Congress Passes Major Transportation Bill, Preserving the Status Quo

» MAP-21 will provide federal funding for highways and transit over the next 27 months. Passing the bill was an accomplishment for a do-little Congress, but serious issues about how to pay for transportation in the future have yet to be resolved. Nonetheless, there are some interesting features in the bill for new transit capital projects.

On Friday, the U.S. House and Senate passed MAP-21*, the federal government’s latest ground transportation authorization bill, modeled closely on the bill that passed the Senate in March. The $105-billion piece of legislation will provide funding for essential highway and public transportation programs, most of which are in the form of formula-based allocations that direct money automatically to states and metropolitan areas. The bill will be in effect for 27 months, expiring in September 2014.

MAP-21 replaces SAFETEA-LU, the last long-term federal transportation bill, which expired in 2009; in the meantime, we have seen extension after extension of that law and a seemingly never-ending set of grueling disagreements about the future of mobility policy in the U.S. that revealed stark partisan differences about the role of the federal government in directing the construction and maintenance of the nation’s road and transit systems.

There have been points in this debate when the chances of a bill passing — any bill other than an extension — seemed close to nil. Democrats have demonstrated a sincere interest in expanding the amount spent on new transportation capital, especially in high-speed rail and transit, as illustrated by President Obama’s proposal in early 2011 for a $556 billion, six-year bill. Republicans, meanwhile, have argued for constraining the amount spent on highways to revenues collected from fuel taxes — and abandoning efforts to expand funding for sustainable mobility. But ultimately the two sides have similar goals: To maintain existing transportation funding without increasing taxes to pay for them; in other words, to preserve the status quo.

Indeed, that is the first point to make clear about this transportation bill: It is neither transformational nor a long-term problem-solver. It does not “fail America,” as some have suggested, by failing to make the major reforms that have been suggested by proponents for four years. It does reduce the complication of moving a major project through the federal grant process and it reduces the overall confusion of programs in the U.S. Department of Transportation, two important changes.

It is, however, a disappointment that the bill does not do more to equalize decision making between modes, of course: Why do there continue to be separate budgets for highways and for transit? Why can’t rail (which goes unfunded in this legislation) be compared to highway expansion when the latter is being considered? Meanwhile, why do transit expansion projects continue to be subjected to rigorous competitions for funding, while highways do not?

The bill continues the decades-long trend of declining investment in transportation at the national level. As the following chart shows, as a share of the federal budget, transportation spending has declined from about 3% in the 1960s to about 2.5% in the 1970s to about 1.5% today. At the national level (including local and state funding), transportation spending has declined from about 2% of U.S. GDP to less than 1.5% (though there was a stimulus-related jump in 2009). There has been a general decline in the perception of the importance of spending public dollars on transportation. That trend will continue under MAP-21, which provides about $50 billion per year in funding, equivalent to spending today adjusted for inflation.

It is worth questioning whether we need to significantly increase spending on transportation. The massive federal investments in new highways from 1956 to the mid-1980s encouraged the decentralization of our cities and a decline in our transit systems. Now that our cities are growing again, some might argue that they should simply find the tax revenues to pay for improvements themselves — but that suggestion has its real weak points, specifically because it diminishes the redistributive potential of the federal system. Moreover, as long as national funding continues to pump tens of billions into highways every year, I question how cities will be able to keep up.

U.S. ground transportation spending has declined as a percentage of GDP or federal government budget. Dotted line shows projections based on MAP-21 funding. Data from the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget.

Preserving the status quo doesn’t mean keeping spending in line with revenues from the fuel tax. Because neither party has demonstrated an interest in working for an increase in the gas tax or establishing a viable alternative, maintaining current spending levels means that funds must be identified from elsewhere.

As such, the law creates a number of new financing methods to pay for expenditures not covered by the Highway Trust Fund, into which fuel taxes flow. The biggest change involves altering the way pension interest rates are calculated. But most of the shortfall will be covered by the government transferring in $18.8 billion in general funds from income tax collections, $6.2 billion in FY 2013 and $12.6 billion in 2014. Because the U.S. operates with a deficit, that money is effectively debt-based. Got a problem with that? The vast majority of legislators from both sides of the aisle do not seem to be particularly concerned.

As far as I know this is the first time in a federal transportation authorization bill that federal spending on ground transportation will be funded from a source outside of user fees. The conclusion: Federal transportation funding is no longer really dependent on the collection of user fees, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all.

MAP-21 will expire in 2014, but as indicated by the transfers from the general fund that will be necessary to fund programs, it will carry on the legacy of a bankrupt Highway Trust Fund. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that — assuming a flat level of spending only adjusted to inflation — by FY 2015 there will be a $9 billion shortfall in the Fund; by FY 2022, it will have increased to $95 billion. That’s money that will have to be redirected from the general fund again beginning in 2014, when the bill’s replacement is being devised, unless by then a new user fee funding device has become sufficiently popular to members of the next Congress.

MAP-21, of course, is more than just a spending bill. Like its predecessor, the large majority of funding in the bill is dedicated to highway spending. As can be seen in the chart below, transit and rail have established a share of about a quarter of federal ground transportation spending, a ratio that is similar to that of spending by state and local governments. That split has been in place since the mid 1980s and is way down from the large percentage of federal ground transportation funds dedicated to transit and rail in the 1970s and early 1980s. MAP-21 maintains that politically motivated balance. (The bill does decrease funding for bicycling and pedestrian programs, obviously not good news, but I’ll leave that discussion to others.)

Transit funding has stabilized at about 25% of all ground transportation spending. But, in terms of federal spending, this is way down from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Data from the Congressional Budget Office.

In terms of funding for mass transit, the bill offers $8.478 billion in FY 2013, rising to $8.595 billion in FY 2014, both on par with existing funding levels, adjusted for inflation. Programs designed to distribute funds by formula remain the largest percentage of the bill and grow similarly, accounting for about $6.5 billion in spending in both years, mostly to pay for the purchase of new buses and the reconstruction of facilities (such as through State of Good Repair grants). The capital investment program, however, has been cut by about $50 million and is stuck at $1.91 billion in both years. This funding provides for the Small Start and New Start programs, which provide the grant funding for new rail and bus corridors.

Despite the lack of increase in funding for those capital expansion programs, a close examination of the bill shows that it offers a number of interesting changes in the way this money is to be allocated to transit agencies:

  • The New Starts program, in the past reserved to new rail or bus lines operating in dedicated rights-of-way in new corridors, will be expanded to include “Core Capacity Improvement Projects” that significantly improving existing infrastructure while increasing capacity on the existing line by 10% or more.
  • Bus rapid transit projects will be classified and funded in the following two ways:
    • Corridor-Based BRT will lack a separate right of way. As the bill describes, however, these BRT programs will involve “a substantial investment in a defined corridor as demonstrated by features that emulate the services provided by rail… including defined stations; traffic signal priority for public transportation vehicles; short headway bidirectional services for a substantial part of weekdays and weekend days.”
    • Fixed Guideway BRT, on the other hand, means a bus-based project that includes all of the features of the Corridor-Based BRT, plus “the majority of the project operates in a separated right-of-way dedicated for public transportation use during peak periods.” The law includes the provision that the federal government will provide 80% funding for up to three such projects each fiscal year. This is an excellent opportunity for cities that want to invest in a big and serious BRT program to set their ideas into action, with limited local support needed. I hope they’re paying attention.
  • The federal government will provide expedited review for fixed guideway projects under two circumstances: New Start projects whose budget is less than $100 million in total; and projects designed by transit agencies that have recently completed similar projects that have achieved or surpassed expected budget, cost, and ridership measures.
  • The Secretary of Transportation will be able to increase the federal share for a capital expansion project if “the net capital project cost… is not more than 10 percent higher” and ridership estimates are “not less than 90 percent” of the estimates at the time the project was approved into the engineering phase of the review process.

The bill expands the TIFIA reduced cost loan program to $1 billion a year (from just over $100 million) and increases the maximum federal share from 33% to 49%, both important advances for cities that promise to dedicate future tax or toll revenues to pay for transportation improvement programs. Essentially, the federal government is increasing the ability of local governments to take advantage of lower federal borrowing costs. In Los Angeles, which has promoted the program heavily under the name “America Fast Forward,” TIFIA loans will allow for the completion of such projects as L.A.’s Westside Subway.

MAP-21 does allow small transit agencies — those with 100 buses used in the peak — to receive operating assistance (currently only capital expenditures are covered by federal transit funding). Though this provision isn’t the kind of large increase in operations support that might be beneficial to cash-starved agencies that are expanding their systems while firing bus drivers, it raises the question of whether large transit agencies could split themselves into smaller operating entities to receive federal operating support via a loophole in the law.

The bill does have one really unacceptable feature: It reestablishes the inequitable relationship between the tax benefits provided for people using transit and people who park. Before the passage of the stimulus in early 2009, people taking transit were able to deduct up to $120 a month from their taxes for doing so, whereas people who parked were allowed to deduct $230; with the stimulus, those figures were temporarily equalized at $230. Now, MAP-21 pulls transit users back down, to $125 in deductions a month, compared to $240 a month for parkers. That’s a disappointment.

Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century. The bill text. It still needs President Obama’s signature to become a law, though this is expected in the coming days.

95 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • My understanding from various other sources is the top line number is $109 Billion.
    Based on $109B, President Obama should bump the number to $113B before signing off. Given this compromise bill is for 27 months vs. the Senate MAP-21 bill for $109B over 18 months Obama can say we got the extra $4B from slightly faster Afghanistan troop drawdown, not new debt. In that manner he gives some air cover to fiscal conservatives, preserves essence of the compromise bill and the extra 3% should not cause heartburn with the House.

    USDOT should split the extra $4B between the Northeast Corridor HSR (Rep. Mica wouldn’t mind) and California HSR, since both are our highest priority projects, both help Transit and Highway crossings in their corridors, and both can be put to immediate use.

    • How precisely does the President “bump up” the number, short of vetoing it and sending it back to Congress demanding a slightly higher number?

      If $109b is the amount of funds appropriated by the Legislature, that’s how much the Executive branch gets to spend.

      • Nathanael

        Honestly? I’m ready for “armageddon”. Obama should just veto the bill outright and tell Congress to pass his bill or try to round up 2/3 majorities (and good luck with that).

        He’s a wimp so he won’t. He’s had several bills where he should’ve done that and he won’t do it on any of ‘em.

        • tbert

          Or, y’know, he could be a realist and realize that this is about as good as you’re going to get out of the current Congress. Yes, it fails to provide money for a number of things which would be both a step forward and nice to have, but it doesn’t appear to be going-backwards-with-a-vengeance, either.

          And it’s always possible to throw some money at this with supplemental funding, or possibly some sort of “signature” program designed to provide for non-fossil fuel transportation options, both within and between cities.

          So take a breath, realize that this round isn’t a flat-out win on this subject, but neither is it really a massive loss, either, and there are more fights coming, which will likely be on friendlier territory.

          • Nathanael

            Yeah, I guess it’s true, this isn’t a big loss.

            I’m frustrated because there were some earlier big losses on other issues where Obama, if he’d had decent political instincts and sufficient ambition, *really* should have nailed them to the wall. This isn’t really one of those, though, that’s true.

            • It would be a silly fight to pick. The fact that Rapid Rail systems are under construction in Illinois, Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina, and the Cascade Corridor is on the verge of moving toward a Rapid Rail corridor, added on top of the NEC corridor bunch and the California delegation now that the Initial Construction Segment is getting underway …

              … those are far stronger effective “arguments” for HSR funding in 2015 and 2017, when its going to be needed to maintain forward momentum than pulling a stunt now that could quite easily blow up in his face, since if he makes it a fight between Obama and Congress, he guarantees that nothing gets passed by a hyper-partisan Take Everything Away caucus and the other half of the GOP who are afraid of being primaried by one or more of the Take Everything Away types.

              And then, politically, given our Republican pandering corporatist press, it’d all end up being painted as his fault. And for once, with some justice.

        • Andre L.

          That would be political suicide and also irresponsible. US has elected Presidents, not elected dictators who can push whatever they want regardless of Congress.

          If Americans wanted otherwise, they’d stop electing “take no prisoners”, extremist Congressmen.

          • Nathanael

            I’m tired of “responsible” people wrecking this country. At some point, “irresponsible” behavior is the only way to make progress. Lincoln was considered “irresponsible” by the Very Serious People of his day.

            Your “political suicide” argument has more weight behind it.

            And by the way? We actually do have an elected dictator, who issues “assassination orders” on American citizens regardless of the courts or Congress. Google “assassination orders” for more information.

            I know that’s not what we’re supposed to have, but that’s what we have. Gotta be realistic.

            • Andre L.

              I will not discuss the issue of American terrorists actively promoting terrorism abroad. That is a completely unrelated issue.

              As for the rest, the approach you suggest is just an analogue one with the “Starve the Beast” of Reagan years (extreme fiscal hawks who actively promoted the increase of deficits even if totally unwarranted as way to get the public rallying behind an agenda of cut-back-government-no-matter-what).

              I also think it is just inadequate to compare preferences in transportation policy with abolition of slavery. I know some people get very angry because their preferred modes or projects get sidelined for “more of the same”, but to compare lack of some commuter rail or busways with slavery is like, again, the talk radio “pundits” who compare “Obamacare” with “death panels”.

              And I despise such “the worse the crisis, the better because there will be political gains” rhetoric no matter where it comes from.

              • Nathanael

                The issue of the President asserting the right to assassinate ANY American citizen *inside the US* (yep, that’s his claim) with *no* court review is very much an issue of whether the President is a dictator.

                I don’t think he *should* be a dictator. Fact is, he *is* a dictator, and you’d better wake up to that fact.

                “And I despise such “the worse the crisis, the better because there will be political gains” rhetoric no matter where it comes from.”

                I used to despise it, but it actually *works*. It’s worked for some very bad people for a long time now; why do you think Bush used 9/11 to do whatever laundry list of crap he had lying around? It’s time to deal with REALITY and face the fact that it *works*. We may not LIKE the fact that it works, but it DOES work.

      • Obama has added major political capital lately. He should use it tactfully by quietly threatening veto, if Congress doesn’t:

        a) Increase $4B for HSR

        or

        b) Take $4B from Highway widenings for HSR

        If House Republicans cherish their Highway widenings, they will capitulate.

        • tbert

          To be honest, his political capital is probably better spent (at least from his perspective) on reelection, and I’m not inclined to disagree with that, as a Romney administration would be, more likely than not, continually needing to prove right-wing bona fides, and “collective” transportation would likely lose big in that.

          • Nathanael

            He used his capital quite effectively by threatening a veto of the “automatic tar sands pipeline approval” provision. This succeeded at forcing the Republicans in the pocket of the oil industry to back down, and earned Obama strong support from the very large number of people who opposed the pipeline.

            What’s frustrated me in the past is that Obama hasn’t seemed to know how to do this; maybe he’s finally figured it out.

        • Ocean Railroader

          The Califorinia High Speed Rail feasco is what is giving the anti rail people plenty of ammo to fire at and sink the rest of more smoother running high speed rail projects in the county. Most likely nothing will happen intill Califorinia gets their high speed rail project on track or scrapped intill than nothing will happen.

          • In the Bay Area and LA, public sentiment concerning HSR bond money is fickle. Now casual citizens, unaware of compelling reasons to build HSR in a slow economy, want the HSR bond money to improve commuter & Amtrak rail routes. Its okay to share those routes later on “Blended Track” with California HSR. The fickleness of voter sentiment suggests that USDOT money will have to build 95% of the spine from Gilroy/Merced to San Fernando Valley stations, http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/trip_planner.aspx

            Although more funding for Northeast HSR is important too, it is CRITICAL that Obama send California HSR additional funds (est. $2.5B) to close the Bakersfield-Palmdale gap. Closing that funding gap decapitates the red herring “Trains To No Where” argument by ensuring Phase 1, covers Merced-Fresno-Kings/Tulare-Bakersfield-Palmdale stations to form the Central Valley HSR spine required by USDOT for the project to have HSR designation. It would also connect Amtrak San Joaquin service to Southern California for the first time.

            The upshot is, most of the $9.9B California HSR bond could focus on Caltrain and Metrolink Blended Track, and still be key segments of the California HSR System.

            • jim

              Where do you get the estimate of $2.5B to close the Palmdale-Bakersfield gap?

              That’s the sort of estimate that got California HSR into trouble in the first place.

              • No one has a precise cost estimate until engineering studies complete. But we know that California HSR is now using best practice cost estimation that it can build on flat land from Merced to Bakersfield with ~$3.8B of stimulus money (less a few hundred million dollars for engineering studies).

                Terrain covering ~90 miles from Bakersfield to Palmdale, is rougher, but shorter than ~163 miles from Merced to Bakersfield. So a ballpark estimate of $2.5B to close the Bakersfield-Palmdale gap seems reasonable. If another $0.5B is required from the California HSR bond, most states (Florida and Wisconsin excluded) would gladly invest that amount to lever ~$6B of USDOT grant money. In such a scenario, USDOT would be paying ~90% of cost for the most critical piece of the Initial Operating Segment.

                The real question is, will Obama fight to provide those extra funds in the new bill.

              • Thomas, you’re underestimating just how expensive the LA-Bakersfield section is. From Bakersfield to Sylmar, the current estimate is $15 billion; it can be knocked down by a few billion by going via I-5 rather than through Palmdale, but then you lose the (already overrated) ability to build the route in two stages.

              • Adirondacker12800

                …and you lose the Los Angeles – Los Vegas market…I trust that there are more people in Los Angeles who visit Los Vegas now and then than there are who visit Fresno.

              • Alon,
                Bakersfield Station to Palmdale Station is roughly 92 miles by rail, some of it mountainous. Lets say Obama fights for an additional $3 billion to help close that gap — a contribution representing $34 million per mile. I buy your argument that it would be more costly … perhaps $75 million per mile in that section or $7 billion total.

                California state legislature and the governor plan to use the cap & trade fund to help build CAHSR. Given the criticality of closing this gap and building the CAHSR Palmdale Station, it would be the perfect reason and opportunity to acquire $4 billion from the cap & trade fund.

                CAHSR Palmdale Station will benefit benefit Amtrak San Joaquin service and Metrolink commuter rail to Los Angeles sooner to help keep the project on its $68 billion budget. It will also entice funding in the next surface transportation bill to connect XpressWest from Victorville to Palmdale, enabling Los Angeles-Palmdale-Victorville-Las Vegas service. See http://www.xpresswest.com

              • Ocean Railroader

                CAHSR is still at a point where it can easly be killed like the Floridia project. In fact I was the one on this website who preducted how the Florida project would get slaughtered like a cow. And with CAHSR all I see is a even bigger cow with a bull’s eye on it’s side do to them not laying and tracks or letting out any contracts. It will most likely get killed some other way do to them having a 68 billion dollar price tag. What I don’t understand is where did this 68 billion dollar price tag suddenly come up from? I really think they could get a better deal building it if they cut out some of the gimics in it. Also as far as Congress cares even some one who is pro HSR wouldn’t want to put money into this intill they see them start building something in that what could happen with this beast is that it could keep eatting up more and more federal money for studies and more studies and nothing ever gets built. In that even if this thing had a 30 billion dollar pot of federal money to built it they most likely won’t unless they start building it.

                Another thing too about high speed rail is that the North East Rail line seems to eat up all of the federal goverment’s high speed rail money for yet more studies and nick and dim projects to keep the beast running but not really improving it greatly. Such as that 17 billion dollar Penn Station project it and the Second Ave subway are dangously way over priced.The fed might get more bag for their buck going from Washingtion DC to Florida in that the costs for land and track down their would be far more cheaper.

  • Mr Dave

    Nothing like playing with other people’s money.
    Ever consider Monopoly?
    Have fun boys.

    • Given taxpayers were spending $20B/year for air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think we can afford to invest $2B/year on these hi-pri projects in the Northeast and California.

      • We can afford more resources for investments in useful infrastructure than we can on reckless overseas adventures that undermine our national security ~ and for a nation with a sovereign currency its what resource we can afford, since we can always make more money when the economy is this depressed without any inflationary consequences …

        … the question isn’t what we can afford, the question is who gets to decide. Elections have consequences, and when all those discouraged blue team voters stayed home and gave the red team control of the House of Representatives in 2010, one consequence is a backward looking transportation policy.

        • Adirondacker12800

          …it was pointed out, as far back as the Reagan Administration that you can spend money digging holes in the ground and storing ICBMs in them or you could spend the money doing something like putting trolley tracks back down in Philadelphia. The hole in the ground will just be another hole in the ground in 30 years. The tracks in Philadelphia will have transported millions of passengers.

          Or as far back as the Eisenhower Admin. From the General himself: Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

    • Nathanael

      Indeed, the bales of $100 bills thrown out of the back of trucks in Iraq were shameful, and that is the least of the waste. The military budget is over $700,000,000,000 per year now.

      OUR money ought to be going to build mass transit and railroads, not being burned in useless foreign wars.

      • Ocean Railroader

        They gave the County of Yemen $52 million dollars while at the same time they want to put tolls up on Interstate 95. Also think of how much Interstate 95 widening and Southeast High Speed rail upgrades we buy with the $20 billion we threw down the the toilet known as Pakastain which has clearly shown that they hate our guts and it’s time to bust a move out of it.

    • tbert

      Yes, because god knows, none of it is my money, what with my never having payed taxes in my life, right? Because discussions about how, in a democratic society, we should prioritize are always about “somebody else’s money”, until you find something you like, when it becomes some sort of moral necessity?

      It’s a lazy argument you’re making, and not even a particularly good lazy argument.

  • Nathanael

    Also worth noting: after this bill passes,

    “…the federal government has poured north of $50 billion non-user tax dollars into highways in the last four years alone. That’s more government funding than Amtrak has received in its entire history.”

    We don’t need more highway widenings. That’s what this Republican bill is all about: highway widenings funded from borrowing and income tax.

    • Andre L.

      Do you actually check what projects comprise most of the US highway fund in recent years? It is not highway widening, but mostly interchange replacement, bridge replacement and re-paving. Of course they will usually re-build interchanges with modern standards but, hey, that is what you do with any civil engineer structure replacement.

      Also, it is quite overreaching to make peremptory statements such as

      We don’t need more highway widenings.

      It all depends on each circumstance, place etc. Some places are bottlenecks. Some places are functionally obsolete. Not all road widening can be feasibly replaced by using the same amount of money on transit capital projects.

      Try thinking of any rail project that can solve the problems with I-80 in western Wyoming slow ascent near the UT border… which is going to be tackled by 3rd lane uphill. Try thinking of any transit project that can solve ski-resort bound traffic in Colorado. Try thinking of any transit project to cater for the mobility needs to be assessed by I-69.

      • Ocean Railroader

        The good thing about some types of highway widening projects and rebuilding projects is that you don’t have to worry about finding any more money after you build it in that by building it you have fixed a existing proberm.

        • In what sense? Which highway widening and rebuilding projects are not going to suck down more money after you build it?

          Are you referring to the fact that the bulk of the money that has to be paid in this generation is sucked up through a variety of hidden and cross subsidies, and the explicit maintenance bill doesn’t have to be paid by the next generation?

          • Ocean Railroader

            A example of this would be the 200 mile section of US Route 35 that was widened from a dangous two lane black top to a four lane expressway between the 2000 and 2010. Also the ten mile section of US Route 35 that that they bypass with a new four lane limited acess expressway that bypasses a dangous two lane black top though the Ohio River swamp lands in West Vriginia. The nice thing about it is that this new bypass carries hoards of big trucks around the dangous two lane section that went right though people’s front yards. Also after they built this thing besides from basic repairs they don’t have to worry about the trucks ripping up the two lane section and people getting killed on it.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Try thinking of any transit project that can solve ski-resort bound traffic in Colorado.

        Ski Train anyone?

        • tbert

          1) the ski train is no longer operating
          2) the ski train served a single ski area outside of the I-70 corridor, which has the highest concentration of ski areas in CO

      • tbert

        “Try thinking of any transit project that can solve ski-resort bound traffic in Colorado.”

        Actually, having grown up in Grand Junction, CO, I have been giving thought to that. You’ll never get a train, due to the insane cost involved in running rail along the I-70 corridor. However, that corridor is choked by cars, while it still has a decent interstate.

        So BRT from Denver along I-70 west, with express routes to the major resorts, would do a lot to relieve congestion, especially if there were multiple pickup spots around the city.

        Coming from the west, you could probably start out at the Mesa Mall in Grand Junction, building a small transfer station to the local bus service, which would also stop and pick up passengers in Glenwood Springs.

        Of course, having a series of buses which basically shuttled between GJ and Denver and made stops in smaller towns along the way, and some “semi-express” buses which shuttled between the resort towns on their way between end cities would be necessary as well.

        Just musing.

        • Adirondacker12800

          How does Amtrak get the California Zephyr to Grand Junction?

          • tbert

            Along a route that runs far north of the ski area corridor.

            • Adirondacker12800

              That’s what hotel courtesy buses are for.

              • tbert

                Seriously? Have you actually looked at a map? You’re running either from Glenwood Springs in the west or Denver in the east; you’re talking about a 1-2 hour drive in many cases. I’m unaware of a courtesy bus that would make that trip, at least for places affordable to those who don’t just hop flights straight to the Aspen airport.

                And what about the actual residents of Colorado, who would like an option other than driving, who wouldn’t be using said courtesy buses? I’d like my friends and family to have an option as well.

              • Adirondacker12800

                If you want go sking in Grand Junction you get off the train in Grand Junction.

              • tbert

                Okay, it’s obvious you’re either trolling or unwilling to acquaint yourself with the geography.

              • Adirondacker12800

                Hoe much of the UP’s Central Corridor parallels I-70 in Colorado?

              • tbert

                Yes, it parallels it 30+ miles north, through some of the most mountainous terrain in North America. If your goal is to serve the I-70 corridor with transit, you’re going to have to leverage the interstate itself, unless you can come up with a few billion to punch a brand new rail line through the continental divide, and there are much, much better places to spend a few billion dollars.

              • tbert

                Or, more exactly, the UP Central Corridor parallels I-70 between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs, and then breaks off for Steamboat Springs, returning to Denver via Boulder.

                Which a quick check on a map could have told you.

              • Adirondacker12800

                So you can’t go skiing in Winter Park or Steamboat Springs and Aspen is right on I-70?

              • tbert

                I can only imagine that you’re deliberately missing the point here.

              • Nathanael

                I think some statistics on which ski areas are most popular would be helpful for settling this argument. It’s obvious that anything from Grand Junction to Glenwood Springs can be served by train.

                It is less obvious, but true, that there is a former rail line continuing east from Glenwood Springs to Minturn and then Leadville.

                There is also a former rail line from Glenwood Springs east to Aspen, which was torn up for a trail by a particularly stupid local authority.

                And then there’s the Denver, Leadville, and Gunnison route…. and yes, there was rail service to Telluride, too….

                …actually, the number of abandoned rail routes through the mountains there is really quite large. Perhaps it would make the most sense to use the I-70 right-of-way for the rail line, of course.

                But if you’re going to actually build anything, rather than simply running buses on the existing road, there’s no particular reason to run buses rather than rail; RR right-of-way is narrower than BRT right-of-way.

              • Andre L.

                @Nathanael: what are/were the specs of those mountain rails? Western Colorado is not Switzerland, distances are quite big and I’d like to see whether such lines would be able to accommodate time-competitive rail service.

                The I-70 alignment is not feasible for a modern rail line at all. It works fine for a 55/65 mph highway, but it is just too twisting and narrow to accommodate an equivalent speed rail line without massive tunneling. And that is a whole different animal.

              • What speed is equivalent speed, there? For the purpose, the freedom to not drive yourself to the sky resort on I-70 would be worth a substantial differential in travel time, so long as there is a snack car and free WiFi including onboard servers with streaming music, TV shows, music etc. available.

                Obviously the necessary financial background includes a strong Connie Mae financing for electric transport, because once you have superelevated the corridors as aggressively as you can and made express cuts where loops can be cut out o or cut down with a 40:1 ruling grade, you’ll want active tilt trains to get the best passenger train speed out of those kinds of corridors, which implies electric trains, and as the Swiss know you’d always rather have electric traction on a mountain rail corridor if you can get it.

              • Andre L.

                @BruceMcF: surely electric traction is better, but remember [b]Colorado, alone, is more than 4 times the size of Switzerland…[/b].

                And, while the Swiss networks is ubiquitous and somehow frequent, it is slow as well, even by European standards. It only gives the impression of being “fast” because most of its major origin-destination pairs are in a handful of fast corridors. But trains stop too often and that kills average commercial speed.

                If you had something like the Swiss have on the current Gotthard line from Denver to Grand Junction with some spur to Aspen at some point, it would likely take 12, 14 hours to complete de journey.

                People often underestimate the size and distances involved in US (the CAHSR project is longer than all high-speed corridors planned and built to this day, except the Italian main axis one).

        • Andre L.

          But buses are an inferior form of transportation… shouldn’t even be considered.

      • “Try thinking of any rail project that can solve the problems with I-80 in western Wyoming slow ascent near the UT border… which is going to be tackled by 3rd lane uphill. Try thinking of any transit project that can solve ski-resort bound traffic in Colorado. Try thinking of any transit project to cater for the mobility needs to be assessed by I-69.”

        Of course you make a good point for rural Interstate Highway funding. Conversely, that is why rural Republicans should compromise with urban Democrats who need more Transit and HSR funding.

        If I’m understanding the numbers correctly, Repubs want $92B for Highways (small boost), $17B for Transit (status quo) and little or nothing for Amtrak/HSR. Where’s the compromise from Republicans?

        • Nathanael

          “Try thinking of any rail project that can solve the problems with I-80 in western Wyoming slow ascent near the UT border… which is going to be tackled by 3rd lane uphill.”

          I-80 in western Wyoming *follows the UP line precisely*.

          Seriously. Did Andre even think about what he was writing?

          • Andre L.

            That is exactly my point: there is already a rail line which is slow and, for that matter, congested as well.

            Trucks using I-80 through the vastness of WY do so because the cargo they carry is time-sensitive enough not to warrant use of the existing rail infrastructure.

            Hence, you can’t just say a new rail line there would substitute new truck lanes. Except, of course, if you were talking of a new transcontinental railway, electrified, capable of consistent speeds equal or above to those of the highways of the Rockies (to makeup for time lost in transshipment).

            A similar reasoning is needed when someone promotes tit-for-tat arguments like “let’s build a parallel light-rail line instead of widening that highway” as feasible solutions, when they aren’t. The rationale goes the other way around (a new expressway between two congested sectors of a subway line will not solve its problem at all).

            • Adirondacker12800

              Trains can change crews enroute and can more or less travel continuously. UPS ships package cross country by rail. It’s faster, more consistent and cheaper. Almost caused UP to meltdown when they first tried it.

              • Andre L.

                The problem is not crew rendition, but transshipment. The modern, state-of-the-art way to unload a long container train fast is to use yards with multiple cranes that can unload the containers into trucks fast.

                The formation of a 240-car train in the Port of Long Beach takes up to 9 hours. It is not much, actually – a bit more than 2 minutes per double-stack car.

                In some, many cases indeed, speed is more important than anything else. Especially, as I said, with the dominance of the just in time paradigm. In many supply cahins, stockpiles are a curse word, something to be kept to an absolute minimum necessary. That includes stock in transit.

              • Adirondacker12800

                It’s not the 1970s anymore.

            • Nathanael

              So widen the rail line, Andre. It’s easier and cheaper than widening the roadway.

              The rail line in the specific case of Wyoming to Utah is NOT slow because of its geometry, it’s slow because UP is running a lot of slow trains on it.

        • An increase in Amtrak funding and allowing Amtrak to apply for other grants for improvements on routes over 750 miles is quite a bit more than many Republican Congresses have tried to give Congress, which is $0.00.

      • Nathanael

        “Functionally obsolete” is usually an excuse for road widening. Interchange replacement is usually an excuse for road widening. And yes, I’ve been paying attention to where the highway trust fund money has been going.

        It’s been going to road widening. “Modern standards” are usually the excuse for road widening. The fact that these “modern standards” are now 40 years old (or more) and have been shown by studies to be frequently *less safe* than the older standards for narrower roads, due to psychological effects — well, the standards are “modern”! So let’s widen the roads! Gah.

        • Andre L.

          Narrower local roads in residential back streets? Yes, there is a psychological effect because they are not meant to carry traffic at 50mph. But a highway is meant for high-speed.

          But for controlled-access highways, it is widely recognized by traffic engineers that many 1940s-1960s interchanges and what else are too dangerous for the speeds they were intended for.

          Nobody builds new blind ramps and now it is well understood the impact waving has on the traffic flow. So typical 1965’s coverleafs are all but an extinct animal in new highway projects, giving their place to stacks, collector-local etc.

          Don’t mix the subject of local roads with major highways. It is like trying to assess a high-speed rail line safety based on the mixed-traffic tram (streetcar) paradigm. There is no pedestrian or bicycle traffic conflict in an Interstate or a high-speed line. Both are meant for high-speed and increased segregation not only of access but also in terms of noise with ever-evolving barriers, for instance.

          • Nathanael

            OK, I won’t mix the subject of local roads with major expressways.

            We actually don’t need ANY expressways. There is NO purpose served by expressways which is not better served by something else.

          • Ocean Railroader

            In Ohio and West Vriginia they have and are planning to bypass whole secitons of the Old winding two lane sections of US Route 35 with a new limited acess expressway and in this case it’s a good thing in that all the heavy trucks and rivers of traffic drain away from the swampy low lying two lane traffic plugged two lane black top to a new four lane expressway that speeds things up but takes the pressure off the local roads.

          • Ocean Railroader

            The Dangous things are the roads that don’t know if they are a wide suburban street or a expressway where they are a mix of interchanges and stoplights those types of roads which are very common in Vriginia are the messy ones in that when you drive on them you could be rocketing down it at 60 to 70 miles on hour and come to a crashing halt at a stoplight or two and get back to speeding down it. A example of this type of road that doesn’t know what it is US Route 29 though Vriginia it has a mix of interchanges and stoplights all over it sometimes with in a mile of one another.

      • The kind of traffic that roads serve better than transit/rail is the kind that doesn’t need persistent widening. (Same goes for I-69: transcontinental freight goes on rail in North America, and to the extent that it doesn’t it’s because the road funding system is a massive giveaway to truckers.) The entire difference between roads and rail is that it’s much cheaper to provide a basic 70 km/h link by road and much cheaper to provide a 20,000 pphpd link by rail.

        • Andre L.

          Alon, there is still a considerable amount of cargo going by roads. When you have very time-sensitive, high-value cargo, transportation costs are not relevant as much as time is. Especially with the ever-increasing dominance of just-in-time paradigm.

          But the railways are getting better at it, with scheduled cargo trains with fixed departure and arrival times between major logistical centers. The difference is that of scale: only a handful of location have enough demand to warrant the scheduling of 200 double-stack container trains (which take several hours to be formed and then unloaded). I know BNSF operates an “express shuttle” between Long Beach and Forth Worth, TX, in 44h scheduled hours. I read that UP was building a massive transshipment yard somewhere in Nebraska (IIRC) with a lot of cranes and bays for transshipment on trucks from West Coast ports.

          • Nathanael

            When you have very time-sensitive, high-value cargo, it goes by AIRPLANE. Trucks only carry it locally.

            There really is *no place* for long-haul trucking, except for service to remote rural areas, and that can be satisfied by ordinary, non-grade-separated roads. No expressways needed.

        • Yes, Alon addressed that large majority of the long distance freight market (by value): “to the extent that it doesn’t it’s because the road funding system is a massive giveaway to truckers.”

          For less subsidy than we give to truckers, as an annual total, we could have a network of electrified 60mph-90mph long-haul mainline rail that would take over half of the current long distance freight presently traveling by truck.

          The rail systems chase the market that’s open to them, but the market that’s open to them is determined in substantial part by the massive subsidy to long distance truck freight. So, for example, a big profit opportunity in carload freight and it would not be very long before we had small consists with automatic coupling at each end collected into long trains and split off again at gateway points, so that rather than loading each car of a long unit train in serial the separate units of the carload train would be loaded in parallel at distinct railheads.

          First reduce the imbalance of the playing field between truck and rail freight some 50%, though, because its not going to happen if there’s no money to be made doing it.

  • Ocean Railroader

    What is dumb about this county is we are going to 52 million dollars in one sitting to the county Yemen which is place where the goverment does not like us one bit. While at the same time they want to put tolls up on Interstate 95 to collect 52 million dollars a year. Also if we stopped giving Pakinstain 20 billion a year in funding and moved that monkey into the highway bill we might be able to stop our county from falling in on our selves.

    Another thing that is not really looked at is that why is everything based off the cheap natural gas glut or the oil boom to keep the same old ways flowing of more cars and parking lots don’ they know are cites are now mostly parking lots?

  • D

    I desperately miss the old transport politic logo.

  • Ben Ross

    I don’t think it’s accurate to refer to “large percentage of federal ground transportation funds dedicated to transit and rail in the 1970s and early 1980s.” It was spent on transit by local choice, not allocated to it by federal decision.

    Much — I suspect all, but I don’t have figures — of this money was money appropriated for urban expressways that were included in the original interstate highway network but then canceled by local governments as a result of public opposition. In 1973, Congress allowed money budgeted for canceled urban interstates to be reallocated to rail transit. It was soon made retroactive, to include roads canceled before the law was passed.

    Once the urban highways were canceled, state highway departments were left with the choice of letting the money go for transit or sending it back to Washington, so — their roads already defeated politically — they went along with the transit spending.

    In 1991, the transportation bill was amended to allow highway money to be transferred freely to transit. But the budget is based on a percentage formula, not tied to a planned road network. And highway departments have gotten smarter about avoiding projects likely to excite massive opposition. There has been much less locally decided transfer of highway money to transit in the last 20 years.

    • Ben Ross

      Oops — when I said “I suspect all, but I don’t have figures — of this money,” I meant “I suspect all, but I don’t have figures — of the difference between transit spending in the 1970s and in more recent years”

    • While there was certainly some spending transfer between highway accounts and mass transit*, this did not account for the majority of spending on transit during the years 1978-1982, which, as the chart shows, was the high point for federal investment in transit as a percentage of surface transportation expenditures.

      If you review the 1978 Surface Transportation Assistance Act, you will find that the legislation provides for $3.085 billion in transit spending in FY 1979, rising to $3.6 billion in FY 1982 (that’s equivalent to $8 billion in 2010 dollars adjusted for inflation).

      At the same time, the act provides for about $6.6 billion in highway and highway safety spending in FY 1980** and $6.84 billion in FY 1982.

      That means that transit’s share of direct, federally authorized expenditures during that period rose from about 31.6% to 34.5%. These figures are lower than the figures quoted above, for the reasons that you pointed out. On the other hand, the figures for our period are also too high if you just measure what Congress has authorized. The new transportation bill (and those of the past two decades) provides about 20% of funding directly to transit, but, as the chart shows, actual spending has risen to 25% when you count transfers.

      I would conclude thus that federal directives for spending on transit have declined from 34.5% of surface transportation expenditures in 1982 to about 20% today, while actual spending on transit (using federal funds) has declined from about 45% of all surface transportation spending in 1982 to 25% today.

      * The funds for transit construction using dollars formerly ascribed to transit projects were not included in the public transport funds noted in this comment, but are included in the totals cited by the CBO in the charts in the article.
      ** Which was similar to FY 1979.

      • Nathanael

        In other words, thank you Jimmy Carter and the oil crisis.

        Unfortunately, since then the national Republican leadership has gone insane, and even the renewed oil crises have not caused them to start supporting public transportation or rail.

  • Nathanael

    “Fixed Guideway BRT, on the other hand, means a bus-based project that includes all of the features of the Corridor-Based BRT, plus “the majority of the project operates in a separated right-of-way dedicated for public transportation use during peak periods.” The law includes the provision that the federal government will provide 80% funding for up to three such projects each fiscal year.”

    Yet more proof that BRT is an oil/asphalt/concrete/rubber-industry scam designed to suppress transportation which doesn’t give their industries money. If you’re going to do this sort of “Fixed Guideway BRT”, it is generally *cheaper to build rail* and *cheaper to operate rail*, yet apparently this funding will not be available for rail services.

    Perhaps some city can design railcars with decorative rubber wheels and get them classified as “buses” in order to get the money.

    • It really depends on whether you interpret “separated right-of-way” to include running in the median of an arterial road. If you want to put some intermediate-capacity transit in the center of Queens Boulevard, Broadway, 125th Street, Northern Boulevard, etc., you’re in a situation where buses really are cheaper. Not every BRT project is the LA Orange Line or the Hartford busway.

    • Andre L.

      Concrete industry probably benefits more from modern rail construction than busway construction…

      • Don’t be so sure. The difference in costs between a busway and a rail line is electronics and specialized materials (rails, ties) more than standard concrete and asphalt pouring. That’s one reason why the BRT-rail cost difference is so much lower in developed countries than in middle-income ones like Brazil and Colombia, in addition to operating costs.

  • Donk

    I’m anxiously waiting for a post on the CA HSR project…

  • Andre L.

    Something that puzzles me is how transit agencies communication with the public gets often, and wrongly IMO, hijacked by an activist discourse that is more likely to put skeptical and worried citizens off from their projects.

    CAHSR, for instance, is an interesting transportation project on its own – if done right, that is, not with concessions like the slowdown in the peninsula using Caltrain tracks for freaking 70 miles -.

    It could be sold as some kind of modern infrastructure, state-of-the-art, that the State should have.

    Instead, most of the general message from CAHSR is playing on things like “remaking communities”, avoiding global warming, and many, many doses of anti-car brouhaha. It is like they want to sold the project as some necessary evil to deal with, because else mobility in California will be doomed on the long-term.

    Of course, CAHSR is not the only agency or project that goes that way. 3/4 of every cycling infrastructure project I came across for some US city usually devotes far less time/space/paragraphs to the interesting aspects of having another layer of infrastructure laid on a city than on rambling about how cars are evil, and how morally superior cycling is to driving – or some variation to that -, plus all the renders of “livable communities” or some other b.s. that is not relevant to the transportation aspects of such projects.

    A sad state of affairs, indeed, and horrible PR choices for agencies involved in the projects.

  • Adirondacker12800

    CAHSR, for instance, is an interesting transportation project on its own – if done right, that is, not with concessions like the slowdown in the peninsula using Caltrain tracks for freaking 70 miles

    It’s only 50 miles. Where would you put the tracks that doesn’t involve bulldozing 50 miles of suburbia or 50 miles of tunnel under the Bay? I suppose they could put it on 50 miles of trestle in the Bay but that would never get approved.

    • Andre L.

      They can build an elevated track above existing Caltrains ROW, where the ROW can’t be enlarged. 50 miles at 200mph is a significant time gain of shared traffic on a merely 4-tracked Caltrain ROW.

      Elevated tracks also eliminate part of the problems, such as very fast trains passing close to platforms.

      • Ocean Railroader

        They could build a new Bart line under one of the streets near this row and get rid of the commuter rail along this section by having the new Bart line take over the local passanger load instead it might be worth it 40 to 50 years down the road.

      • Adirondacker12800

        When you run the 200 MPH trains through the 125MPH curves they will derail. That tends to lower your ridership numbers significantly.

      • It’s way more expensive to stack tracks 2+2 than to widen the corridor to 4 tracks, even at the prices of the Peninsula. In both cases you’re running up against NIMBYs who don’t want more trains or more infrastructure, but with four tracks side by side you’re spending a little more on land acquisition but much less on viaducts.

  • [...] rail projects have been drying up all over the country, and Congress barely managed to eke out some very weak tea with MAP-21 – a transportation auth with reduced transit spending, bike and pedestrian money [...]

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