Holiday Break Reading List: Transportation Policy

With the holidays fast approaching, I thought it would be a good time to clear out the ol’ CSG Transportation inbox so that we can make a fresh start in the New Year. In doing so, I ran across a number of recent reports and news items that may be of interest and that may provide worthwhile reading should you have any downtime in between football bowl games in the weeks ahead. They address many of the themes we’ve examined here over the last year and look ahead to what might lay in store in 2011 on issues like federal transportation programs, the condition of America's infrastructure, gas taxes, highway finance alternatives, high-speed rail, freight transportation, transportation and the environment and intelligent transportation systems.

Future of Federal Transportation Programs

  • Congress has approved a continuing resolution (CR) which will extend the existing extension of the SAFETEA-LU authorization of federal transportation programs which was set to expire on December 31st. The CR will now keep programs funded at FY 2010 levels through March 4 of 2011. The CR was employed when an omnibus spending bill consolidating 12 appropriations bills failed to get 60 votes in the Senate. That bill included $41 billion for the Federal-Aid Highway program, $500 million for new TIGER program grants, $250 million for livability initiatives and $1 billion for high-speed rail grants.
  • Washington’s Department of Transportation website has a breakdown of the pro-transportation provisions included in the tax bill recently signed by President Obama.
  • In a recent paper, Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution proposes a two-year reauthorization bill for federal transportation programs that would rely on existing funding and make only minor changes in the way transportation is financed. A blog post on the Transport Politic website discusses its merits.
  • U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a forum in Charleston, South Carolina this month he still wants a six-year bill because it “would create a more certain environment in which contractors could plan, bid and build.”
  • More is becoming known about the next roster of the Congressional committee that may put together the next authorization bill. The incoming chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee John Mica announced a list of 20 new Republicans that will join the panel for the 112th Congress. But the committee’s overall membership will be reduced from 75 members in this Congress to 59 in the next. The House Democratic Caucus named West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall to be the committee’s ranking member. Rahall has served on the panel since he was first elected to Congress 34 years ago.
  • The Build America Bonds program, which was established by the Recovery Act and which states and localities have used to finance more than $42 billion worth of transportation projects over the last two years, will expire at the end of this year. An extension of the program was dropped from the tax package approved by Congress last week. But the incoming House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica promises the popular program will be reincarnated in some form next year.

Condition of U.S. Infrastructure

  • Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog Capitol Hill writes this week about “How the U.S. Can Face the Crisis of Unsafe Bridges.” She details recent remarks by Barry LePatner, author of the new book Too Big to Fall: America’s Infrastructure and the Way Forward. LePatner says that transportation planners should look beyond categories like “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete” and focus on bridges that are “fracture-critical.” He estimates there are nearly 8,000 bridges that are both fracture-critical and structurally deficient and without immediate repair will fail. It sounds like a lot. But there are 160,000 bridges in the United States that are deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete so 8,000 could be a more manageable and more significant number for planners and appropriators to get their heads around.
  • The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported recently on a billboard campaign by a labor union in Pennsylvania that seeks to spur federal and state lawmakers to increase funding for bridge repairs. The Laborers’ International Union of North America is paying for a dozen billboards placed near structurally deficient bridges. The billboards advise drivers that they are crossing a substandard bridge and urge them to contact their U.S. Senators and state lawmakers to express support for increasing infrastructure spending.
  • For more on the condition of America’s infrastructure, see our policy brief from earlier this year and this blog post from September.

Infrastructure Spending

  • A recent Congressional Budget Office study said that spending on transportation and water infrastructure declined by $23 billion, or 6 percent, between 2003 and 2007. The rise in the cost for materials was believed to be a primary cause of the drop in spending on highways, mass transit and aviation. But 2009 did see an uptick in federal infrastructure spending, thanks in part to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
  • The National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers have issued their Fiscal Survey of States for Fall 2010. The report says 15 states made mid-year cuts totaling $419 million to their transportation programs in FY 2010. Among the strategies states used to reduce or eliminate budget gaps were increases in transportation/motor vehicle related fees.

Gas Taxes

  • The Oregonian reports that New Year’s Day will bring a 6 cent a gallon gas tax increase in Oregon. Combined with higher automobile registration fees, the increase is expected to raise an additional $300 million for highway and bridge projects in 2011. The 2009 legislature approved the increase. Earlier this year, opponents of the gas tax tried and failed to gather enough signatures to put a measure repealing it on the November ballot.
  • Texas and South Carolina are among the states expected to consider gas tax increases in 2011.

Innovative Transportation Finance

  • Among the innovative transportation finance mechanisms being experimented with around the country is the much touted vehicle miles traveled or VMT charge (see our policy brief from March), under which motorists instead of paying by the gallon as they do now, would pay a fee for every mile they travel. The most well-known pilot project to test this mechanism was in Oregon. A number of other states have also taken part in pilot projects. In a recent report, the Transportation Research Board’s National Cooperative Highway Research Program examines what kinds of future system trials may be necessary to test such a system before it could become a reality. Among the issues examined: how much it would cost to conduct the trials and what technical, institutional and user acceptance issues should be probed.
  • The Texas Department of Transportation has issued a preliminary study called “Is Texas Ready for Mileage Fees?” Their conclusion: No. An article in The Texas Tribunethis week details that and other alternatives to the gas tax Lone Star State lawmakers may be forced to consider in the years ahead. Texas hasn’t raised its gas tax since 1991, despite huge population increases (borne out by this week’s Census numbers) and rising construction costs.
  • I’ve written a fair amount this year about regional transportation referendums, under which voters have the opportunity to decide to raise their taxes to fund only the transportation projects in their area. Georgia lawmakers passed legislation in May that will let voters decide in 2012 whether a list of projects approved by a regional roundtable is worthy of a penny hike in the sales tax. Planners and state transportation officials see it as the only hope for finding new revenue for significant transportation improvements in the years ahead. But the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the process of deciding county representation on the 21-person roundtable and a five-member executive committee has been so flawed, he may have trouble supporting the referendum for the Atlanta region. And that’s before a project list has even been decided upon and with two years to go before Election Day 2012.
  • Virginia’s Department of Transportation has a new report out looking at state infrastructure banks. It includes case studies examining how states have used these banks to leverage billions of dollars in investment for transportation.

High-Speed Rail

  • In case you missed it, California, Florida, Washington and Illinois were the big winners when Transportation Secretary LaHood recently announced that $1.195 billion in high-speed rail funds originally designated for Wisconsin and Ohio would be redirected. As we reported here last month, incoming governors in those states have both indicated they will not move forward on rail projects that received Recovery Act funding earlier this year. Over the weekend, NPR reported on how California and Florida may move forward with their rail plans. The San Mateo County Times also reported on California’s plans.
  • Wisconsin’s cancellation of the Milwaukee-to-Madison high-speed rail project will result in the Spanish train manufacturer Talgo Inc. moving its manufacturing operation out of the state in 2012.
  • Amtrak’s VP of High-Speed Rail reflects on the 10th anniversary of the Acela Express and what the future may hold in a Philadelphia Inquirer opinion piece this week.
  • In Florida, where Republican Governor-Elect Rick Scott has been wavering about a proposed Tampa to Orlando rail line, an editorial in the Orlando Sentinel makes the case for why it should go forward. Among the arguments: the $2.6 billion high-speed project would be paid for almost entirely by the federal government. Moreover, companies vying to run the trains say they would cover the remaining $280 million of the cost.
  • In an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, Secretary LaHood writes that “if we work together, a national high-speed rail network can and will be our generation’s legacy.”
  • My colleague at CSG Midwest Laura Kliewer writes this month about the future of Midwest passenger rail.
  • The costs and benefits of high-speed rail are debated in this recent head-to-head editorial from The Sacramento Bee.
  • A recent Public Interest Research Group Education Fund report examines “High-Speed Rail Around the World and Its Promise for America.”
  • Meanwhile as the squabbling continues in this country, it was reported that in China earlier this month, during a test run of a $33 billion Beijing-to-Shanghai passenger rail line due to open in 2012, a train hit a record speed of 302 mph.

State Transportation Planning

  • Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell earlier this month received the results of the latest in a series of transportation-related audits. I wrote about the previous audits in a blog post in September. The latest one looks at perceived problems with how Virginia plans transportation projects, allocates funds and coordinates with metropolitan planning organizations. Among the audit’s key findings: performance-driven prioritization of projects and funding plays a limited role in selecting projects.
  • A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report examines state planning activities in advance of the next surface transportation authorization bill. The report focuses on efforts to meet rural planning needs and incorporate performance measurement into state transportation plans. I’ll have a Capitol Research policy brief out early next year on rural transportation needs. And performance measurement in transportation has of course been a key focus of CSG’s States Perform project.  

Public Transportation

  • Another recent GAO report looks at “Transit Agencies’ Actions to Address Increased Ridership Demand and Options to Help Meet Future Demand.” The report’s recommendations include: focusing resources on keeping the nation’s rail and bus systems in a state of good repair and integrating performance accountability into federal programs.

Freight Transportation

Transportation & the Environment

  • Over the last year, my colleague Doug Myers and I have written extensively about efforts to reduce the impact of transportation on the environment. Our February policy brief on Climate Change and Transportation included a section on pay-as-you-drive insurance. A 2008 Brookings Institution study estimated that if all motorists paid for accident insurance per mile rather than in a lump sum, driving would decline by 8 percent nationwide, carbon dioxide emissions would decline by 2 percent and oil consumption would go down 4 percent. Last week, Streetsblog San Francisco looked in on California’s pay-as-you-drive insurance program.
  • The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Smart Growth America have a new report that looks at what states are doing to curb emissions caused by transportation. Not surprisingly, California scored highest for their green transportation policies. Arkansas ranked lowest. The report has a number of state and federal policy recommendations and analyzes state Smart Growth laws and policies. Among the recommendations for states:

    • Set a course to reduce emissions by setting per capita transportation GHG or VMT reduction targets.
    • Balance state transportation investments by using state and federal resources to support robust public transportation service, prioritize highway repair and safety over new capacity, and support non-motorized transportation.
    • Manage traffic with road use pricing tools and incentives for low-carbon transportation options through comprehensive commuter programs.
    • Link transportation and land use in transportation plans, implement growth management policies, and promote development in areas with high quality transit service.          

There is more about the report here and here.

Traffic Safety & Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS)

And that should keep you busy well into the New Year. Happy reading!