Public Transportation in the Spotlight on Capitol Hill

The chief counsel for the Federal Transit Administration and transit agency officials from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Texas were on Capitol Hill this week for a hearing on what it will take to get transit systems back in a state of good repair as the nation faces an $86 billion backlog of critical repair needs that’s expected to grow at a rate of $2.5 billion annually without additional investment. I also have the usual roundup of news and links on MAP-21 reauthorization, the future of the Highway Trust Fund, state activity on transportation revenues, public-private partnerships and tolling, and state multi-modal strategies.

Transit Gets a Hearing

At a hearing Thursday of the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development, Dallas Area Rapid Transit president and CEO Gary Thomas told lawmakers DART is going to have to replace their rail lines in downtown Dallas within the next two years, several years ahead of when they originally anticipated having to do so, The Dallas Morning News reported. That will come with a $45 million to $50 million price tag. The transit agency has already budgeted for the project but Thomas told Senators maintaining federal funding is vital for transportation agencies being able to keep systems in good repair and to meet future demand. On the latter, Thomas expressed support for a federal core capacity program.

“While DART will continue to aggressively invest annually to ensure a (state of good repair), we recognize the need for a program designed to provide congestion relief and help address capacity needs of a rail corridor,” he said in his prepared written testimony. “Let me be very clear, DART is a strong advocate for a federally-funded core capacity program and very interested in preserving it as a part of the Capital Investment Program as authorized by MAP-21. DART has been developing a core capacity strategy that could be advanced through the FTA Capital Investment Program. This strategy develops a program of interrelated projects which will be critical to respond to continued high regional growth trends, demands for system accessibility, expansion of new rail corridors outside our Service Area, and the development of a privately funded high speed rail system between Dallas and Houston, which is anticipated to open in 2021.”

In her written testimony, Beverly Scott, general manager and CEO of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), talked about how the needs of older transit systems require a continuing federal investment in transit as Congress did with the creation of the State of Good Repair federal grant program under MAP-21 in 2012.

“The MBTA recognizes the need for fiscal responsibility when it comes to funding our SGR (state of good repair) backlog,” she said. “We anticipate spending nearly $6 billion over the next five years, with more than 60 percent of those funds being local funds. Despite the significant local investment, there is a critical need—particularly for older rail agencies—for a strong and robust federal investment in SGR. As we face record-high transit ridership on increasingly aging systems, reaffirming the federal commitment to the millions of Americans who ride public transportation is more essential than ever. Transit agencies across the country see an increased need for vigorous federal funding in the next surface transportation authorization bill given that federal investment in transportation is an investment in American jobs, American communities, American strategies to address climate change and American economic competitiveness.”

Joseph Casey, the General Manager of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority also told lawmakers in his written testimony that the needs of aging transit systems cry out for federal investment.

“The funding and operational pressures related to state of good repair are particularly acute for large urban transit systems with aging rail infrastructure,” he said. “Infrastructure related to rail transportation – track, power equipment, bridges and tunnels, stations and vehicles – accounts for roughly three quarters of the national transit state of good repair backlog. It is important to note that older systems – such as ours in Philadelphia – were built largely without the benefit of federal support. … I urge this subcommittee and the full committee to develop a plan for a multi-year public transportation investment program with funding levels that show increases from year to year to reflect the growing needs across the country. A robust and growing state of good repair program should be a centerpiece of the national transit program.”

Dorval Carter, Chief Counsel for the Federal Transit Administration, used his written testimony to look back on the findings of a 2013 conditions and performance report that he believes substantiated the need for additional transit investment and to outline what he called the Obama administration’s ongoing commitment to addressing the nation’s overall infrastructure deficit.

“It is absolutely essential for our nation to invest in safe, modern, reliable, efficient and affordable public transportation networks that tens of millions of Americans increasingly depend on every day to reach jobs and job training, education, health care and other opportunities,” Carter said. “This means striking a responsible balance between investing in new capital transit construction while also preserving and modernizing existing infrastructure—portions of which were built over a century or more ago—and which continues to serve the public on a daily basis. … The investment in public transportation’s future that we need to make is an investment in thousands of good jobs in communities nationwide that help to strengthen middle-class families; an investment in local economic growth and neighborhood revitalization; an investment in reducing roadway congestion that plagues so many metropolitan areas; an investment in lowering our dependence on foreign oil; and an investment in helping our nation compete with the rest of the world as we find new and better ways to move people efficiently and safely.

We recognize that striking an appropriate balance between growing our transportation infrastructure to meet future demand and reinvesting in our current system is not easy to achieve.

It will require targeted investments from all sources—federal, state, local, and the private sector—to make meaningful changes.”

Further Reading

MAP-21 Reauthorization & Future of the Highway Trust Fund

  • The Future of the Federal Role in Transportation will be the focus of a CSG Policy eCademy event next week. The hour-long webinar, which is set for 2pm on May 29, will highlight four perspectives on the subject. Presenters include Rohit Aggarwala of Columbia University, Emily Goff of the Heritage Foundation, David Levinson of the University of Minnesota and James Corless of Transportation for America. You can read my preview of the event in this week’s Capitol Ideas E-Newsletter and register to join us here.
  • Our friends Joshua Schank and Emil Frankel from the Eno Center for Transportation examine “The Road from SAFETEA-LU to GROW AMERICA” in a recent piece for the Eno Brief Newsletter.
  • Reuters recently reported on the “increasingly visible role” being taken by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
  • Foxx’s predecessor Ray LaHood was continuing his push for a 10-cent gas tax hike at a recent transportation technology event, Better Roads reported. He also told attendees “Our infrastructure is probably the worst it has ever been in the history of our country—America is one big pothole,” according to Fleet Owner.
  • I blogged last week about Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker’s “Dear Colleagues” letter to the leaders of the Environment & Public Works and Finance committees expressing concern about the pending Highway Trust Fund insolvency. Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog USA took a look this week at what Corker’s letter did and didn’t say.  
  • Former Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich wrote a commentary last week for Roll Call in which he argues the “Gas Tax is Imperative to a Robust Highway Bill.”
  • New Mexico: The state lost 4.8 percent of its construction jobs between April of last year and April of this year, the Associated General Contractors said this week, Albuquerque Business First reported. That put the state close to the bottom in terms of growth in construction jobs (only New Jersey was worse). The article notes that unless Congress approves a fix for the Highway Trust Fund this summer, the state DOT’s budget for road projects would be decimated, putting even more jobs at risk.

State Activity on Transportation Revenues

  • Massachusetts: Some state lawmakers are supporting a petition that could appear on the November ballot to repeal the law passed last year that ties gas tax increases to inflation and allows for automatic increases without legislative consideration, WBZ reported.
  • Michigan: It turns out that anticipated $1 billion surplus the state was hoping to use largely to improve infrastructure will be about $300 million-$400 million less than expected. The editorial board of The Detroit News said this week they hope that will send lawmakers back to the table to find a stable revenue stream for transportation. “The other lesson here is that the general fund is an unreliable revenue source for road repairs,” read the newspaper’s editorial Monday. “Using a few years of rare surpluses to do emergency repairs is not a substitute for a long-term, stable strategy for building and maintaining the infrastructure.” The editorial said the options include raising the gas tax, raising the vehicle registration fee, raising the sales tax or some combination of all three. The state reportedly needs an additional $1.5 billion a year to keep roads in good enough shape to compete for economic development.
  • New Hampshire: Gov. Maggie Hassan signed SB 37, which raises the state’s gas and diesel tax by 4.2 cents per gallon, reported Better Roads magazine. The move is expected to bring in an additional $32 million to $33 million annually. The tax increase kicks in on July 1.
  • New Jersey: The Senate Transportation Committee this week passed legislation to establish a transportation infrastructure bank to help finance bridge and road repairs and other major projects, according to the Burlington County Times.
  • Oregon: The Oregon DOT is now seeking vendors to run its voluntary road usage charge program, according to the AASHTO Journal.
  • South Dakota: Gov. Dennis Daugaard said recently that if elected to a second term he would be willing to consider raising taxes to maintain and improve the state’s roads and bridges, The Rapid City Journal reported. Daugaard was responding to a questionnaire sent to candidates for governor. The governor said during his 2010 campaign that he didn’t favor tax increases of any kind.
  • Texas: Aman Batheja of The Texas Tribune reported this week on why road funding woes appear poised to take the spotlight in the Lone Star State in the coming months. And The Dallas Morning news reported that the new executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, Joe Weber, believes it will take more than just new roads to handle transportation for Texans if, as expected, the state doubles its population over the next 40 years. 
  • Utah: At a recent hearing, a number of legislators expressed support for a proposal to raise the state’s gas tax 1.5 cents per gallon annually over the next five years, the Associated Press reported. The tax was last raised in 1997. Lawmakers could take up the proposal in January.

Public-Private Partnerships & Tolling

  • Connecticut: Gov. Dannel Malloy and state transportation officials are asking the state Bond Commission to approve $11.9 million to pay for the state’s annual maintenance and road resurfacing program, the Associated Press reported. That’s in addition to the $56 million previously approved. In all, a total of 264 miles will be fixed, officials said. The chair of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Antonio Guerrera said the high cost of the damage caused by winter weather along with the usual wear and tear on the roads make the exploration of new sources of revenue, including tolls, necessary.
  • Florida: The $1 billion PortMiami tunnel was dedicated this week, The Miami Herald reported. It was first conceived more than 30 years ago as a solution to improve access to the port from area expressways. The tunnel, which received an official go-ahead in 2009, is the result of a public-private partnership with Luxembourg and French-based companies.
  • Michigan: That aforementioned Detroit News editorial made note of legislation sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Lane that would give the Michigan Department of Transportation the authority to enter into public-private partnerships to raise road funds. While that could include toll roads, Lane said she’s thinking more along the lines of billboard sponsorships, restaurants and other private concessions at rest areas, or leasing state land for cell towers. “This isn’t a fix-all,” Lane said. “It’s just another tool to increase funding before we go to the public with a tax increase proposal.”
  • Ohio: The House of Representatives has approved legislation to allow tolling on the Brent Spence Bridge, which carries I-71 and I-75 over the Ohio River between Ohio and Kentucky, The Columbus Dispatch reported. Lawmakers are hoping to pass the measure before they break next month until November.
  • Vermont: One of the state’s top transportation officials said recently she has her staff working to evaluate whether tolling could work in the state if the federal government were to approve expanded tolling on interstates as the Obama administration has proposed, Vermont Public Radio News reported. Deputy Transportation Secretary Sue Minter said it’s important to study tolling options because gas tax revenues aren’t keeping pace with infrastructure financing needs.
  • Virginia: The Commonwealth Transportation Board has passed a resolution calling on the state’s Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnerships to strengthen the transparency of the entire public-private transportation project development and delivery, including increasing opportunities for public participation and direct involvement by the board in project development. It also calls for the Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner to improve ways to better assess risk in both P3s and design-build projects. According to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office, the objective is to identify, minimize and limit the risks to VDOT and the public by highlighting “high risk” projects.
  • Our friends at the Eno Center for Transportation are offering a couple of new courses on the P3 process, which you can read about here.
  • AECOM Technology Corporation has a new white paper out entitled “Fostering a Larger Private-Sector Role in United States Infrastructure.” Among other things, it describes the benefits of P3s and seeks to clarify some misunderstandings about them. It also offers a series of recommendations for federal financing and tax legislation to spur the U.S. market for P3s.
  • On a different note, Alternet had a piece this week called “5 ways privatization is fleecing American taxpayers.”
  • Maryland Congressman John Delaney was a recent guest on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Among the topics he addressed was the Partnerships to Build America Act, a bill he first introduced in 2013, which would create a federal infrastructure fund that would be capitalized with infrastructure bonds purchased by private corporations. The corporations would be incentivized to take part by the ability to repatriate some of their overseas earnings tax free. You can hear more about the proposal when the Congressman delivers a keynote address next month (June 17-18) at the InfraAmericas U.S. P3 Infrastructure Forum in New York City. The event brings together state and federal public officials, infrastructure developers, investors, financiers and regional transportation authorities for a variety of panel discussions on the state of the P3 industry. CSG is proud to be a supporting organization conference for the fourth year in a row. Registration is available here. You can also read my recent Capitol Ideas E-Newsletter article previewing the forum here.

State Multi-Modal Strategies

Active Transport

  • Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition’s new “Dangerous by Design 2014” report takes a look at the most dangerous places to walk in America, why those places are so dangerous, who is most at risk and a number of street design features to improve safety.
  • Massachusetts: The Boston area was rated the safest place for pedestrians in the country, MassLive noted.
  • Florida: The cities of Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville and Miami-Fort Lauderdale did not fare as well, The Orlando Sentinel reported.
  • Oregon: The Portland City Council will vote June 4th on whether to charge Portlanders a monthly “Transportation User Fee” that would go towards things like pavement maintenance, sidewalks, crossing improvements, protected bike lanes and safe routes to school, Bike Portland.org reported. The monthly fee would be $11.56 for single-family households, the same amount charged in Oregon City ($8.09 for low-income households), Portland officials said. Twenty-eight other cities already have some type of street fee.  
  • People for Bikes has an infographic on “14 Ways to Make Bike Lanes Better.” 

Ports

  • WRRDA: The Senate gave final approval Thursday to the $12.3 billion Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA), the Associated Press reported. It authorizes 34 new projects over the next 10 years for flood protection, port dredging and expansion and other improvements. It also eliminates some Army Corps of Engineers reviews, speeds up environmental review processes and creates a pilot program to provide loans and loan guarantees for various projects.
  • Louisiana: Terrebonne Parish and other communities in the state lost out on tens of millions of dollars for federal dredging projects over a period of decades because they didn’t have enough data on how much cargo passes within their jurisdiction in order to demonstrate the need, port officials in several parishes confirmed to the Tri-Parish Times this week.

Transit

  • Missouri: Kansas City officials broke ground this week on a new downtown streetcar, The Kansas City Star reported. The City Council also approved spending $8 million to plan the next eight miles of extensions.
  • Wisconsin: The WISPIRG Foundation has a new report out called “Driving Wisconsin’s ‘Brain Drain’?” It makes the argument that outdated transportation policies (including a lack of funding for transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure) are undermining the state’s ability to attract and retain talent. Meanwhile, Streetsblog USA reported this week on a settlement reached in federal court of a closely watched lawsuit between Milwaukee civil rights groups and the state department of transportation. The state DOT agreed to provide $13.5 million in transit funding as part of the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange project. Civil rights groups had argued the project discriminates against people of color in the region, who disproportionately rely on transit.     
  • The Transportation Research Board’s National Cooperative Highway Research Program has a new brief out on “Using the Economic Value Created by Transportation to Fund Transportation.” It examines 10 different value capture mechanisms and includes case study examples that define the challenges and benefits of the strategies.
  • Todd Litman has a blog post on Planetizen this week “Evaluating Public Transport Funding Options.”
  • Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic City Lab ponders the question “Are Streetcars Mostly for Tourists?” in a recent piece.