Washington State Transportation Package Dies; New Reports on Road Priorities and Transit Ridership

Leaders in Washington State say a transportation funding package is dead for this legislative session, putting in jeopardy a number of mega-projects many say the state needs. I also have items this week on the nation’s road spending priorities and a reported uptick in transit ridership. Plus the usual updates on MAP-21 reauthorization, state transportation funding efforts, public-private partnerships, and state multi-modal strategies.

No Gas Tax Increase for Washington State

Lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee said this week that an $8 billion transportation package that would have raised fuel taxes by 11.5 cents over the next three years will not pass this session, The Spokesman-Review reported. It’s the second year in a row a transportation funding package has failed in Olympia.

Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for not being able to get the package across the finish line. Senate Republicans said Democrats were unwilling to accept reforms to state DOT processes and priorities. Senate Democrats said the Republicans never even scheduled a committee hearing on their package. The House passed its own bill last year, and House Democratic leaders said they were ready to negotiate if the Senate passed one of its own. But it appears it was not to be.

The news came just as the nonprofit organization TRIP issued a new report that says failing to maintain the state’s infrastructure adequately costs Washington motorists $6.5 billion a year in higher vehicle operating costs, traffic crashes and congestion-related delays.

Transportation Spending Strategies Neglect Road Repairs

There was more information on the state of the nation’s infrastructure this week in the form of a report from Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense entitled “Repair Priorities 2014: Transportation Spending Strategies to Save Taxpayer Dollars and Improve Roads.” According to the report, states are spending too much on new roads and neglecting existing ones.

Between 2009 and 2011, the report found, about 45 percent of transportation spending went to repairs across all states, while 55 percent of that spending went to new roads. In seven states though, the difference was starker with less than 20 percent of transportation spending going to repairs.

The report found a bright spot in Wyoming, which spent 83 percent of its funding on repairs between 2009 and 2011 and where lawmakers enacted a gas tax increase in 2013 to help pay for preservation of existing roads.

Public Transportation Ridership Hits 10.7 Billion Trips

The American Public Transportation Association said this week that in 2013 Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation, which is the highest transit ridership in 57 years. Ridership increased by 1.1 percent last year, APTA said.

Cities like Los Angeles and Salt Lake City that have been putting resources into expanded transit networks saw big ridership increases. Rail ridership in the New York region was also up big.

But there were also stories this week that the ridership gains did not extend to all parts of the country. The cities of Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth in Texas didn’t see the same gains. Service cuts in Wisconsin may have had an impact on fewer bus rides there. Fare increases in Oregon and other factors may have played a role in a 3.8 percent decrease in ridership there.

Still, the increases elsewhere prompted Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog USA to ask this week “With Ridership on the Rise, Will Congress Step Up and Invest in Transit?” APTA is recommending that Congress increase transit funding by $11.5 billion per year, The Hill newspaper noted. President Obama’s budget proposal includes a $17.6 billion increase for transit.

During his remarks to APTA’s 2014 legislative conference this week, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx told attendees the nation’s existing transit capacity and state of good repair are insufficient to meet growing demand.

Fitch Ratings said this week that if trends persist toward increased multifamily housing, declines in VMT and increasing public transportation usage, public transportation investment strategies will need to undergo a transformation in the years ahead. “In our view, the transportation needs of the next 50 years will be markedly different from those of the past 50 years,” said an article on the rating agency’s website. “U.S. policymakers must begin adapting their current decisions to these future needs. If these trends persist and meaningful policy changes are not made, the risk to the public transportation system would have negative implications for the entire economy.”

There were skeptics however about exactly what the latest ridership figures mean. Ben Adler of Grist, the environmental news blog, wrote that the context has been lost: “Unfortunately, stories on the subject are leaving out an important statistic: How many Americans were there in 1956? The answer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is 168.9 million. In 2013, the population was 314.1 million. Keep that in mind when you read articles about transit ridership’s rebound.”

Conservative Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole told The Hill this week that the ridership numbers are misleading because most of the increase came from urban areas.

“New York City subway and bus ridership grew by 120 million trips in 2013; nationally, transit ridership grew by just 115 million trips,” he said. “Add in New York commuter trains (Long Island Railroad and Metro North) and New York City transit ridership grew by 123 million trips, which means transit in the rest of the nation declined by 8 million trips.”

O’Toole told the newspaper APTA is seeking more federal funding because “many of its associate members are rail contractors who depend on federal grants to build obsolete transit systems.”

“Light-rail lines being planned or built today cost an average of more than $100 million per mile, while some cities have built new four-lane freeways for $10 million to $20 million per mile, and each of those freeway lanes will move far more people per day than a light-rail line,” O’Toole said.

But many believe transit will continue to be in demand as the Millennial Generation and those behind them seek choices in the way they travel.

As Joe Petrie, a millennial who blogs for Mass Transit magazine, wrote this week: “All we want is options to not drive. We hate driving. I can attest to that. We want valid options on how to get from A to B without having to get in a car. In 32 years I’ve never rented a car in my life because whenever I travel I take transit. Some people might find that strange, but among friends my own age, this is normal.”

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

  • Foxx was also on Capitol Hill this week to testify before a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the President’s transportation authorization proposal and FY 2015 budget request for the U.S. DOT. You can watch the hearing and read more about it here.
  • Following his speech to APTA this week, Foxx said he expects a tough slog on transportation funding this year, The Hill reported. “I tell my team that I fully expect the next several months to be, to use a golf term, playing in the rough a lot,” he said. “But part of what we want to see happening, not just in the DOT four corners, but on Capitol Hill, is moving the discussion from whether we’re going to get to yes, to how we’re going to get to yes.”
  • Nossaman’s Infra Insight blog this week includes a guest post from William Moore, who works with the consultancy firm Vianovo and the Transportation Transformation Group, a consortia of public and private entities looking at ways to improve funding and financing of the nation’s infrastructure. “Absent swift action by Congress,” Moore writes, “state departments of transportation will begin to have cash flow problems that could delay payments to vendors and slow projects. Without action by the fall, new projects may have to be shelved until Congress can resolve the funding crisis that confronts the Highway Trust Fund.”
  • Rhode Island: State DOT Director Michael Lewis spoke recently about the impact of dwindling federal dollars and a lack of agreement on state funding options on transportation projects in his state, The Valley Breeze reported.
  • The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorialized this week in favor of a federal gas tax increase.
  • Conservative pundit Michael Barone argues in favor of per mile tolling in a recent column.
  • Wells Fargo Securities issued a brief this week on “Evaluating Transportation Funding Proposals” at the Federal level.

Legacy of MAP-21

  • MAP-21 may expire at the end of September but as of right now many of its provisions are still being implemented around the country. That implementation process was the focus of a House T&I Subcommittee hearing this week. Acting Under Secretary for Policy at U.S. DOT Peter Rogoff was among those testifying along with the acting administrators from FHWA, FTA, FMCSA, and NHTSA. The FY 2015 budget request for surface transportation was also a topic of discussion at the hearing, which you can watch and read more about here. And here is Reuters’ recap of the hearing.

State Activity on Transportation Revenues

  • Alabama: The legislature has approved a measure under which the state will pledge its gas tax revenue in order to get lower interest rates on the money it is borrowing to finance $1 billion in transportation projects, The Montgomery Advertiser reported. Gov. Robert Bentley has said the extra collateral is needed because the federal gas tax—the original revenue being used to repay the bonds—is considered no longer reliable enough on its own.
  • Georgia: Atlanta area lawmakers are seeking to move beyond the 2012 failure of the regional local option sales tax for transportation referendum with a series of more modest (and more localized) legislative proposals this year, NPR station WABE-FM reported.
  • Oregon: Portland Mayor Charlie Hales said recently he expects the demise of a plan to build a new I-5 bridge across the Columbia River could end up benefitting other transportation projects that have long needed funding, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. Hales said he’ll ask the Oregon Legislature to take up a transportation funding bill next year with a new list of priorities. Meanwhile, Tollroads News this week had a roundup of reaction to the demise of the CRC project, which the Oregon legislature failed to act on before adjourning last week.
  • Pennsylvania: The state’s 2013 transportation funding package, known as Act 89, was showcased recently at the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association conference in Washington, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Pennsylvania Deputy Transportation Secretary Brad Mallory told attendees: “We got this package through. It wasn’t easy at all. The hard truth is it shouldn’t be easy. If you’re going to raise taxes, it ought to be fiendishly difficult. You ought to have to prove your case…and you better spend the money on what you told people you were going to spend it on.”
  • South Carolina: The House this week approved a measure to allow counties and cities to buy shorter state roads with the 25 percent of the state money they get to maintain state roads, which would be about $17.2 million if the provision were in place this year.

Public-Private Partnerships & Tolling

  • Tollroads News has an interview this week with Indiana Public Finance Director Kendra York and Indiana DOT Media Relations Director Will Wingfield about the East End Crossing section of the Ohio River Bridges Project in the Louisville area. It was recently named Deal of the Year by The Bond Buyer publication. The crossing is a P3 project using the availability payments model.
  • The Cincinnati Enquirer editorialized this week that the best way to fund a long-awaited replacement for the Brent Spence Bridge across another part of the Ohio River is tolling.
  • A Chicago Tribune editorial today says the U.S. Department of Interior’s response to a draft environmental impact statement on the proposed Illiana Expressway should provide new ammunition for opponents of the 47-mile P3 toll road, which would connect I-55 to I-65 across Illinois and Indiana. The welfare of an endangered, long-eared bat species in the area that would be impacted by the project is one of Interior’s concerns. But the Trib also uses the occasion to reiterate its primary objection to the project: “In this supposedly public-private venture, the public shoulders the risk,” the editorial reads. “If the Illiana doesn't generate enough in tolls to pay for itself, taxpayers have to make up the difference. If the truckers now clogging I-80 aren't willing to detour 10 miles south and pay 53 cents a mile, the states' private partners get paid anyway. Next on the endangered list: your wallet.”
  • Florida transportation officials have four teams to choose from to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the $2 billion I-4 Ultimate Project, which will add four tolled express lanes to the interstate while maintaining the existing free general use lanes. It will be developed through a public-private partnership concession agreement.
  • David Tanner of Land Line magazine, which reports on the trucking industry, writes that one focus of last week’s hearing of the House Panel on Public-Private Partnerships was the length of P3 contracts. The Nossaman Infra Insight Blog also reported on the hearing.
  • Harrisburg, Pennsylvania public radio station WITF had an interview this week with Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch in which he talks about the state’s efforts to address its large number of deficient bridges. Pennsylvania officials plan to bundle 600 of them together under one P3 agreement.
  • The aforementioned IBTTA summit in DC earlier this week also featured a panel discussion on tolling that featured representatives of four advocacy groups that have been critical of the practice. Tollroads News has this recap of the event.

State Multi-Modal Strategies

Transit

  • Indiana: The Indiana House and Senate this week gave final approval to a measure that would allow residents of six central Indiana counties to vote on whether to authorize a local income tax increase to fund more comprehensive bus service. The measure now goes to Gov. Mike Pence for his signature, WIBC-FM reported. The referendum would appear on the November ballot in the six counties.
  • The Atlantic Cities blog reported this week on how a number of cities around the country are working on the transit fare tickets of tomorrow.
  • Tennessee: The Nashville Business Journal takes a look at recent developments on state legislation to block the proposed route for Nashville’s bus rapid transit project known as the Amp.

Active Transport

  • A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Wyoming land dispute case is causing concern about the potential impact on thousands of miles of bike trails mostly in the western states, USA Today reported. Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog USA interviewed Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s senior vice president Kevin Mills about what the decision means.
  • New York: According to a study issued this week by NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, New York City’s bike share program has become an important feature of the city’s transportation network with many New Yorkers taking advantage of Citi Bike docks close to subway stations to complete the last mile of their trips.