Capitol Comments

An appropriations bill funding the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments passed a procedural test in the U.S. Senate this week in surprisingly bipartisan fashion. Nineteen Republicans broke ranks to add to the 73 to 26 vote tally to move the bill forward. The bill is the first in a series of 12 appropriations bills that the Senate has the responsibility of passing. The Senate’s $54 billion funding level is higher than the President’s request, something the President has praised, but more importantly it is also significantly higher than the House version of the bill, which only provides $44 billion. The President has promised to veto the House version if it reaches his desk.

The TransCanada pipeline from the Canadian Tar Sands in Alberta to the U.S. Gulf of Mexico has yet to receive approval by the State Department. This massive pipeline, known as the Keystone XL pipeline, would bisect the North American continent with one of the largest civil engineering projects since the construction of the Eisenhower interstate system. Approving the project has been predictably contentious but a new report has revealed new implications of the project on Midwestern gas prices. The pipeline is touted as a measure that will provide efficient access to Canada’s oil and lower prices for Americans but the non-partisan and nonprofit consumer advocate group Consumer Watchdog is reporting that Midwesterners would be uniquely affected and forced to pay between 20 and 40 cents more per gallon if the project is completed.

Florida Republican Congressman John Mica has never been a fan of federal subsidies for Amtrak, America’s national passenger rail provider.  As the Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee during the 112th Congress, Mica vehemently pushed for privatization and attempted to slash Amtrak subsidies from the federal budget in an effort Democrats labeled an “unhealthy obsession.”  Now with rail reauthorization at the top of the T&I Committee agenda Mica may have finally met his foil in a Tuesday hearing which included testimony by Transportation for America (T4A) Co-Chair John Robert Smith.  

Virginia’s transportation bill that went into effect on July 1, it included a new $64 fee for registering “hybrid electric motor vehicles, alternative fuel vehicles, and electric motor vehicles.”. A number of other states have at least considered following suit. North Carolina’s Senate passed a measure that would tax electric vehicle (EV) owners and hybrid vehicle owners $100 and $50 respectively. The measure has yet to make it through the House. Kansas considered taxing plug in EVs as they charge, a measure that would be analogous to the way the gas tax is collected. Arizona lawmakers considered a 1.43 cent per mile tax on EVs. But such actions and proposed actions are not simply about states seeking new revenues to pay for transportation. States are also trying to even the playing field for all those who drive on America’s roads and perhaps to breathe some life back into the concept of a user fee to help maintain them. In doing so though, states must try to balance policies elsewhere that seek to encourage the proliferation of such vehicles because of their potential for environmental benefit.    

Republican Congressman David Joyce reached across the aisle this week to longtime “Complete Streets” supporter Democratic Congresswoman Doris Matsui to co-sponsor the Safe Streets Act of 2013. The bill reportedly contains language similar to that included in a 2011 bill introduced by Matsui. Complete streets policies like the Safe Streets Act seek to encourage the inclusion of design elements that make a transportation network more safe and practical for cyclists and pedestrians. The latest federal push for complete streets legislation comes after much activity at the state and local levels in recent years. With West Virginia being the most recent addition in 2013, 27 states and Puerto Rico all have one or more policies the National Complete Streets Coalition recognizes as complete streets policies.