Monday, February 2, 2009

On to the Senate!

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

The stimulus battle now shifts to the US Senate, where high speed rail could have a very, very good week - but will have to navigate some rough waters to get there. As Yonah at the Transport Politic notes, the Senate version of the stimulus has $2 billion for HSR:

To make grants for high-speed rail projects under the provisions of section 26106 of title 49, United States Code, $2,000,000,000, to remain available until September 30, 2011: Provided, That the Federal share payable of the costs for which a grant is made under this heading shall be 100 percent.

I very much like the 100% federal share, since it's not looking like California is going to be able to do much matching of federal funds in the immediate future. The Senate version also includes much more flexible - and possibly much better - language on transportation capital projects than the House:

“For an additional amount for capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure, $5,500,000,000, to remain available until September 30, 2011… That the Secretary of Transportation shall distribute funds provided under this heading as discretionary grants to be awarded to State and local governments on a competitive basis for projects that will have a significant impact on the Nation, a metropolitan area, or a region… That a grant funded under this heading shall be not less than $20,000,000 and not greater than $500,000,000…”

These funds can be used for highways, bridges, public transportation, New Starts and Small Starts projects, and rail projects. No such open-ended funds under the discretion of the Secretary of the Department of Transportation are provided in the House bill. The bill does not specify a preference for transit or highways and presumably Secretary Ray LaHood would decide if this provision makes it into the final bill.

This is where the choice of Ray LaHood at Transportation may make or break things. If the Senate language stays in place, then LaHood could potentially implement an Obama shift away from highways and toward rail. But the language might also allow him to maintain a misguided emphasis on roads, in the name of "immediate stimulus" even though there are billions of dollars of shovel-ready transit projects out there as well.

There's also plans afoot to boost transit infrastructure spending significantly even beyond what's already in the bill. Charles Schumer planned to offer a $6.5 billion transit amendment but apparently, as The Transport Politic reports, that may be pulled in favor of a $20-$30 billion infrastructure amendment, heavy on transit, that will be proposed by Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska and our very own Dianne Feinstein.

What could we do with some of this money? In the comments to Saturday's post Rafael makes some very good suggestions for ways to bring federal stimulus money directly to California high speed rail:

TJPA and CHSRA should submit a joint request related to SFTT so everyone can save face and get it all built. In particular, there is no reason not to ask for a slice of the transit stimulus funds to help pay for the bus depot + ramps, the underground pedestrian passage to Embarcadero BART and the fraction (2 of 6 platform tracks, i.e. 1/3) of the trainbox + DTX tunnel reserved for Caltrain. The HSR project needs to chip in the other 2/3, but TJPA must not cook the books to misrepresent the fraction of the total construction cost related to heavy rail operations.

Straight HSR feeder projects such as the BART extension to Santa Clara and Caltrain electrification should seek federal funding from the transit, rather than the HSR portion of this bill. Grade separations should be characterized as highway improvement projects, since they add zero functionality to the railroad.

That all makes a lot of sense, and would be a clever way to maximize the stimulus impact on HSR even when using money not specifically earmarked for HSR. For this to happen there needs to be a lot of coordination among different players in California, which one would hope can happen given Dianne Feinstein's oft-stated commitment to HSR. There are leaders in this state with the ability to bring together a consensus around federal stimulus for HSR. Let's hope they will make their voices heard over the coming week. We certainly plan to do so ourselves.


Rafael said...

@ robert cruickshank -

the original version of the House bill actually did include $1 billion at the discretion of the Secr. of Transportation. The Nadler bill jacked that up to $2.5 billion.

Personally, I'm not comfortable with giving any member of the cabinet discretion over a sizable portion of the transportation allocation. The bill needs to spell out Congressional oversight procedures in the selection of projects that will be funded. This could involve DoT drafting a methodology that the House and Senate committees responsible for transportation have to sign off on both before and after it is applied.

Without oversight, the overt lobbying effort that led to the earmark extravaganza will be replaced by an even more opaque process involving the Secr. of Transportation and even career bureaucrats at the DoT. That's almost asking for corruption.

Rafael said...

sorry: Nadler amendment

Brandon in San Diego said...

I agree with Rafael concerning the allocation/apportionment to the DOT’s Ray La Hood; it invites problems. Regardless of how the funds are used, someone in the House or Senate or the media will quibble with how the funds are used, claim abuse of power, and raise ethics issues. No one needs that.

It’s my hope that the Senate/House will address this concern in a final bill. I would like to say I have full confidence; however, using the TARP funds as an example, I am not so certain that will happen. I choose to remain optimistic; however, I will not loose any sleep on the matter.

I am most interested and optimistic in the possible no-match requirement for using the Federal funds; for similar reasons as what Robert cites. Although Californians approved $9 Billion for HSR, that well of funding is only so deep and cannot be used as matching funds into eternity. Functionally, the no-match requirement frees-up the last dollars of that $9 Billion to be matched with other funds. Additionally, it would seem to provide more upfront flexibility to get projects rolling.

Brandon in San Diego said...

Anyone familiar with a website tracking the Senate bill... in as near 'live' condition as possible?

It seems that updates come in two forms; accessible pdf's that are 2-3 days behind the action taking place (at best), or bulleted items in news articles... whereas the accuracy is always in question, and sometimes the timeliness too

Rafael said...

@ Brandon -

depends on what you mean by "live". You can get the most recent official information by searching for senate bill S.336 on, which is maintained by the Library of Congress. It provides the full text, amendments that made it to the floor and if they were approved etc. is a separate site run by an open source project. It provides better information on where a given bill is in the legislative process but otherwise relies heavily on

The House Rules Committee publishes summaries of all amendments that were submitted, but only on the house side. Only a few of the submissions are allowed to proceed to a floor vote, but the rules committee does not publish the arguments advanced in favor nor its reasons for rejecting any given submission.

The Senate also has a rules committee but it does not have jurisdiction over whether or not amendments are permitted to proceed to a floor vote.

In principle, any senator can talk about any subject for as long as he likes, unless cloture is invoked by a 3/5 majority of all seated members (whether present or not). After that debate is limited to the bill that was clotured and to a maximum or 30 additional hours.

Failing that, the minority can filibuster - either literally, reading from phone books etc. - or procedurally, effectively killing a bill by never allowing members to vote on it - at which point a simple majority of those present is enough.

I really hope Gov. Lynch of NH will decide to hold a special election for Sen. Gregg's seat once he vacates it to become Commerce Secretary. There is a gentleman's agreement in place that the governor should not change the balance of power in the Senate, but it's not legally binding. Republicans would be hard put to argue that letting voters have their say is inappropriate for an elected office and, it's their seat to lose. Note that special elections are mandatory for vacant House seats.

If the NH constitution provides no mechanism for a formal special election for a vacant Senate seat, he could always bill it as a binding advisory vote to guide his appointment. Governors can seek advice from whoever they want, though in this case someone other than the state of NH might have to pay for it.

Brandon in San Diego said...

Every 4-6 years Congress adopts a new Transportation bill. In 1991 it was ISTEA. In 1997 it was TEA-21. And in 2005 it was SAFETEA-LU. Each of these identifies programs and priorities as indicated by specifying minimum funding amounts by program to be spent over the life of the bill. However, each bill is not a ‘spending’ bill. Congress must pass a spending bill at the beginning of the Federal Fiscal Year each year, and consistent with the pertinent transportation bill, to actually fund the program. The FFY runs October to September.

Congress passed the most recent transportation spending bill two months ago, in December, for FFY 2008-2009. However, and the point I am leading up to…. Congress did not provide funding for the full FFY; only for 5/12’s of the year, or 43%. The remaining 7/12’s was left unfunded and intended for the Obama administration to take up; and quite possibly in the stimulus bill.

I raise this observation because from time to time news accounts of the stimulus bill cite ‘transit capital assistance.’ Transit capital assistance is sometimes, or often, associated with Federal Transit Administration programs. This includes the urban area apportionment (FTA 5307) and intended for transit operators to support their annual capital programs; or the fixed guideway modernization, bus programs, or New Start Programs (FTA 5309).

These programs were not provided full funding for FFY 2008-2009. They were apportioned approximately $3.0 billion, representing 43% of what they should get for the full FFY. Other FTA programs were additionally shorted. The unfunded gap for ‘transit capital assistance is approximately $4.0 Billion.

That said, when news accounts or bill language speaks to 'transit capital assistance', it is quite possibly that the amounts are not new/additional funding unless it is beyond $4.0 Billion. $4.0 Billion should be considered the baseline or starting point.

James said...

This may have already been discussed:

Since the bond market is not functional and the Federal Government needs to motivate the econommy, the Fed should buy the California HSR bonds as well as bonds for other high priority projects across the nation. Later the Fed can resell the bonds back into a better commercial market while spreading out the bond sales over time to let the market absorb the investment.

Rafael said...

Senate GOP blocks amendment to add $25 billion for stimulus because not cuts were made in other parts of the bill.

Votes for: 58
Votes against: 41

Behold the glorious dictatorship of the minority. Let's see them actually reading phone books for a week in a vainglorious effort to oppose funding for the nation's crumbling infrastructure. It's time to call these clowns' bluff - they double the deficit in eight years and now they're choir boys on fiscal rectitude all of a sudden? Puhleeze.

Alternatively, give them the compensatory funding they are asking for. I'd start with imposing a retroactive 100% income tax on bonuses paid to employees of financial institutions that received TARP funds. That's $18 billion right there. Next, take the $5.5 billion currently "at the discretion of Ray LaHood" and allocate the whole $23.5 billion explicitly to water and mass transit, with 10% ($2.35 billion) added to the $2 billion already reserved for high speed rail in the Senate version of the bill.

Btw, Politico and Concord Monitor confirm that Gov. Lynch of NH has appointed Bonnie Newsom, a moderate Republican, as Judd Gregg's replacement.

Note to Dems: it's not that you shoot yourself in the foot, it's how fast you reload!