Senate Committee Approves Six-Year Transportation Bill

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee this week released and marked-up its bipartisan, six-year transportation bill before moving the bill forward. Now comes the hard part of trying to come up with the money to fund the bill and to tackle the looming shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund. Meanwhile President Obama and Vice President Biden both took to the road this week to put the focus on infrastructure investment. And a chorus of voices grew louder that perhaps the best way to make it happen is the most obvious—increasing the federal gas tax. I also have the usual roundup of news and links on state activity on transportation revenues, public-private partnerships and tolling, and state multi-modal strategies in this special, super-sized, Infrastructure Week edition of the blog.

Senate EPW Bill Advances

The Senate EPW Committee Thursday gave a unanimous voice vote to its portion of a transportation reauthorization bill. It’s a six-year, $265 billion bill that would keep federal spending on highways and transit at current levels plus inflation.

According to a committee summary of the bill (full text here, package of amendments adopted Thursday here), highlights of the measure include:

  • Long-term funding certainty for state and local governments to support multi-year transportation project investments;
  • Greater transparency on the use of federal funds to show taxpayers where their infrastructure dollars are being spent and reinforce public trust;
  • Increased funding for existing core transportation formula programs to provide states and local governments with a strong federal partner;
  • Targeted funds for projects of high importance to a community, a region, or the nation;
  • Fully-funded freight and goods movement program to help states target projects that increase the efficiency, reliability, and affordability of freight transportation;
  • Support for innovative financing tools that allow state and local governments to leverage federal funds for transportation projects and maximize investments; and
  • Expanded flexibility for state and local governments to promote cost-effective project delivery.

But it will be up to other committees in the Senate and House to figure out how to fully fund the bill and to shore up a Highway Trust Fund that is rapidly running out of money.

The latest update to the U.S. DOT’s trust fund ticker continues to project the trust fund’s highway account will officially run dry around August 29th. But the account will reach the critical level of $4 billion (the level necessary to provide a cushion to maintain reimbursements to states) more than a full month before that on July 25.

While many had praise for the EPW bill and the committee’s quick action, it has also garnered some mixed reactions.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) praised its six-year time frame, saying it would help state officials plan long-term projects after years of uncertainty.

But the President of the American Society of Civil Engineers said that while the legislation is a “positive step,” it falls short of what’s needed. “Regrettably, while the bill may reflect political realities, it does not go far enough in addressing our country’s investment gap,” said Randall Over in a statement.

Even U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said the bill doesn’t propose enough funding for transportation projects.

“I just spent the better part of a week going to eight states, 12 cities large and small and I have to tell you that America has been waiting on a bigger solution,” he said Monday during an appearance in the White House Briefing Room, The Hill reported.

Smart Growth America praised the “inclusion of a provision to provide financing support to help communities create economic development along transit corridors.” On a related note, the Next City blog this week identified “3 Ways the Transportation Reauthorization Bill Could Affect Cities.”

The advocacy coalition Transportation for America also liked that part of the bill but expressed concern about what they see as the measure’s shortcomings.

“Our alliance of local elected, business and civic leaders believes the proposed legislation stops well short of providing communities the access to resources they need to support economic success,” said T4America Director James Corless in a statement. “Rather than make improvements on the margins, the federal program needs to recognize the importance of our cities, towns, and suburbs and move control and accountability closer to the people who pay into the system.”

American Road and Transportation Builders Association President and CEO Pete Ruane commended the committee for passing their bill and praised the inclusion of provisions to establish a dedicated freight program and to improve the transparency of how Highway Trust Fund dollars are utilized. But he also said the real work lies ahead.

“It is now time for members of the House and Senate leadership, and the respective tax committees, to get serious about addressing the Highway Trust Fund’s recurring revenue shortfall,” Ruane said in a statement. “As this process moves forward, Congress needs to be clear there is nothing fiscally responsible about investment levels that fail to improve the conditions of the nation’s roads and bridges, or allow traffic congestion to get worse. Furthermore, it is totally irresponsible to repeatedly march the Highway Trust Fund to the brink of insolvency.”

Gas Tax Increase: The Obvious Funding Solution?

In commending the committee’s quick passage of the bill, AAA President and CEO Bob Darbelnet also used the opportunity to make the case for raising the federal gas tax to address the Highway Trust Fund insolvency.

“AAA supports this viable and effective solution, provided the additional funds are invested in transportation improvements that benefit motorists,” Darbelnet said in a statement. “We urge (Senate Finance Committee) Chairman (Ron) Wyden and Ranking Member (Orrin) Hatch to commit to a vote on this solution in addition to the other funding mechanisms that will be considered by their committee.”

The Hill noted that while some Democrats have pushed for increasing the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax to as high as 33 cents per gallon, arguing that it would be near that high if it had been indexed to inflation since it was last increased in 1993.

At a recent forum hosted by the American Trucking Associations and others, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware who serves on both the EPW and Finance committees told an audience: “Let’s just restore the purchasing power of the gas tax to where it was in 1994 and then index it to inflation,” Fleet Owner magazine reported.

The Obama administration and Congressional Republicans have declined to get on board however and seem unlikely to move in that direction during an election year. The President thought he had seen some bipartisan support for corporate tax reform, which he believes could produce some short-term, one-time-only revenues to commit to transportation. But many from both parties don’t like the idea of delaying a long-term fix and kicking the can down the road once again.

“Congress needs to find a sustainable source of funds that will keep this crunch from happening again,” Wyden said at a hearing last week, The Hill reported.

Hatch, the committee’s top Republican, told Politico “We’ll look at every option we possibly can,” including short-term patches. But, he said, corporate tax reform, specifically a tax on repatriated money, is “not the way to do that.” As for a gas tax increase, Hatch said: “That’d be tougher, in some ways, because it increases taxes. But that’s certainly one of the options that senators will have to consider.”

And Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker in a “Dear Colleagues” letter to EPW and Finance committee leaders wrote: “It is both impractical and dishonest to continue to deficit finance an increasingly large share of our infrastructure spending. There are two potential solutions to restoring integrity to the HTF (Highway Trust Fund): (1) increasing dedicated HTF user fees to match spending levels, or (2) reducing HTF spending to match dedicated HTF revenues. It is my belief that reducing spending to current HTF revenue levels would be damaging to our nation’s infrastructure, competitiveness, and economic growth. Another alternative that would at least make Congress accountable for the increased spending is to offset HTF spending that exceeds revenues by reducing other government spending by an equal amount. I cannot support a highway reauthorization bill of any length that does not abide by these principles.”

A number of bloggers and newspaper editorial boards have weighed in recently calling a gas tax increase the simplest solution that no one seems willing to talk about.

“The simple has become complicated in Washington, where the most basic wisdom has been forgotten: You get what you pay for,” said The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week. “By the end of summer, when there’s no more money left for federal highway repair, the conversation should turn to the obvious.”

“We recognize that a gas tax increase is a political non-starter in an election year, but the trouble is there doesn’t seem to be any kind of year when Congress is willing to face facts and develop a workable, long-range plan for transportation,” said a Baltimore Sun editorial this week. “But Washington ought to be more concerned about the consequences of neglecting the nation’s transportation infrastructure and the eventual cost of that failure to the gross domestic product.”

Josh Voorhees called it “The Solution That Shall Not Be Named” in a recent piece for Slate magazine on the recent history of attempts to raise the gas tax.

And in a series of blog posts this week, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Thomas Donohue included “creating a predictable, stable, and growing funding mechanism for infrastructure” among his five-point plan to strengthen the nation’s transportation network.

“Increasing the gas tax is going to require some courage, which seems in short supply in Washington,” Donohue writes. “Last year six states—three with Republican governors and three with Democratic governors—enacted bills to increase overall state gas taxes. The sky didn’t fall and their economies have not collapsed. Both Republican and Democratic presidents have approved modest gas tax increases, including Ronald Reagan. So, it can be done! Increasing the gas tax is the right answer. It’s tough, but doable.”

On another transportation funding note, something else missing from the EPW bill garnered some attention this week: a provision included in the Obama administration’s proposed transportation legislation that would lift the ban on states tolling existing interstate miles, The Hill noted. The Senate committee’s bill only directs USDOT to study “alternative transportation revenue mechanisms that preserve a user fee structure to maintain the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund.” But many believe we haven’t heard the last of the idea of expanded tolling as an option for lawmakers to consider.

Additional reaction to the Senate EPW bill:

  • Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog USA: “The future of national transportation policy is pretty much like the present of national transportation policy, if the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has its way: underfunded and highway-centric.”
  • Emily Goff of the Heritage Foundation (who will participate in a CSG Policy eCademy later this month): “The bill would continue to divert federal gas taxes paid by motorists to fund purely local programs and activities that have no relationship to road and bridge improvements. The bicycle paths and historic-style street lamps funded under the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) provide an example.” Goff also argues the bill would reduce flexibility for states and would continue a practice of “increasing spending when the money is not there.”

Further Reading

Obama, Biden Hit the Road for Infrastructure

President Obama and Vice President Biden both took to the road this week to make the case for infrastructure investment.

In Tarrytown, New York, the President used the backdrop of the new, $3.9 billion Tappan Zee bridge now under construction to urge Congress to come up with the billions of dollars that will be needed around the country, The Journal News reported.

“We’ve got more than 100,000 bridges that are old enough to qualify for Medicare,” Obama said.

The President also had some tough words for Congress, The Hill noted.

“Instead of making investments that grow our economy by growing the middle class, they’re still convinced that prosperity trickles down from the very top,” he said. “If you want to tell them what you think about that, don’t worry, because usually they show up at ribbon cuttings for projects that they refused to fund.”

But some questioned whether bridges are actually the best “poster child” for the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Politico noted that the American Society of Civil Engineers in its most recent Report Card for America’s Infrastructure actually gave America’s bridges a C+, the highest grade awarded to any transportation segment or mode.

And Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog USA offered this in a post Wednesday: “Obama’s choice of setting for this speech also deserves some attention. Yet again, he’s chosen a big highway bridge expansion project to highlight in his campaign to ramp up infrastructure funding. While there seems to be some momentum to improve transit options across the bridge, the sheer size of it — double the width of the current Tappan Zee — illustrates how states are still all too willing to waste billions on road projects.”

In Cleveland this week it should be noted, Vice President Biden visited a rail car repair shop and highlighted federal investment in a light rail station scheduled to open next year, the Associated Press reported.

“Those in Congress who lack vision say we can’t afford to make these investments,” he said. “How can we not afford to make these investments?”

MAP-21 Reauthorization & the Future of the Highway Trust Fund

State Activity on Transportation Revenues

  • Georgia: Despite lingering uncertainty about federal transportation funding, Georgia officials plan to move forward with major transportation projects using $81.5 million in accrued state motor fuel funds and the sale of $130 million in previously authorized bonds, the Associated Press reported.
  • Michigan: A University of Michigan report says the state could solve its road funding problems if it followed in the footsteps of Oregon and became one of the first states in the nation to move to a mileage fee-based system, The Detroit Free Press reported.
  • Missouri: Voters in the state will get a chance later this year to decide whether to raise the state sales tax to generate more than $500 million annually for transportation projects after the House gave final approval to a proposed constitutional amendment this week, according to The Kansas City Star.
  • Rhode Island: Action has been postponed on a bill that would remove tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge and use millions of dollars from various sources to create a fund for statewide transportation repairs. But there are efforts afoot to make the proposal an article of the state budget, The Providence Journal reported. A vote could come next week.
  • Texas: House Speaker Joe Straus is vowing to dedicate all the money from the State Highway Fund to transportation as part of the next state budget, The Houston Chronicle reported. Some of the highway fund revenues are currently diverted to other uses such as law enforcement.

Public-Private Partnerships & Tolling

  • The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association has what it calls a “Grassroots Toll Kit” on the IBTTA website with links to information about what the organization says are the benefits of tolling and about their Moving America Forward campaign.
  • Florida: Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad has rejected a proposed privately owned, elevated toll road across southern Pasco County after being unable to reach an agreement with International Infrastructure Partners, LLC, on the project’s financing and design, The Tampa Tribune reported.
  • Maryland: In a recent piece for Mass Transit magazine, Al Maloof of the transportation and infrastructure consulting firm GJB Consulting writes about how a light rail project in Maryland is an example of a P3 helping a state address a pressing need. “The Purple Line represents a new, innovative way to solving an infrastructure problem at a time when the federal government is contributing less to public transportation,” he writes. “In recent years, the U.S. Department of Transportation has cut capital funding of projects to 50 percent from 80 percent. … Less money and less certainty in federal support (are) shifting the burden for public transportation to local governments, pushing them to seek investors.” You can read more about the Purple Line in my recent article for the Capitol Ideas E-Newsletter and in this extended interview with Jodie Misiak of the Maryland Department of Transportation.
  • Pennsylvania: Lancaster Newspapers had an article this week about how public-private partnerships are reinventing the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation but the first example cited in the article may not be what you think. PennDOT recently partnered with a private software developer to create a new smartphone app that allows motorists to learn about accidents, road construction or other traffic tie-ups before they get out on the roads. The article also touches on a larger and more well-known P3—the state’s rapid bridge replacement program. In case you missed it, you can read more about that in my recent interview with Bryan Kendro of the Pennsylvania office of Policy and Public-Private Partnerships. State officials say they’re also exploring the possibility of redeveloping 10 train stations along Amtrak’s Keystone line with a P3, a project that could see private developers build parking facilities, commercial or housing projects in conjunction with the stations.
  • Texas: According to the Dallas Business Journal, North Texas should get ready for more highway construction and more managed toll lanes. Among the projects in the works or already underway: Interstate 35W, Interstate 35E and State Highway 183.
  • Virginia: The I-495 Express Lanes have yet to make any money for the Australian conglomerate that built them but Fluor-Transurban officials say they will remain committed as a partner with the state of Virginia, WAMU-FM reported. According to the terms of the P3 contract, if the project were to fail financially, the state would take over the $1.9 billion highway and begin toll revenue collection themselves but Transurban would be stuck with the project’s debt (not Virginia taxpayers).
  • Officials from the five P3 states listed above and others will be on hand June 17-18 in New York City at the 2014 InfraAmericas U.S. P3 Infrastructure Forum. CSG is a supporting organization for the annual event, which brings state, federal and regional transportation officials together with infrastructure developers, investors and financiers for an essential two-day briefing on the state of infrastructure public-private partnerships and key networking opportunities. For more information and to register for the event, click here.

State Multi-Modal Strategies

Ports

  • WRRDA: Lawmakers this week filed the conference report on the long-in-the-works, $8.2 billion bill to boost U.S. ports and waterways, The Hill reported. Final passage of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act could take place next week. A summary of the conference report can be found here and the full text here.

Transit

  • “The Economic Impact of Public Transportation Investment” is the focus of a new report from the American Public Transportation Association this month.
  • Georgia: Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed announced this week that the city of Atlanta and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) will jointly operate the new downtown streetcar line due to go into service later this year, the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported. The boards of directors of MARTA and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District must still approve the proposal, which was outlined in a formal notice to the Federal Transit Administration. A $47.6 million federal grant is being used to finance the $59 million, 2.7 mile streetcar loop that will connect popular tourist attractions, MARTA’s Peachtree Center station and the planned Atlanta Beltline.  USA Today this week looked at the streetcar renaissance in Atlanta and elsewhere. Progressive Railroading examined the implementation of reforms at MARTA in recent years.
  • Minnesota: National League of Cities Director for City Solutions James Brooks blogged recently about the Central Corridor/Green Line light rail project that will connect the Twin Cities. “The relationships that were forged by the Twin Cities, as they undertook the Central Corridor light rail project connecting their downtowns, (are) an example of how cities are coming together with a wide range of partners to overcome obstacles and make transformational projects a reality,” he writes. “Working with the philanthropic community and a broad spectrum of civic organizations that serve the communities impacted by the project, local leaders in the Twin Cities developed a template for planning that other cities can learn from. In addition, the U.S. Department of Transportation not only contributed dollars to the project but restructured funding formulas to ensure the addition of light rail stations in underserved minority neighborhoods along the proposed route.”
  • Ohio: It looks like one reason the city of Columbus missed out on hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention was because of a lack of public transportation options, The Hill reported.
  • Texas: The Atlantic Cities blog this week reported on “Houston’s Plan to Get an Amazing New Bus System for No New Money.” The plan involves straighter routes, the elimination of redundant routes to improve efficiency, and more transfers for passengers.
  • Utah: Time magazine reported this week on how Salt Lake City is re-inventing itself as a transit city.
  • Virginia: The Columbia Pike streetcar in Arlington will cost more than $100 million more than previously estimated, Arlington County officials said this week, according to The Washington Post. The cost of the proposed 4.5 mile streetcar line has now risen to $358 million. Supporters say the project will bring billions in new development and more than 6,000 new jobs. Opponents would rather see a cheaper, bus rapid transit system that could be build more quickly and be more flexible. The Post also had a piece this week on “Why costs often creep on public-works projects.” According to a recent post on the Greater, Greater Washington blog, the DC region as a whole has over 250 miles of planned light rail, streetcar and bus rapid transit. Next City has a piece this week on the potential urbanizing effects of the Silver Line Metro extension for suburban Loudoun County.
  • Washington: Last month, voters in the Seattle area rejected a ballot measure to prevent dramatic cuts to local transit service. While two thirds of voters in the city supported the measure, suburban voters did not. Now Mayor Ed Murray is proposing to go back to the voters quickly with a similar funding plan to restore transit service but to limit the vote to city-dwellers, The Urbanist reported. And Grist magazine took a closer look at the transit gap between city and suburbs this week.
  • The Atlantic Cities blog’s ongoing series on The Future of Transportation included two pieces this week on the impact of mass transit expansion on rent at apartments near new transit stations. Amy Crawford pondered “Does New Mass Transit Always Have to Mean Rapidly Rising Rents?” while Yonah Freemark argued “It’s Not Always a Bad Thing for Rents to Rise With Transit Growth.”

Active Transport