by Robert Cruickshank
As we've mentioned here before, the $8 billion HSR stimulus is just a first step toward a long-term solution of how to fund the development of a faster and more robust intercity passenger rail network in the US. The real money comes in the quintennial Transportation Bill, which is due for renewal this year. President Obama and many Congressional Democrats see that bill as the place where the nation's transportation priorities can finally change, away from massive subsidies to roads and starvation diets for rails. It's perfectly timed to take advantage of a popular new president who has majorities in both houses of Congress - rather than wage an election year battle or deal with a Congress controlled by the other party, Obama can work with allies to craft a new model of funding transportation.
Transportation advocacy groups and reformers are already at work proposing their agendas in an effort to seize the opportunity the Transportation Bill offers. One of the best comes from Transportation For America which yesterday offered The Route To Reform: Blueprint for a 21st Century Federal Transportation Program. The blueprint is an extensive and sensible proposal for decreasing our dependence on oil and cars and boosting rail and other non-motorized methods of transportation. Summarizing it in this post is almost impossible, but I'll pick out some of the best elements:
Performance Targets: Reduce per capita vehicle miles traveled by 16%; Triple walking, biking and public transportation usage; Reduce transportation-generated carbon dioxide levels by 40%; Reduce average household combined housing + transportation costs 25% (use 2000 as base year)
New Federal Transportation Structure: Comprised of four elements: National Transportation Priority Programs (including planning and maintenance backlog); Geographically-Tiered Multimodal Access Program (state, regional, and local); Programs to Complete the National Transportation System (intercity travel, green freight, and "projects of national significance); and Innovation Incentive Programs to boost sustainable and smart growth.
Possible New Revenue Sources: Sales Tax; Gas Tax; Oil Tax; Container and Customs Taxes.
What I really like about the T4America proposal is it emphasizes performance targets that are set up to ensure the development of a passenger rail infrastructure in order to achieve goals we should all be embracing (Peninsula NIMBYs too): reducing dependence on oil, cutting carbon emissions, and saving people money. The whole plan looks quite sensible and workable to me.
Whether it will be incorporated in any way into the final transportation bill is another matter entirely. In the House we have a strong ally in Rep. James Oberstar, Democrat from Minnesota. Oberstar is determined to produce a bill that will boost transit funding, as reported by Infrastructurist:
• The outline calls for "transit equity." Right now the feds pay 80 percent of highway projects and 50 percent of transit projects. That would change.
• It would create DOT agencies focused on a "national strategic plan" and on "mega-projects."
• "DOT's 108 programs [will be consolidated] into four "major formula programs": critical asset preservation, highway safety improvement, surface transportation program, and congestion mitigation and air quality improvement."
• The document seems to call for more transparency with transportation data.
Oberstar has also said that the Transportation Bill has to fund from $400 to $500 billion worth of projects over the next 5 years. If either his approach or T4America's similar approach are successful, we could have a clear source identified for HSR projects. The funding may be explicitly earmarked for HSR or it might be set up to ensure HSR gets it through the program allocations and targets.
The House is likely to produce a very good bill. The Senate, not so much. As has become clear in 2009, the US Senate is where good and sensible ideas go to die. Controlled by right-leaning Democrats in the pocket of banks, large corporate donors, and who are otherwise in thrall to a 1990s-style "pro-business" neoliberal agenda, Senate Democrats are busily planning to water down health care reform, Obama's budget, and the Transportation Bill as well, just as they watered down the stimulus.
One of those who might want a less strong bill than the House is California's own Barbara Boxer. She's up for reelection next year and though she is widely seen as more liberal than Dianne Feinstein, apparently she is worried enough about former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina that Boxer is trying to not look quite as liberal as before, as this Reuters article suggests:
"What I think is very important is to index the gas tax to inflation, because, obviously the gas tax is falling behind," she said at the Reuters Infrastructure Summit. "I also don't want to increase the gas tax, but I want it to keep up."...
The Senate is also considering raising the tax on diesel, changing exemptions to the gas tax given to certain groups, taking a percentage of customs duties, relying on private finance, and charging drivers fees based on Vehicle Miles Traveled, she said.
The bill's authors, though, have rejected attaching a small device to cars to measure Vehicle Miles Traveled, Boxer said.
"We're looking at options. Are there ways for people to -- an honor system, when they register their vehicles -- just say, 'This is the miles I had last year, this is the miles I have this year,'?" she said.
Boxer is inconsistent here - she says she doesn't want the gas tax to rise but then wants to index it to inflation. The fact is that indexing means it will likely rise, although the increase would be somewhat more hidden. As to a VMT box, I'm not sure an honor system is necessary, but perhaps it could be as easy as a DMV staffer checking the odometer when you are up for your annual renewal? (Then again, that would increase pressure on the DMV staff, since currently in California you can renew by mail without having to visit a DMV office.)
Boxer's also uncertain about Oberstar's plan to give the states more flexibility:
Like Oberstar, Boxer wants to pass a transportation bill that emphasizes efficiency and consolidates the numerous transportation programs.
But she wants to maintain the same relationship between the federal government and states, whereas Oberstar is considering giving the states more discretion in spending.
An environmental leader in the U.S. Congress, Boxer said she was finding common ground with Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee that she chairs for reducing traffic and congestion.
That last part is simply absurd, and I'm disappointed in Boxer for saying it. The ranking Republican on that committee is Oklahoma's James Inhofe, a noted global warming denier and opponent of mass transit. Boxer should feel no need or desire whatsoever to work with Republicans, unless they are willing to accept the values that Oberstar and T4America, as well as President Obama are proposing.
Streetsblog SF articulates some more concerns about Boxer:
Any chance of reforming the transportation bill, which advocates are clamoring for, will require deft political maneuvering to mollify ranking committee member Senator James Inhofe.
Several sources said that Boxer's cooperation with Inhofe is simple math. The $312 billion baseline for transportation over six years is insufficient to meet state of good repair needs and set the country on a course for innovation. Minnesota Representative James Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee, has suggested $400-500 billion would be needed, while the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Organizations (AASHTO) and the American Public Transit Association (APTA) argue in their Bottom Line Report that at least $160 billion will be needed annually. In order get from $312 billion to $500 billion or better, Boxer will need to get approval for new revenue streams, which would require a filibuster-proof majority, something she might not get without Inhofe and other reluctant members on the committee.
Several interviewees also pointed to Senator Boxer's alliance with Inhofe on an amendment in the federal stimulus bill for an additional $50 billion in highway money as a bad sign.
"You have polar bears and glaciers on your website... then throw people back in their cars?" said one official who insisted on anonymity.
I'm used to watching DiFi like a hawk. Not so much with Boxer. The rest of the article notes some more discomfort with Boxer's positions, so I suspect we're going to have to target Boxer frequently this summer as the Transportation Bill works its way through the Senate.
That is, unless it gets pushed back to 2010 as Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia suggested yesterday:
But Sen Mark Warner (D, Va.) is now saying he’s “not sure” that the estimated $500 billion authorization will happen until next year. According to a story by Terry Kivlan in CongressDaily, Warner thinks that “Congress might have too many big-ticket items on its agenda this year to take on a transportation package.” Speaking at an infrastructure-focused conference hosted by the Departments of Transportation and the Department of Commerce, the senator remarked: “I’m not sure you are going to see a full transportation bill put out this year.”
He’s specifically worried about funding availability in light of the fact that revenue from the gas tax, which pays for highway and transit programs, is no longer sufficient to cover outlays. He called this the “elephant in the room” with respect to infrastructure funding.
In short, Warner is saying that he's scared about anything involving fiddling with the gas tax, and that the big bad Republicans might hit Dems on that after a big fight over health care and the budget. What Warner doesn't explain is how 2010 is any better a time to deal with the Transportation Bill, as it would be an election year.
This would be so much easier if the US Senate wasn't populated by the timid and the right-leaning. Unfortunately, we're going to have to deal with them if we want a good Transportation Bill and not something that mindlessly repeats the same flawed anti-transit policies of the past.