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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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Last-Minute Deal Preserves Bike/Ped Funding. But For How Long?

UPDATED with comments from Sen. Tom Coburn’s staff.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has relented on his push to strip Transportation Enhancement funding from the six-month surface transportation extension, clearing the way for Senate passage last night and a White House signature today.

Sen. Barbara Boxer says dedicated funding for bike/ped projects is preserved, though Sen. Coburn appears satisfied that Transportation Enhancements is dead. Photo: AP

In exchange for releasing his stranglehold on the Senate (and the estimated 80,000 workers that could lose their jobs, at least temporarily, if the FAA bill lapsed) Coburn will get to insert his language into the long-term bill, when this latest extension expires.

According to CQ Today, Coburn said, “We’ve got an agreement that the next bill will be an opt-out for people on enhancements.” James Inhofe, the top Republican on the EPW committee which wrote the bill, “seems to have played a key role in brokering the deal,” CQ Today reports.

After the vote, Boxer quibbled with Coburn’s description of what will be in the next highway bill. Boxer said she and Inhofe had worked out “reforms” in the transportation enhancements section of the bill and met with Coburn to discuss them before the deal was worked out.

“We felt he would be pleased with the reforms,” she said. “It gives flexibility, without doing damage to the important programs in there.”

Boxer said Coburn made clear that he was “not going to vote for any more extensions” but allowed the current highway funding extension to move forward. “There’s not an opt-out,” she said. “You’ll see what we did. But no, there’s no opt-out. . . . There’s still dedicated funding. It gives more flexibility to the states as to how they will use that funding… It’s flexibility for the states within the transportation enhancements program.”

Clearly, Boxer is in a tight spot, having to placate some of the most conservative members of the Senate while also satisfying the active transportation advocates, in her state and around the country, who have held her feet to the fire on saving dedicated funds for bike/ped programs.

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Sen. Boxer Spoiling For a “Fight” Over Transportation Enhancements

Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and lead champion for the transportation bill, just spoke on the Senate floor. I didn’t catch all of it, but I tuned in when she was upbraiding her Republican colleagues (read: Sen. Tom Coburn) for holding up the transportation bill.

“Where was your outrage when we were building roads and bridges in Iraq and Afghanistan?” she demanded.

She challenged Republicans to debate her and explain themselves. “They may defend why they allowed projects to go through abroad but not here,” she said. “They may say why they want to cut safety programs from the highway bill that will save lives.”

Then she launched into a defense of Transportation Enhancements.

That Transportation Enhancements program that they want to do away with was a bipartisan idea that came from Republican John Chafee and Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1991… Twenty years, we’ve had that program! Can we look at it, can we reform it, can we make it work better? Of course! But one of our Republican friends said, “Just cut it and you don’t even need a vote; just take it without a vote.”

No. If we’re going to vote on that, we’re going to fight about it and have a vote. But let’s have a vote!

She also expressed her outrage that a bipartisan extension bill, sent over from the House, can’t get to a vote in the Senate. Indeed, it’s looking like the Senate will miss tomorrow’s deadline for an FAA extension, which is now rolled together with the surface transportation extension.

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House Prepares to Vote on Extension, Coburn Will Try to Kill Bike/Ped

In a couple of hours, the House will vote on the transportation extension bill – under unanimous consent rules. That means a single vote in opposition could delay passage.

Sen. Tom Coburn has an axe to grind with bicycle safety. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

It’s unclear how we went from a House determined to cut spending levels by more than 30 percent to a House unanimously committed to passing a bill with current spending levels. It’s unclear even that this unanimous vote plan will work. Republican party discipline isn’t what it used to be, what with the Tea Party revolt just loving to accuse House Speaker John Boehner of being a tax-and-spend liberal.

However, rumor has it that House Republicans are being told that the extension’s spending levels don’t change the appropriations levels the House is willing to approve, and that’s $27.7 billion for the year for highways and $5.2 billion for transit. So if the extension authorizes $19.8 billion for highways for the first six months and $4.2 billion for transit, that’s fine: It just means that for the whole second half of the year, highways would only get $7.9 billion and transit would only get $800 million. Those are deadly cuts, but it appears that transportation leaders are putting off that fight till later in order to pass an extension now.

Meanwhile, if the extension bill doesn’t pass the House by unanimous consent, the House will need to follow normal rules of order to pass it by majority vote. That means it’ll need to wait a full 72 hours between the posting of the bill and the vote, and that would mean a Wednesday vote. It could also open the door to a messy amendment process.

Speaking of amendments: In the Senate, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn is planning to file an amendment to cut Transportation Enhancements from the six-month extension. It’s good news that he’s doing it as an amendment and not a hold on the bill, since a hold is a unilateral move to force the Senate to utilize a much more time-consuming process to vote on the bill. His amendment will likely fail, since many senators who would normally vote with him to cut bike/ped funding are committed to passing a clean extension, with no amendments.

If Coburn’s amendment does fail, he can lose graciously — or he can try to filibuster. It’s unclear whether he plans to do that. While the House is hoping to have 100 percent support for the bill, insiders fear that in the Senate, the bill could fall short of the 60 percent majority it needs to overcome a filibuster.

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Inhofe Supports Clean Extension, Won’t Vote Against Bike/Ped (This Time)

The Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously agreed this morning to send a four-month extension of the transportation bill to the full Senate. Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) emphasized that it wasn’t easy to get consensus on the extension, especially with many members wanting to move forward with the full two-year bill.

Sen. James Inhofe still wants to kill bike/ped funding — but later. Photo: TPM/wdcpix

And yesterday, as frazzled Senators rushed around the Capitol during their first day of legislative work after the August recess, the reality began to set in that the clock is ticking to pass an extension before the surface transportation programs expire on September 30.

In addition to passing the extension this morning, Boxer’s committee has also been crafting a two-year, $109 billion reauthorization that would keep spending at current levels.

Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, the ranking member on the committee, voted for the clean four-month extension, saying it will buy the time needed to craft the two-year bill. He says he won’t support Sen. Tom Coburn’s push to kill transportation enhancement funding, which includes bicycle and pedestrian projects – for now. But when it comes to the two-year bill, Inhofe would like to say goodbye to all bike/ped projects.

“I’m all for totally cutting the transportation enhancement funding,” he said in an interview with Streetsblog. “I’ve talked to Senator Boxer about it and I think we can come up with something where we do away with those enhancements.”

Boxer has pledged to maintain dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs in the bill.

Inhofe did acknowledge, however, that TE comprises “less than 2 percent [of the transportation program], instead of the 10 percent that some people think it is.” (Coburn is one of those people.)

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Boxer and Johnson Warn Senators of Job Losses If Transpo Bill Isn’t Extended

State-by-state impact from shutdown of federal highway and transit programs. Source: Senate EPW Committee.

Two key Democratic senators today released state-by-state numbers showing how many jobs would be lost if the current surface transportation authorization bill is not extended by September 30. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), chair of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, sent a letter to their Senate colleagues urging them to act and highlighting the job loss numbers for their state.

Across the country, they say, 1.8 million jobs will be threatened nationwide if the SAFETEA-LU transportation law is allowed to lapse. They say they are working on “a bipartisan proposal to reauthorize surface transportation programs for two years at current funding levels” but they need an extension in the meantime “to allow time to complete work on this legislation.”

Boxer’s home state of California stands to lose the most in case of a lapse: More than $4.6 billion and nearly 165,000 jobs are at stake. But that doesn’t mean that rural, low-population states like Johnson’s South Dakota are unaffected. According to Robert Puentes at the Brookings Institution, South Dakota is one of 11 states that rely on the federal government for more than half of their road money. That could give Republican senators from states like Wyoming, Alaska, and Alabama pause before letting the federal transportation program founder.

You can see the state job numbers here.

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Boxer Confirms Bike-Ped Funding, Gang of Six Loves infrastructure Spending

At today’s hearing, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee celebrated the bipartisan consensus it has reached on a new transportation reauthorization – but details of that consensus are still not public. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) did confirm that dedicated federal funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs remains in the bill. Addressing LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa:

A full bike rack outside the Senate building where today's EPW hearing was held. Photo: Tanya Snyder.

You’ve worked with us on Safe Routes to Schools, because that’s so crucial, and we kept it, and bike paths, and we kept it, and recreational trails, and we kept it. Tough debates, giving here, taking there. But that has remained in the bill.

The reauthorization negotiations have been largely overshadowed by the ongoing talks over the debt ceiling. For a long time it appeared that if the debt talks had any impact on the transportation program, it would be to institutionalize the 33 percent cuts mandated by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan’s budget. However, as Boxer mentioned a few times during today’s hearing, the outlook is looking brighter.

The bipartisan Gang of Six has a plan to cut the deficit and raise the debt ceiling. That plan calls for very little spending – but the one area they did see fit to spend on was infrastructure. The Gang of Six plan calls for the following:

Tax reform must be estimated to provide $1 trillion in additional revenue to meet plan targets and generate an additional $133 billion by 2021, without raising the federal gas tax, to ensure improved solvency for the Highway Trust Fund.

According to our sources, that additional revenue would stabilize the trust fund for the next 10 years.

The vote of confidence by the Gang of Six is encouraging and should be a shot in the arm to the Senate. If that debt plan passes, it could even give House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica enough political cover to raise the total price tag of his bill.

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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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Boxer: Two-Year Transpo Bill Will Save 600,000 Jobs

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, says a transportation reauthorization bill needs to be passed soon in order to avoid the loss of 600,000 jobs in the construction and transit industries. She issued a call to action this morning, pushing for a new bill before the current extension of SAFETEA-LU expires on September 30.

Sen. Barbara Boxer tells reporters nearly 500,000 construction jobs would be lost if the House cuts transportation funding. Photo: Alice Ollstein

Though she had initially pushed for a six-year bill, Boxer made it official that the EPW proposal is for a two-year bill that will only cover current funding levels plus inflation—about $109 billion over the two years. She said the Finance Committee is “very optimistic” that it can find the needed $6 billion per year in addition to the Highway Trust Fund revenues. There are “various ways to get there,” she said, but her preferred method is to redirect funds from the expensive wars abroad.

“We are now spending $12 billion a month in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. “We need $12 billion over two years. We are winding down those wars. It seems to me there’s a lot of funding available for this. It’s a very small amount compared to what we’re spending every month.”

At today’s press conference, Boxer focused mostly on the urgency of saving 500,000 construction sector jobs and 100,000 transit jobs, citing new Federal Highway Administration stats about the ramifications if Congress passes Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, with its 30 percent cuts to transportation. Boxer’s aides pulled out charts detailing just how many jobs would be lost in each state, and Boxer pointed to the over 43,000 that her home state of California would shed.

“People just think you can say, ‘Oh, we’re going to cut 30 percent or 20 percent or 50 percent’ and they don’t really look at the ramifications,” she said. “Here are the ramifications: In my home state, 43,000 families would be devastated. And the nation’s bridges and highways are not going to be in any way considered safe, because with that tremendous cut we can’t do the things we need to do to keep up with our needs.”

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Finally: Rustlings of a Reauthorization

First, the House and Senate pledged they’d have a bill marked up by Memorial Day. Then it was definitely going to come in June. (One staffer even told me that they were still planning on it coming “in the spring,” so it would be before the summer solstice — June 21.) But it looks like we might finally get a first glimpse of the fight ahead.

Mica is "rolling out" a bill tomorrow -- but when will he actually introduce it? Photo: AltTransport

Tomorrow, House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) is “rolling out” the House version of the bill – but only an outline. It’s unclear when he’s going to formally introduce the bill. Jeff Davis of Transportation Weekly says it “does not appear that the text of the draft bill will be released at or shortly after the Thursday press conference, or will even be released this week.”

Davis goes on:

If the legislative text of Mica’s bill is not released this week, then that will make it almost impossible for Mica to go ahead and have the full T&I Committee mark up his bill on Tuesday, July 12, as he had earlier promised. Although it is theoretically possible for Mica to release the text of the bill on Monday and then mark the bill up on Tuesday (Rule III(a) of the T&I rules of procedure only require a 24-hour public availability of any legislation before a markup), it is unlikely that rank-and-file Republican members would be comfortable voting on a lengthy bill spending hundreds of billions of dollars on such short notice. (And Democrats are unlikely to support the bill at all, meaning that only four or five GOP “no” votes would sink the bill.)

The path forward for the bill is unclear, since House leadership is still not planning to bring the bill to a vote on the floor before the August recess, and the word on the street is that they’re actively asking Mica to hold off on sending a bill to the full Congress.

Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) about to begin a press conference about the need to pass a bill. Is she getting frustrated, too, by all these delays? We’ll bring you coverage of her remarks shortly.