportation Equity Network (TEN), brought local community advocates to the House's Longworth building for roundtable sessions with aides to several members of Congress.

Federal Transit Administration executive director Matthew Welbes briefed the group on his agency's new shift away from a solely cost-effectiveness-based standard for approving new funding plans, and TEN co-chair Sarah Mullins hailed a victory for transit equity in Minneapolis, where light rail planners have added three new stops in lower-income areas.

But as the grassroots lobbyists prepared to make the case for more transit operating aid in the coming Senate jobs bill -- the House version allowed cities to spend 10 percent of their Washington funds on keeping trains and buses running -- Jim Kolb, staff director for House transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), was on hand with a candid assessment of the battle facing transit riders.

Kolb began by outlining an impasse that will be familiar to Streetsblog readers: Oberstar's $500 billion, six-year transportation bill, which aims to fundamentally shift federal policymaking away from a road-centric perspective, is languishing as Democrats decline to find a way to pay for it.

Meanwhile, the uncertain flurry of short-term extensions to the current law and the decision to route stimulus transport funding through state DOTs has given defenders of the status quo time to dig in their heels.

"A lot of folks who work for state DOTs have real concerns about the bill we put out," Kolb told the groups. "They don't want to have a conversation about accountability -- we have a different vision with our bill."

But with more than 10 percent for transit operating proving a hard sell in itself, getting a spending-shy Congress on board for that new vision is likely to be even more difficult. As Kolb put it:

Read more...
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Obama Administration Working on Its Own Six-Year Transportation Bill

The annual powwow of thousands of transportation workers, planners,
and wonks that’s known as the Transportation Research Board (TRB) conference
kicked off in the capital yesterday with a candid admission from some
senior U.S. DOT officials: reorienting American transport planning to
accommodate the overlap with housing and environmental sustainability
is proving pretty difficult.

Trans_Secretary_Ray_LaHood_Discusses_Cash_Jx_HxR08cPwl.jpgU.S. DOT chief Ray LaHood’s team is working on a six-year transport proposal of its own. (Photo: Getty)

The
subscription-only ClimateWire news service caught remarks from Beth
Osborne, the Obama team’s deputy assistant secretary for transportation
policy, who said the administration’s livability work has been slowed by laws that impede federal participation in local planning:

"A lot of it [is] the disjointed federal programs that
often discourage and certainly do not incentivize the coordination of
housing policy and transportation policy, water infrastructure policy,
economic development policy," she said.

"In fact, within the
transportation program, we really disincentivize this," she said. A
state that improves traffic flow and transit use will burn less
gasoline, meaning it will lose revenue from its main source of
transport funding — the gas tax. "That state that creates greater
efficiency can see their own budget get slashed as a reward."

This tension between the desire to cut transportation emissions and the
nation’s reliance on the gas tax for the majority of its transport
funding is a familiar one for Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and other
urban members of Congress.

Nadler lamented
back in June that many states were insisting on a guaranteed rate of
return from their gas-tax revenue based on a nonsensical "equity
argument" that says: "The more energy-efficient you are, the less gas
you use, the less [federal] funding you should get."

One key
ingredient in the Obama administration’s effort to carve out a stronger
federal role in local planning, of course, is the still-stalled
six-year federal transportation bill. And Osborne — seemingly aware of
the value of that legislation in removing longstanding obstacles to
coordination — told the TRB meeting that "Capitol Hill has asked DOT
to craft its own version of a transportation reauthorization bill,"
according to ClimateWire.

Read more…