Airport Congress DOT Finance Social Justice

Our Government: By the Wealthy, For the Wealthy

» Congress’ willingness to address the sequester, but only for the Federal Aviation Administration, is a disgusting sort of bipartisan agreement.

The sequester, which went into effect at the beginning of last month, cut more than $85 billion from the federal budget for this year alone. Its cuts, whose impacts will continued to be felt through 2021, were disproportionately focused on domestic programs. Public transportation, for instance, was dramatically affected: Almost $600 million was cut from funding directed towards mitigating the effects of Hurricane Sandy; another $104 million was cut from capital investment grants that fund new train and bus lines; Amtrak lost $80 million.

Other cuts, such as those to the nation’s affordable housing, Head Start, schools, and meals for seniors, are even more devastating for the nation’s least well-off.

Congress, however, has been incapable of addressing the issue, allowing the cuts to these essential programs to reinforce America’s growing concentration of wealth, low tax rates for the wealthy, and limited social welfare aid. Austerity, which is the intellectual justification supporting these cuts to federal spending, has been shown to only encourage economic stagnation — and often do so at the expense of the least well-off. Yet the national legislature has, as if in complete disinterest, sat idly by as the cuts set in.

That is, until it became obvious that the sequester was affecting the performance of the Congressional elite’s favorite program: Federal support for air travel. Congresspeople, apparently, just couldn’t support having their flights delayed.

Yesterday, the Senate unanimously approved a bill that allows the Federal Aviation Administration to transfer up to $253 million towards the air traffic control system in order to prevent furloughs that had begun this week. This morning, a large majority of House members agreed to the bill, with only a small group of mostly left-slanting Democrats opposed.

The swift and bipartisan response to the problem of slowed air travel leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. While the bill did not approve new funds to the FAA, it effectively forced the agency to shift funds around in a way to ensure that Congresspeople (and admittedly, all American air travelers) could get around the country more quickly.

There of course has been no similar rush to, for instance, shift funds away from the subsidies provided to the oil industry to support mass transit, or to shift funds away from the mortgage interest tax deduction to support affordable housing. Why? Because the Congress, in this quick response to a national problem, has shown itself to be completely concerned with government issues that affect the nation’s wealthy but unaffected by a loss of government aid to the poor. Democrats, who might have used this situation to argue for restoring essential funds for social programs, simply abdicated responsibility, mostly choosing to vote in line with the GOP here.

Federal aid to air travel has its merits, of course. But we must put in question why keeping it functional while ignoring the plight of the poor makes any sort of policy sense.

After all, air travel is largely the domain of the upper middle class and wealthy. A recent interview of U.S. residents at LAX, for example, showed that 72% of travelers who agreed to state their levels of income were making more than the U.S. median household income. Low-income people are far less likely to travel by plane than the wealthy.

Yet the federal government continues to subsidize air travel at record rates. According to the GAO, for example, air travel security provided by the TSA, which cost upward of $9 billion in 2011, has been more than 70% subsidized by U.S. taxpayers in recent years. Passengers and air carriers only commit 30% or so of the costs.

These policies amount to a shift of wealth upwards. Meanwhile, members of the House and Senate continue to fantasize about ways to further cut public transportation.

Congress DOT Finance

The Senate’s Transportation Program

(I) The Accomplishment

The U.S. Senate’s passage of a transportation reauthorization bill Wednesday was big news, if only because it has now been 898 days since the last transportation bill officially expired. Three years of debates in both houses of the Congress have brought us one proposal after another, but only one piece of legislation has actually made it out the doors of one of the chambers. That is a serious accomplishment for Barbara Boxer’s leadership in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Senate Bill 1813, also known as MAP-21 (“Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century“), is a $109 billion law that will remain in effect for 18 months if it is passed by the House. It reorganizes several national transportation programs and includes a number of interesting features, some of which I describe later in this piece.

Of course, the specific policy measures of MAP-21 may be meaningless despite the bill’s 74-22 passage margin, which included about half of the GOP contingent in the Senate; House Republicans have suggested that they have little interest in moving forward with this bipartisan legislation. Current funding for transportation runs out on March 31st; at that point, if nothing happens at the Capitol, collection of fuel taxes and distribution of transportation funding from Washington to the states will cease. What seems most likely is yet another extension of the existing transportation bill, originally passed in 2005 but now woefully out-of-date and underfunded.

Some have noted that MAP-21, for all the acclaim it has received (at this point, any bill to get through would likely be lauded…), is ultimately little more than another extension of the existing law. But, as Lisa Schweiter has written, it does nothing to resolve the financing difficulties that plague America’s transportation funding situation. The bill will require a significant infusion of money ($12 billion) from sources other than the Highway Trust Fund. In other words, it will not be fully funded through the fuel tax user fee, which many would like to see increased to cut down on automobile-produced externalities and force a link between spending on transportation infrastructure and revenues derived from transportation. It is unclear how the next bill, facing even fewer revenues from the Trust Fund, would be funded.

Yet the political conditions in which MAP-21 did pass are indicative of the bill’s importance. We are, after all, in a tightly contested election year in which Republicans have set their sights on the White House and Senate as Democrats eye the House. The bipartisan passage of the legislation — though not as close to unanimity as many previous transportation bills — suggests that there continues to be relative consensus among both parties that there is a rationale for federal investment in transportation infrastructure. Republicans in the Senate could have easily deflected the bill’s passage, forcing yet another extension — but they chose to cooperate and produce a less-than-ideal bill that will nonetheless keep people employed and America’s infrastructure in reasonable condition.

It is true that the Highway Trust Fund’s diminishing pot of funds — caused by the coinciding effects of an overall decrease in driving, better fuel efficiency, and the lack of any inflation adjustments on the levy since 1993  — imperils the future of U.S. transportation funding, whether or not MAP-21 makes it to President Obama’s desk. But Congress is not run by economists. It is run by politicians who, for better or worse, must respond to the demands of their constituencies.

What is unquestionable is that the level of support for a national increase in the fuel tax is minimal. Republicans are hammering the Administration for presiding over a significant increase in fuel costs since 2009, despite no increase in the tax. Meanwhile, Democrats are legitimately worried about increasing the burden of transportation costs on the nation’s lower- and middle-income households. In discussing how to pay for transportation, we cannot forget the fact that a majority of the nation’s poor now live in suburbia — most of them far away from the nation’s underdeveloped public transportation system. Increasing the gas price will do significant damage to the purchasing power of tens of millions of Americans in the short and medium term. There’s a reason that doing so has little political momentum.

Transportation experts may not like the sound of it, but funding for national infrastructure is not — and likely will not be — fully user funded (it wasn’t even when the Highway Trust Fund was on more solid fiscal ground). In fact, its role is as somewhat of a redistributive tool, encouraging mobility by subsidizing cheaper travel both through cheap roads and, in the cities, transit. Helping people to get around is a bipartisan policy goal. This leaves MAP-21 in the uncomfortable position of relying on outlays from federal funding sources other than the gas tax. In this day and age, that comes in the form of debt.

(II) The Policy

Despite the limited nature of the MAP-21 legislation, there were nonetheless some significant changes to federal transportation law contained within. Most intriguingly, the bill puts into question the future of private sector involvement in the transportation field.

What MAP-21 does not do is either cut funding for sustainable transportation dramatically (as would have the still-born House Republican proposal, H.R. 7) or devolve transportation funding and decision-making entirely to the states, a revision whose primary consequence would be putting more highway-crazed State Departments of Transportation in charge. It was, in other words, not a good policy. Thankfully, two amendments to MAP-21 that would have done so failed by huge margins in the Senate (Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC)’s by 30 to 67; Senator Rob Portmans (R-OH)’s by 30 to 68), suggesting that there is little support on either side of the aisle for moving all transportation policy to the states.

MAP-21 is designed to provide a framework for a significant reworking of the nation’s transportation policy structure. It does so first by establishing a set of national goals for the mobility system — to improve the freight network, to ensure a state of good repair for existing infrastructure, and to reduce congestion, for instance. These largely symbolic efforts may come to play a larger role if MAP-21 enters into the law and is eventually expanded by future legislation.

More importantly, this bill consolidates duplicative programs in the Department of Transportation and at least in theory streamlines project delivery processes to ensure faster construction timelines and cheaper costs. Whether these changes will actually improve the construction and operation of transportation in the U.S. remains to be seen.

Though MAP-21’s investment strategy is generally designed to continue existing levels of federal transportation investment (at an inflation-adjusted pace) including the now-standard 20% of funds for transit, it includes several measures that are beneficial to sustainable transportation options. For one, the TIFIA program, which offers federal loan support and can back significant private investment in new infrastructure, would be expanded from $122 million a year to $1 billion a year. For cities like Los Angeles, which wants to expand its transit network at a breakneck speed, this could be a huge boost, as it allows cities to take out more loans at lower, federally backed rates.

The bill permanently equalizes commuter tax benefits for transit commuters with those received by people who park, a long sought-after rule. It also allows transit agencies to use federal funds to pay for operations costs in certain situations. This is currently not to be covered using money from Washington (because transit funding is currently reserved for capital expenses). This is a huge advance that could provide downtrodden metropolitan areas the ability to maintain services on their bus and rail lines even when they face declines in revenues from other sources, which has happened in most U.S. cities since the beginning of the economic crisis.

Despite the inclusion of more money for TIFIA, the bill’s stance on private involvement in transportation is mildly contradictory. The House bill H.R. 7 would have given transit agencies a monetary incentive for contracting out their services to private operators. This was, to be frank, a giveaway to the private transportation industry. MAP-21 has no such provisions.

On the other hand, MAP-21 includes an amendment proposed by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) that passed 50-47 that excludes private highways from the calculation of a state’s guaranteed transportation funding through standard federal formulas. Currently, states are provided highway funds in part based on their mileage of federal highways; the Senator’s amendment simply says that roads that used to be public and were transferred to a private entity should not be counted in that calculation. Bingaman argued that “drivers across the nation shouldn’t be subsidizing any state that has chosen essentially to “sell off” an existing highway to the highest bidder.” He has a point, and his amendment seems likely to dissuade states from continuing down this particular path, but it does seem to be somewhat of a contradictory move on the part of the Senate: Does it want private investment through programs like TIFIA, or not?

Altogether, the Senate’s proposal is a significant advance over the existing law. If it were passed by the House, American cities would benefit.

Nevertheless, MAP-21’s ultimate failure remains the fact that it fails to provide for a significant expansion in funding for sustainable infrastructure projects. President Obama, whose administration continues to officially promote the passage of a bill that would double national transportation spending and devote a far higher percentage of it to transit, livable communities, and high-speed rail, has been shunned to the sidelines in the Senate’s debate. And the nation’s mobility systems will suffer as a result.

What, then, can we make of the future of the nation’s transportation network? What is inevitable is that MAP-21’s success or failure in the House of Representatives will do nothing to resolve the legislative confusion between the oft-repeated claim that transportation should be paid for through user fees and the embarrassing fact that there aren’t enough user fees being collected to pay for the things we want.

Image above: The subway connecting the U.S. Senate office buildings and the national capitol building, from Flickr user goldberg (cc)

DOT Finance Infrastructure President

The President’s Budget: Full of Ambition, Short on Congressional Support

» The executive branch’s proposed spending for FY 2013 would greatly expand spending on transit and intercity rail, but it faces a hostile Congress. It brings good news, however, for five California rail projects and new light rail lines for Charlotte, Honolulu, and Portland.

The White House has introduced a budget — and a reauthorization proposal — that would significantly increase investment in transportation infrastructure over the next six years. Though the legislation as currently designed will not be passed into law because of reluctance from Congress, the Obama Administration’s continued efforts to expand funding for sustainable mobility options are to be praised.

Over the course of the next six years, the Administration proposes significant expansions in transit and rail spending, increasing those programs from 22.9% of the overall DOT budget for surface transportation in fiscal year 2013 (and 21% in actual spending in FY 2011) to 35.7% of the budget in FY 2018. See table below. Though expenditures on highways would increase significantly as well, it would be in public transportation modes that the real expansion would be made. Significant spending on intercity rail — almost $50 billion over six years — as well as new transit capital projects ($21 billion) and state of good repair (SOGR, at $32 billion) would be the most important contributions of the program.

The Administration’s Proposed Six-Year Transportation Reauthorization
Unless noted, amounts in $b201320142015201620172018Total
FHA (including $500 m for TIFIA)42.5746.4649.6653.5455.5158.52305.25
Transit Formula (FTA)4.766.537.118.058.969.9145.31
Bus Rail SOGR (FTA)
Transit Expansion (FTA)2.453.013.253.794.174.4121.07
FTA & FRA as % of Total22.931.532.534.034.935.732.5

In addition to revenues from the fuel tax (which no one seems willing to advocate increasing), the White House proposes to pay for its transportation bill by reducing the size of the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is used to support armed operations abroad. Because of the decision to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the amount of money needed for this purpose is lessened, and thus the possibility of expanding spending on transportation.

Most of the President’s proposal is unlikely to see the light of day in the House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans newly hostile to the idea of using Highway Trust Fund revenues to pay for transit projects. Yet their proposal would create a $78 billion funding shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund over the next ten years according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. That’s with $0 committed to transit! The Administration proposal, on the other hand, is fully funded (or at least accounted for*) and would transform the Highway Trust Fund into the much more reasonably titled Transportation Trust Fund; the priorities of each piece of legislation are very clear.

The defection of several House Republicans away from their own party’s transportation bill suggests that the legislation may not even get out of their chamber. At this point, the Senate’s bipartisan, mostly status-quo-extending two-year transportation reauthorization bill is now the most likely of all three proposals to be official government policy by the end of the spring. But even it faces the strong possibility of being ditched in favor of a simple extension of the existing bill, which will expire on March 31 according to the current law.

Nonetheless, the Obama Administration’s plans for this expansion in transit funding, which mirror similar proposals from previous years, are a reminder of  the ambitions for improved transportation that are possible in this country but continue to be derailed by political forces hostile to the idea of investing in the nation’s infrastructure. This is a serious proposal to significantly improve the state of the nation’s rail and bus systems — if we choose to take it.

More definite than any of the recommendations for an expansion in funding are the Obama Administration’s recommendations for new capital investment projects. The Federal Transit Administration contributes a significant portion of costs for new rail and bus lines in the United States through the New Starts and Small Starts programs, though the Department of Transportation is recommending that these simply be merged into a new Transit Expansion and Livable Communities Program, which would also include grants for projects currently funded by the TIGER program.

The major news is that the FTA will recommend pledging its support with Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA) soon to four new major rail projects — the Charlotte Northeast Corridor light rail, the Los Angeles Regional Connector light rail subway, the Los Angeles Westside Subway, and the Columbia River Crossing Project light rail line in Portland — in addition to five other rail projects that will receive that funding guarantee a bit soon — a South Sacramento light rail line, San Francisco’s Central Subway, Honolulu’s Rail project, San Jose’s BART extension, and the Portland-Milwaukie light rail line. See the chart below. The latter projects are all under construction; the former group will get underway either by the end of the year or in 2013.

In addition, the FTA will fund nine BRT lines with the Project Construction Grant Agreements (PCGA) across the country. Of course the twelve major projects that already have FFGAs will continue to be funded, including New York’s two megaprojects, the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access for the Long Island Railroad.

The DOT’s Proposed Funding for Transit Capital Projects (35 projects)
CityProject ModeRatingCost m$% Fed ShareLength MiRiders kCost / Rider k$
New YorkLIRR East Side AccessCRFFGA738635.63.516744
New York2nd Ave Phase 1MFFGA486726.72.321323
DallasGreen/Orange LinesLRTFFGA140649.821.045.931
DenverEagle East CorridorCRFFGA204350.430.257.535
Salt LakeDraperLRTFFGA19359.83.86.828
WashingtonDulles Metro Phase 1MFFGA314228.611.785.737
SeattleUniversity LinkLRTFFGA194841.73.140.248
HartfordHartford-New BritainBRTFFGA56748.59.416.335
OrlandoSunrail Phase 1CRFFGA35750.132.07.448
MinneapolisCentral CorridorLRTFFGA95749.59.840.923
HoustonNorth CorridorLRTFFGA75659.55.329.925
HoustonSoutheast CorridorLRTFFGA82354.76.628.829
SacramentoSouth Phase 2LRTPending27050.04.31027
San FranciscoCentral SubwayLRTPending157859.71.735.145
HonoluluRail TransitMPending512630.220.111644
San JoseSilicon Valley BART Phase 1MPending233038.610.24651
Los AngelesRegional ConnectorLRTRecommended134350.01.988.215
Los AngelesWestside SubwayMRecommended566242.48.978.772
CharlotteNortheast CorridorLRTRecommended106950.09.324.643
PortlandColumbia River CrossingLRTRecommended94090.42.92243
JacksonvilleSoutheast Corridor (2014)BRTRecommended PCGA2479.211.14.75
PhoenixCentral Mesa (2016)LRTRecommended PCGA19837.93.19.720
FresnoBlackstone/Kings Canyon (2014)BRTRecommended PCGA4881.313.87.27
OaklandEast Bay (2016)BRTRecommended PCGA20536.614.441.75
San FranciscoVan Ness (2016)BRTRecommended PCGA12659.52.052.42
JacksonvilleNorth Corridor (2013)BRTRecommended PCGA3381.89.34.67
Grand RapidsSilver Line (2014)BRTRecommended PCGA3580.09.67.25
El PasoDyer Corridor (2015)BRTRecommended PCGA3557.1123.410
EugeneWest Eugene EMX (2017)BRTRecommended PCGA9678.18.97.413
San DiegoMid Coast CorridorLRTPlanning - Medium High164249.411
BaltimoreRed LineLRTPlanning - Medium High221950.014.55739
WashingtonPurple LineLRTPlanning - Medium High192650.016.360.132
MinneapolisSouthwest CorridorLRTPlanning - Medium122150.0
HoustonUniversity CorridorLRTPlanning - Medium139350.011.3

FFGA – Full Funding Grant Agreement (formerly New Start) already approved by FTA, meaning that the federal government has guaranteed payment on its share of capital costs, and project is moving forward.

Pending – The FTA is planning to advance with a FFGA this year.

Recommended – The FTA intends to work with the transit agency to prepare for a FFGA either this year (Charlotte) or next (Los Angeles and Portland).

Recommended PCGA – The FTA is planning to advance with a Project Construction Grant Agreement (formerly Small Start) with a transit agency either this year or next.

Planning – Still under review; FFGA likely in several years. Rating indicates DOT’s empirical sense of the project’s value.

* “Fully funded,” of course, is a nebulous term: Does money saved from pulling out of overseas military conflicts “count” as money to be spent somewhere else? The Administration says yes, while Republicans in Congress say no, arguing that that money is deficitary anyway.

Image above: Planned Westwood/UCLA Station, from Metro

Congress DOT Elections Finance

Time to Fight

» With a House like this, what advances can American transportation policy make?

Actions by members of the U.S. House over the past week suggest that Republican opposition to the funding of alternative transportation has developed into an all-out ideological battle. Though their efforts are unlikely to advance much past the doors of their chamber, the policy recklessness they have displayed speaks truly poorly of the future of the nation’s mobility systems.

By Friday last week, the following measures were brought to the attention of the GOP-led body:

  • The Ways and Means Committee acted to eliminate the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund, destroying public transportation’s source of steady federal financing for capital projects, first established in the 1980s. The members of the committee determined that to remedy the fact that gas taxes have not been increased since 1993,* the most appropriate course was not to raise the tax (as would make sense considering inflation, more efficient vehicles, and the negative environmental and congestion-related effects of gas consumption) but rather to transfer all of its revenues to the construction of highways. Public transit, on the other hand, would have to fight for an appropriation from the general fund, losing its traditional guarantee of funding and forcing any spending on it to be offset by reductions in other government programs.** This as the GOP has made evident its intention to reduce funding for that same general fund through a continued push for income tax reductions, even for the highest earners.
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a transportation reauthorization bill on partisan lines (with the exception of one Republican who voted against it, Tom Petri of Wisconsin) that would do nothing to increase funding for transportation infrastructure in the United States over the next five years despite the fact that there is considerable demand for a large improvement in the nation’s road, rail, and transit networks just to keep them in a state of good repair, let alone expand them to meet the needs of a growing population.
  • The committee voted to eliminate all federal requirements that states and localities spend 10% of their highway funding on alternative transportation projects (CMAQ), such as Safe Routes to School, sidewalks, or cycling infrastructure, despite the fact the those mandated investments are often the only ones of their sort that are actually made by many states.
  • The committee eliminated the Obama Administration’s trademark TIGER program, which has funded dozens of medium-scale projects throughout the country with a innovative merit-based approach. Instead, virtually all decisions on project funding would be made by state DOTs, which not unjustly have acquired a reputation as only interested in highways. Meanwhile, members couldn’t resist suggesting that only “true” high-speed rail projects (over 150 mph top speed) be financed by the government — even as they conveniently defunded the only such scheme in the country, the California High-Speed Rail program.
  • The same committee added provisions to federal law that would provide special incentives for privatization of new transportation projects — despite the fact that there is no overwhelming evidence that such mechanisms save the public any money at all. And under the committee’s legislation, the government would provide extra money to localities that contract out their transit services to private operators, simply as a reward for being profit-motivated.
  • Meanwhile, House leadership recommended funding any gaps in highway spending not covered by the Trust Fund through a massive expansion in domestic energy production that would destroy thousands of acres of pristine wilderness, do little for decreasing the American reliance on foreign oil, and reaffirm the nation’s addiction to carbon-heavy energy sources and ecological devastation. New energy production of this sort is highly speculative in nature and would produce very few revenues in the first years of implementation. As a special treat, the same leadership proposed overruling President Obama’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline by bundling an approval for it into the transportation bill.

This litany of disastrous policies were endorsed by the large majority of Republicans on each committee, with the exception of two GOP members in House Ways and Means*** and one in the Transportation Committee who voted against the bill, though the vote was entirely along party lines for an amendment attempting to reverse course on the elimination of the Mass Transit Account.

Fortunately, these ideas are unlikely to make it into the code thanks to the Senate, whose members, both Democratic and Republican, have different ideas about what makes an acceptable transportation bill. I’ll get back to that in a bit.

The House’s effort to move forward on a new multiyear federal transportation bill — eagerly awaited by policy wonks for three years — follows intense and repeated Republican obstructions of the Obama Administration’s most pioneering efforts to alter the nation’s transportation policy in favor of investments that improve daily life for inhabitants of American metropolitan areas. As part of that process, federally funded high-speed rail, streetcar, and transit center projects have been shot down by local politicians as a waste of money, even as road construction has continued apace.

The Tea Party’s zany obsession with the supposed U.N. plot to take over American land use decisions through Agenda 21 seems to have infected GOP House members and even presidential contenders. Michele Bachmann’s claim in 2008 that Democrats are attempting to force people onto light rail lines to travel between their housing “tenements” and government jobs may have made it into the mind of Newt Gingrich, who recently made the claim that the “elite” in New York City who ride the subway and live in high-rise condos don’t understand “normal” Americans. What kind of language is this?

In the Senate, there is clear evidence that the hard-core proposals of the House will not become law. The upper body’s Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously endorsed a different type of transportation reauthorization, one that would last only two years but that would reform and simplify the grants provided by the Department of Transportation so that they are more based on merit in such matters as ecological sensitivity and the creation of livable communities.

Similarly, in the Senate Banking Committee, the transit portion of the proposed bill (approved unanimously) would maintain funding guarantees and allow transit agencies to use federal dollars for operations spending during periods of high unemployment, which would be an excellent policy if pushed into law. How the Senate will be able to compromise with the House in time for the March 31st deadline set by the current legislation is up in the air.

The strange and laudable part of the Senate side of the story — at least as compared to the House — is the bipartisan nature of decision-making there. Why are Republicans in the Senate promoting a transportation bill that explicitly would promote multimodalism as a goal, in a contrast to the highway focus of their peers in the House? Why are they accepting environmental criteria as appropriate measures of quality in transportation policy? Perhaps the Democratic Party’s control of the Senate makes fighting such ideas a waste of time. Or perhaps longer Senate terms in office allow clearer, more reasonable thinking.

Whatever the reason, in the long-term, it is hard to envision reversing the continued growth of the GOP’s strident opposition to sustainable transportation investments in the House. As I have documented, density of population correlates strongly and positively with the Democratic Party vote share in Congressional elections; the result has been that the House Republicans have few electoral reasons to articulate policies that benefit cities. Those who believe in the importance of a sane transportation policy need to make more of an effort to advance a sane transportation politics to residents of suburban and rural areas, who also benefit from efforts to improve environmental quality, mobility alternatives, and congestion relief, but perhaps are not yet convinced of that fact. Doing so would encourage politicians hoping for votes outside of the city core — Democratic or Republican — to promote alternatives to the all-highways meme that currently rules the GOP in the House.

In the face of such actions, it becomes imperative in the short term not only to ramp up citizen opposition to the defunding of transit and associated programs, but also to full-throatily endorse those leaders who will stand up to fight. Not working for their election in the fall risks policies like those being advanced in the House being passed by an acquiescent Senate and signed by a future president. Such actions would put in question the potential improvement of existing programs and turn back on the policy strides that must be made to contest the vision some have of an all-automobile America.

* The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that based on current tax receipts, the government will run out of funding for new highways next year and for new transit in 2014.

** I have in the past frequently cited the failings of the current user-fee based transportation funding system. By taxing people based on their automobile use and using some of the funds for transit, we are of course attempting to counteract the negative externalities produced by pollution and congestion. But in the process, we are charging drivers — even in places with no alternatives — a regressive tax that limits the mobility of the poor. Thus we are directly tying funding for transit to revenues from automobiles, a perverse relationship. Yet the alternative to the user fee is guaranteed funding from the general fund, not arbitrary annual appropriations to transit that House Republicans seem to be promoting.

*** Erik Paulsen of Minnesota and Vern Buchanan of Florida, both of whom represent districts just outside city centers.

Congress DOT Finance Infrastructure Los Angeles

For Federal Transportation Investment, a Difficult Prognosis

» A new plan for the country’s transportation financing system from Congressman John Mica would cut spending significantly — but Democrats have yet to provide a serious counter-proposal.

With everyone from Mitch McConnell to Barack Obama arguing — no matter the evidence to the contrary — that the federal budget must be constrained in order to save the American economy, it is perhaps no surprise that the long-expressed hopes of a greatly expanded transportation bill have fallen to the wayside.

The revealing today of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica’s (R-FL) plan for a six-year, $230 billion reauthorization bill is the latest evidence that support in Congress for expanded investment in the U.S. transport network is weak. Though the bill is by no means final — Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA)’s own two-year plan, slightly larger (and with $12 billion in missing revenues), was partially revealed yesterday — the writing is on the wall: At least for now, expecting any improvement in federal funding for transit or even highway programs is unrealistic.

The current federal transportation authorization legislation, SAFETEA-LU, has already been extended several times and will expire on September 30th this year.

Mr. Mica’s proposal would provide $35 billion for surface transportation in fiscal year 2012, rising to $42 billion in 2017. Existing funding provides $51.5 billion, so this would represent a draconian one-third cut in federal spending so that expenditures on transportation match the funding received from federal fuel taxes. It has been clear since last November that the GOP would push for this funding cut once it took control of the House.

Mr. Mica argues that a loosening up of red tape and increasing private investment would make up the difference, a questionable assumption.

The specific distribution of funds to transit or highways has not been enumerated, but the current shares (about 20% for transit and 80% for highways) will be maintained. This would mean a cut from about $11 billion for transit today to about $7 billion. What does this mean? Fewer dollars in the urban formula program means fewer new buses and rail cars for transit agencies across the country. Less money for state of good repair means a decline in the number of renovations of aging railway tunnels and viaducts or bus depots. A loss for the New Starts program means the end of several major capital expansion projects nationwide.

The Administration’s high-speed rail program, already under siege by a siderodromophobic GOP, is axed in the proposal. Livability grants, too fuzzy for the mobility-oriented Mr. Mica, also appear to have been taken out of funding consideration.

Compared to the heady days of early 2009, during which the Congress approved billions of dollars in additional funding for transportation in the stimulus bill, this represents quite a turnaround. And even early this year, President Obama announced that he would push for a $556 billion six-year transportation bill that would more than double annual national expenditures on public transportation (he wanted $128 billion in 2012 alone) and introduce significant support for a high-speed rail program. Though Mr. Obama continues to articulate support for a major infrastructure initiative, he has been unable to put forward a proposal that would fund such a project.

Democrats, sitting in the minority on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, were quick to lambaste the proposal. They argued that the significant reduction in spending on transportation that the Mica proposal would entail would result in a significant loss of jobs. And indeed they would. But in Washington, where the mood has shifted sharply away from the idea that government might be able to aid the advancement of the economy, even these committee Democrats were unwilling to propose a funding mechanism that would actually finance the bill they would introduce if they were able.

This is ultimately the handicap that has restrained any increase in expenditures on transportation; as is made explicitly clear in the document that adjoined the bill, the Highway Trust Fund — the fuel tax-filled bank account that finances surface transportation in this country — is broke, and the situation is worsening. While it might make sense for Mr. Obama and Ms. Boxer to propose larger bills simply because the country’s infrastructure is in a deplorable condition, without any way to finance them, how can they be approved by the Congress? Both have relied on promises of future “revenue sources” but ruled out an increase in the gas tax or the implementation of a vehicle miles-traveled fee. When cherished entitlement programs are on the cutting block because of a general unwillingness to expand the nation’s debt, how can an increase in the deficit to pay for transportation be defended?

Stuck with limited resources, then, Mr. Mica’s bill is the only approach that seems realistic. But even ignoring the overall spending amounts, the bill is quite problematic.

Though Mr. Mica’s specific approach is not yet apparent since the full legislation has yet to be released, the bill outline does state that “The percentage of available formula funds for transit programs that benefit suburban and rural areas” would be increased. The low down: Urban transit systems — the agencies that serve the vast majority of transit users — would suffer the ridiculous indignity of having their already smaller pot of funds be cut even further to benefit the less cost-effective, least valuable public transportation systems.

Eliminating red tape in the federal approval process is another of Mr. Mica’s priorities, and indeed, there may currently be more studies and years required to move forward with a transportation project than necessary. But it is difficult to believe that cutting off a few years from the planning process for new road or transit projects will make up for billions of dollars in lost financing for new buses or trains.

Bemoaning the lack of funding for transit and transportation in general is a worthwhile endeavor, but the real challenge continues to be whether any significant group of politicians of any stripe can be convinced of the need for revenue generators. In other words, without new taxes to fund the transportation program, the argument that the nation’s infrastructure is inadequate will never really matter.

If leaders in Washington have failed to advance on these matters, local and state leadership could fill the gap — if they so desire.

Though Mr. Mica’s bill would not introduce an infrastructure bank (one of Mr. Obama’s repeated goals since he entered office), it would expand funding for TIFIA grants and loans, offered by the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. One billion dollars would be appropriated annually to use federal dollars to leverage private-sector investments, which would then be paid back either through user-generated fees or dedicated taxes applied at the local level.

The value of this approach was demonstrated yesterday, when Los Angeles announced that it had received a $640.8 million low-interest TIFIA loan to begin work on its Westside Subway project. The money will eventually be paid back by sales tax receipts collected in L.A. County over the next 30 years. The extension, which would bring trains eight miles from the existing Wilshire/Western station to the V.A. Hospital in Westwood, will cost a total of $5.3 billion, so the loan is just a starting point, but it is a good one, since if all financing is lined up, it will allow completion in 2022, instead of 2036, the soonest possible without any sort of loan.

Would this program, in association with Mr. Mica’s plan to open newly built federally funded Interstate highways to tolling, be enough to “double” funding for transportation, as he has suggested? It seems unlikely — at least in the long term. While the TIFIA loans will make it possible to advance construction more quickly, they will have to be paid back eventually, using local sales taxes — which won’t be usable for projects twenty years from now. Some private investors may choose to jump on board, but getting private sources to contribute to public transit projects while saving money overall has been a notoriously difficult process in our day and age.

Mr. Mica’s proposal is not the law yet, but more endowed alternatives to it have yet to have their funding sources adequately described by Congresspeople willing to raise the specter of increasing taxes. We’re waiting.