Wednesday Winners (& Losers)

A weekly roundup of good deeds, missteps, heroic feats and epic failures in the tri-state region and beyond.

NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg and City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez join other City electeds in breaking ground on the Plaza de Las Americas. | Photo: NYC DOT Flickr

The groundbreaking of the Plaza de Las Americas. | Photo: NYC DOT Flickr

WINNERS

Washington Heights residents After seven years of planning, the City has finally broken ground on the Plaza de Las Americas, a big win for local vendors and businesses as well as for pedestrians, who will enjoy increased traffic safety once the project is complete.

Queens residents —  In addition to the great news of permanent Q103 weekend service, the City DOT unveiled its design for a ‘super’ bus route along Woodhaven Boulevard, where buses would run in their own lane separated from local traffic with a concrete median.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — As chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Cities of Opportunities Task Force, de Blasio called on fellow mayors across the country to raise the call for greater federal investment in mass transit and infrastructure, saying “the failure to invest in transportation, the failure to invest in infrastructure is holding us back.” Does this mean there will be an increase in city funding to the MTA’s capital plan to match the call for increased federal funding?

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal & acting Federal Railway Administrator Sarah Feinberg — The Northeast Corridor high speed rail study that has been irking Connecticut officials for weeks has been declared “dead on arrival,” with the Connecticut Senator vowing to fight the bill until the study includes a stop in Connecticut.

Connecticut commuters and residents — In an effort to woo residents of the Land of Steady Habits, there are several promotional offers for passengers who try CTfastrak, launching this Saturday, March 28, including local business discounts and nine full days of free rides for all passengers statewide.

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Amtrak Policy Reform Could Bring True High-Speed Rail to the Northeast Corridor

Amtrak got a bipartisan nod of approval in Washington last week in the form of the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015 (H.R. 749), which authorizes $7.2 billion in federal subsidies for Amtrak and other rail programs through 2019, including $1.7 billion a year over four years.

While it’s not the boost in funding needed to match ridership gains, it could be considered a win in this congress. The vote was 316 to 101—with all Democrats who voted being in favor, and the conservative contingent casting against. A last minute action alert from conservative groups—Heritage Action and Club for Growth—called, unsuccessfully, for a no vote, identifying this as a “key vote” against which legislators’ performance would be judged. Given that Democratic votes were needed for passage, even the usual attempts to privatize and defund the system were unsuccessful.

There were several bits of policy reform of note:

  • Local officials in the 19 states that contribute financially to Amtrak service would have “a seat at the table” on decisions relating to changes and budgets for service.
  • Amtrak would need to be more transparent with the financial information it provides to state and local governments.
  • There will be some “streamlining” of environmental and other regulations on construction projects.
  • Amtrak will need to address the operating losses for food service on trains.
  • A pilot program will be launched allowing pets on board, for a fee.
  • A requirement that Amtrak take “a hard look” at the access needs of wheelchair users, bicyclists and other non-motorized transportation.
  • Profit from the Northeast Corridor (NEC), which usually subsidizes unprofitable routes across the country, would be reinvested in the corridor.

This final bullet can’t be overlooked, as it could ultimately lead to faster service. A feasibility study must be completed in six months that will analyze the possibility of a new and better Northeast Corridor.

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Connecticut Uniquely Positioned for Congestion Pricing, but Legislators Must Seize the Opportunity

A study on electronic, variable-rate road pricing for Connecticut is underway, but will the state's elected leaders be receptive to congestion management? | Source

Connecticut has a unique opportunity to pursue variable-rate road pricing, but will the state’s elected leaders be receptive to this congestion management strategy? | Source

If last week’s hearing on tolls at Connecticut’s borders did anything, it strengthened the position that implementing tolls for the sole purpose of generating revenue is a bad idea. And if anything else grew out of the hysteria, it might be additional support for congestion pricing.

As the Connecticut Post pointed out this morning, Connecticut is one of only 15 jurisdictions in the nation that has been granted an exemption by the Federal Highway Administration from the general prohibition of tolls on Federal-aid roads. Connecticut’s exception falls under the Variable Pricing Pilot Program, which is “intended to demonstrate whether and to what extent roadway congestion may be reduced through application of congestion pricing strategies.”

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As President Obama Goes Big on His Budget, a Serious Conversation about Transportation Funding Begins

The Tappan Zee Bridge features prominently on the cover of the FY2016 Federal Budget.  | Image:  budget.gov via Wall Street Journal

The Tappan Zee Bridge features prominently on the cover of the FY2016 Federal Budget. | Image: Wall Street Journal

President Obama introduced a budget this week which, unlike last time, actually proposes a transportation funding mechanism—albeit a one-shot infusion of cash, not a permanent fix to a structural funding dilemma. Although the President’s plan is not expected to go far, the momentum does finally appear to be gathering, on both sides of the aisle, for a serious discussion about transportation funding.

Obama’s $4 trillion budget includes a six-year, $478 billion transportation program ($176 billion more than MAP-21, and $76 billion more than the $302 billion, four-year Grow America proposal introduced last year). It is partially funded by a mandatory 14 percent tax on U.S. companies’ profits (an estimated $2 trillion) currently parked overseas, resulting in $238 billion in revenue.

In 2016, $94.7 billion (nearly double the current amount) would be invested in roads, bridges, transit and freight. Highlights include:

  • $51 billion in highway investment, up 25 percent
  • $18.2 billion in transit investment, up 70 percent
  • $1.25 billion for TIGER, up 250 percent
  • $1 billion for a multi-modal freight program
  • $10.2 million for the TOD planning grant program
  • Establishment of passenger rail ($4.7 billion) and multi-modal accounts ($1.25 billion) in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF)
  • Establishment of passenger rail and multi-modal accounts in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF)
  • Renaming the Highway Trust Fund the “Transportation Trust Fund”
  • A separate line item for Bus Rapid Transit
  • Dedicated funding for “high-performance rail,” which would replace the concept of “high-speed rail”
  • A national infrastructure bank

On the same day of Obama’s budget release, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx discussed the administration’s 30-year transportation plan—promisingly titled “Beyond Traffic 2045”— a policy framework that is all about “giving people choices.”

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Election 2014: It’s Not All Bad News

Governor Dan Malloy of Connecticut won a close race for reelection. | Image: ctnews.com

Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, a proponent of transit-oriented development and improved rail service, won a close race for reelection. | blog.ctnews.com

Now that the votes have been counted, it’s safe to say there’s plenty of bad news for sustainable transportation policy across the nation: Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, a known climate change denier, is poised to lead the Environment and Public Works Committee, Wisconsin Governor (and avid highway expander) Scott Walker won reelection, and Massachusetts failed to defeat a ballot measure which ends gas tax indexing.

But if you look hard enough, you’ll find there’s some good news too.

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Transportation Advocates Release Connecticut Candidate Bulletin, Call for Debate

Earlier this week, a broad coalition of nearly three dozen transportation advocates, including the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, gathered at New Haven’s Union Station to release their 2014 Candidate Bulletin Moving Transportation Forward in Connecticut. The Bulletin lists four actions that Connecticut’s elected officials, particularly the gubernatorial candidates, must take in order to develop a safe and reliable system […]

A History of Bridges in Need

U.S. Total Share of Bridges Either Structurally Deficient or Functionally Obsolete, from 1993 to 2013.

A recent study by Governing entitled “How Have Bridge Conditions Changed in Your State?” analyzed 20 years of data from the US Federal Highway Administration National Bridge inventory on bridges in need of repair. The report showed that […]

Tappan Zee Bridge Financial Details Finally Released to the Public

Tappan Zee Bridge Project TIFIA-Eligible Costs, Sources and Uses of Funds, as provided to TSTC on July 17, 2014 by the Federal Highway Administration in response to appeal of Tappan Zee Bridge Financial Plan Freedom of Information Act request.

White House Report: Without Federal Funding, 81,664 Tri-State Jobs May be at Risk

As the clock ticks down on the Highway Trust Fund’s (HTF) solvency and the threat that the US Department of Transportation will slow down and lower reimbursements to state departments of transportation hangs in the air, the National Economic Council and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers have released a new report showing just how […]

Putting the “Fund” in the Highway Trust Fund

In March, MTR reported that the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which is supported by the federal gas tax and which pays for almost all transportation projects across the U.S., is anticipated to run dry by the end of the month.

Unfortunately, with less than a month to go, the situation has changed little since March. In a recent letter to heads of state DOTs, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx termed it “dire”, and many local electeds would agree that that is the case.

Though an agreement has not been reached on how to fund the HTF, it is not for lack of proposals from our leaders:

Corporate Tax Reform

President Obama’s GROW AMERICA Act– the Administration’s surface transportation reauthorization proposal—calls for “pro-growth business tax reform” to fund transportation infrastructure. According to the Administration, this will generate $150 billion. Streetsblog has called thisa “progressive and thoughtful” proposal “dead on arrival, even though it had support from the Republican chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp.”

Corporate Tax Holiday

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) proposed a corporate tax holiday to fund the HTF. As The New York Times describes the plan, “American multinationals would escape taxes on 85 percent of their profits currently held in tax-deferred foreign accounts, provided they bring the money to the United States in the next year.”

The Times notes that after creating $20-$30 billion in two years, a corporate tax holiday would “lose money — by one government estimate, a simple tax holiday would lose $96 billion over 10 years — because the low tax rate would be applied to profits that would have been brought home over time anyway.” Senator Reid’s proposal is a bit more complicated than “a simple corporate tax holiday” – his office claims that the proposal is structured to earn $3 billion over 10 years. However, as The Times points out, these kinds of policies encourage “the hoarding of profits in tax-deferred foreign accounts in anticipation of future tax holidays.” The Obama administration has made it clear that it does not support Senator Reid’s plan.
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