Federal Transportation Funding Part 1: Need(less)-based Funding?

As the Federal Highway Trust Fund inches closer to bankruptcy and the Obama Administration’s transportation funding plan remains a work in progress with MAP-21 expiring at the end of FY 2014, the reality remains that the nation’s infrastructure is in pretty bad shape.

With money tight and needs large, prioritization is key. But, unfortunately, that’s not how things get done in Washington. Once the gas tax and other funds are collected by the federal government, they are deposited in the Highway Trust Fund. The Fund is then split into the Highway Account and Mass Transit Account.

Source: National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, Final Report - Volume III: Section 4 - Public Sessions and Outreach Meetings

Source: National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, Final Report – Volume III: Section 4 – Public Sessions and Outreach Meetings/ transportationfortomorrow.com

This funding breakdown highlights that only a small percentage of the two largest transportation funding pots go to mass transit funding, a key component of mobility in large metro areas. Even less goes toward infrastructure for walking and biking — the kind of infrastructure that’s integral for creating livable cities where people want to live – even though recent data show that these transportation modes are gaining users while vehicle miles traveled declines or is steady. Once the funds are generated, they are then seemingly arbitrarily distributed throughout the country, with distribution breakdowns based on apparent but not actual need based criteria.

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Good News (and Bad) from Washington

The good news is, people who commute using bike share may be eligible for a tax benefit. | Photo: Dmitry Gudkov

The bad news is that the House Budget Resolution guts tranportation funding, even though transit and Amtrak ridership are on the rise. | Photo: nec-commission.com

Last week brought some good news [...]

USDOT: Highway Trust Fund Shortfall Anticipated for Late July

It seems likely the Highway Trust Fund’s Highway Account will run out of money in late July, According to the US Department of Transportation. | Image: USDOT

It seems likely the Highway Trust Fund’s Highway Account will run out of money in late July, According to the US Department of Transportation. | Image: USDOT

It’s not only states that are running out of money to fund transportation projects; the federal government is too.

According to the US Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund Ticker, updated last Sunday, it is likely that the Highway Trust Fund’s Highway Account will run out of money in late July, just over a month before federal fiscal year 2014 ends. The Highway Trust Fund “is the principal mechanism for funding federal highway and transit programs” through revenue generated by user fees like the federal gas tax. The Highway Account is projected to end the fiscal year in September 2014 $700 million in the hole. Politico notes that the newly-updated Tracker shows a shortfall “two weeks earlier than last month’s figures, which showed the anticipated red ink in the second or third week of August.”

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New Federal Regulations Could Actually Speed Up Transportation Projects

One local project that could be expedited under a new exclusion is the Metro-North Harlem Line third track extension from Crestwood to North White Plains. | Photo: Peter Ehrlich

One project that could be expedited under a new exclusion is the Metro-North Harlem Line third track extension from Crestwood to North White Plains. | Photo: Peter Ehrlich/Flickr

Two federal regulations included in MAP-21 will take effect this week, and they could have a significant impact on how transportation projects are planned. The regulations, one concerning Federal Highway Administration projects and the other related to Federal Transit Administration projects, could fast-track federally-funded projects by streamlining the environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Under NEPA, major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment require preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement to analyze, among other things, the environmental impact of the proposed action, unavoidable adverse environmental effects and potential project alternatives.

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Better Safety Education Campaigns Could Reduce Traffic Fatalities in the United States

[Click image for interactive map]

The United States’ traffic fatality rate, according to a new report from the World Health Organization, is much higher than other wealthy, industrialized nations.  [Click image for interactive map]

Sweden, home of the Vision Zero Initiative, has one of the world’s lowest traffic fatality rates, according to the World Health Organization’s 2013 Global Burden of Disease study, with just three traffic fatalities for every 100,000 people in a year.

In fact, many of the nations with the lowest traffic fatality rates are wealthier, industrialized nations:

  • United Kingdom 3.7
  • Netherlands 3.9
  • Germany 4.7
  • Denmark 4.7
  • Singapore 5.1
  • Japan 5.2
  • Australia 6.1
  • Canada 6.8
  • Italy 7.2

But you may notice one wealthy, industrialized nation missing from that list: the United States, where the traffic fatality rate is 11.4 – on par with Bangladesh, Jamaica, Turkey and Uzbekistan.

There are many reasons the traffic fatality rate is comparatively higher in the United States. We’ve often discussed on MTR how the design of our roads prioritizes the movement of automobiles at the expense of other modes, but perhaps one additional reason is how we conduct our traffic safety education campaigns.

Take a look at these traffic safety PSAs from the UK,  Ireland (traffic fatality rate of 4.7), the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand (traffic fatality rate of 9.1). Although some seem more real than others, all are intended to illustrate the true dangers of unsafe driving behavior: injury and death.

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Tri-State Region to Congress: Put Transit Tax Benefits at the Top of To-Do List

Once again, commuters are waiting for Congress to make the transit commuter benefit equal with the parking benefit. Photo: @SrcasticCommutr via Stamford Advocate

Today, over 30 elected officials, agencies, and advocates from the tri-state region exhorted Congress to fix the transit commuter tax benefit and to do it as soon as possible. In a joint statement, they said “As Congress reconvenes in Washington for its first days of work in 2014, restoring parity to the commuter tax benefit for transit riders must be at the top of its to-do list.”

Signing onto the statement were Mayor Harry Rilling of Norwalk, CT; the Greater Bridgeport Transit agency, Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council, Melville (NY) Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey Future, Business Council of Fairfield County, Regional Plan Association, Straphangers Campaign, Transport Workers Union Local 100 and several other environmental, transportation and civic advocates from the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, who called restoring the benefit an economic imperative for transit riders and misguided transportation policy:

The expiration of parity for the transit commuter benefit means fewer dollars in transit riders’ pockets — and fewer dollars in the farebox too. When riders no longer have the option to use pre-tax dollars for transit passes, transit systems may face decreased ridership, which often leads to fare hikes and service cuts.

Just as the transit commuter benefit was slashed, the benefit for parking increased by $5 to $250 per month, which amounts to a federally-endorsed transportation policy that incentivizes driving, leading to more cars on the region’s already congested and deteriorating roads. Restoring and enacting permanent parity for transit riders, and making that parity retroactive to January 1, establishes a balanced and progressive fiscal policy.

Others in the region have also called for Congress to take action. On Monday, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal and New Haven Mayor Toni Harp held a press conference calling for the restoration of the benefit. New York Senator Charles Schumer and New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez also held events last November and December calling for the extension of the transit benefit’s parity. A bill in the House which would set the transit and parking benefits permanently equal to one another at $220/month has 60 sponsors, and a bill in the Senate to establish commuting parity at $250/month has 11.

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Where a Monthly Transit Commute Can Cost More Than $130 — and It’s Not Just Where You Think It Is

Monthly transit passes that exceed the $130 transit tax benefit aren’t limited to the tri-state region. Transit commuters in places like Dallas, Salt Lake City and Charlotte (pictured) can pay more than $130 on their monthly commutes, too. | Photo: James Willamore/Wired

Transit commuters enjoyed parity with those who drive to work when the pre-tax benefits for transit and parking were equalized earlier this year. Like drivers, transit commuters were able to use up to $245 in pre-tax earnings to pay for transit passes. But, unfortunately for transit commuters, that parity will expire at the end of this year. Beginning January 1, 2014, transit users will only be able to use up to $130 in pre-tax earnings for their commute. The pre-tax benefit for commuters who drive to work and must pay for parking, on the other hand, will increase by $5 to $250.

Conventional wisdom has long suggested that the reason parity for the transit commuter benefit lacks support in Congress is because transit commuters who spend more than $130 on monthly transit fares live in only a handful of major metro areas like New York, Chicago, Washington and Boston.

But thankfully for transit riders, that conventional wisdom is wrong.

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What the Federal Budget Deal Means for Transportation

The House passed a two-year budget by a wide margin, but it doesn't appear that transit commuter parity will be addressed until next year. | Image: DailyKos

The House passed a two-year budget by a wide margin, but it doesn’t appear that transit commuter parity will be addressed until next year. | Image: C-SPAN via DailyKos

The two-year budget deal, unveiled earlier this week and passed by the House of Representatives last night, will curtail “sequestration” cuts to government spending planned for this year. Although it faced some opposition, it passed with a wide margin (332-94) and will move to the Senate for a vote next week. So what would the deal mean for transportation?

If the budget deal passes the Senate next week, House and Senate lawmakers would then write bills funding the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (as well as the rest of the government), and try to negotiate the differences. By adopting higher spending levels, the budget deal would provide more room for Congress to work with but would not change the fact that there are large philosophical differences between the different chambers of Congress. When the two houses tried writing appropriations bills earlier this year, the result was a Senate bill that boosted funding for transportation and a House bill that starved it.

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Expiration Date Looms for Transit Commuter Parity, Despite Bipartisan Support


The deal made last January to avert the “fiscal cliff” included a provision that eventually brought the monthly transit commuter benefit up from $125 to $245 to match the pre-tax benefit for parking. This was a big win for transit riders, albeit a temporary one: the pre-tax benefit for transit will fall back to $125 ($130 with inflation) per month on January 1 if Congress doesn’t extend (or better, make permanent) the parity that straphangers currently enjoy.

Today, New York Senator Chuck Schumer held a press conference at Grand Central Terminal to highlight the impending expiration date of the transit commuter benefit. Highlighting the Commuter Benefits Equity Act of 2013, legislation he introduced this past June to extend the tax break, the Senator noted that he will continue to push for parity between the parking and transit benefits.

According to Sen. Schumer, more than 700,000 people receive the benefit in the tri-state region, which saves employers and commuters $330 million that can be reinvested back into the economy.

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Bipartisan Coalition Seeks Fair, Logical and Revenue-Neutral Compromise on Federal Commuting Tax Benefits

For the last three years, train and bus riders have had to deal with annual uncertainty over the fate of the commuter benefit for public transit. The latest band-aid for the transit benefit extended it at its current level of $245/month through the end of 2013. Without action from Congress, however, the transit benefit will fall to $125/month next year, costing commuters in the tri-state area hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The parking benefit would remain $245/month, meaning the tax code would, perversely, provide nearly twice the incentive for driving.

Now a bipartisan group of Congressmembers is pushing to set the transit and parking benefits permanently equal to each other, while also reforming a portion of the tax code (HR 2288). The Commuter Parity Act, introduced by U.S. Representative Michael Grimm (R-New York), who represents Staten Island and Brooklyn, and co-sponsored by Peter King (R-New York), as well as Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), would provide fixes for this inequity: it reduces the transit and parking benefit to $220/month. In addition, this reduction in the total benefit for both motorists and transit users would be revenue-neutral, potentially making passage a little more likely.

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