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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Wednesday Winners (& Losers)

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

New Amtrak baggage cars feature roll-on bike storage. | Photo: blog.amtrak.com

New Amtrak baggage cars feature roll-on bike storage. | Photo: blog.amtrak.com

WINNERS

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo – This morning Governor Cuomo signed into law a piece of legislation that authorizes the expansion of speed camera use on Long Island, saying that “By empowering Nassau and Suffolk Counties to install dozens of speed cameras in school zones, we are helping to protect our students and ultimately save lives. This should send a message to all drivers – slow down and obey the speed limit, especially when passing by a school.”

Hopewell Township, NJ – The township became the 100th municipality in the Garden State to embrace Complete Streets and the first municipality to do so by way of a Complete Streets ordinance. According to the Township Administrator/Engineer Paul Pogorzelski, “we decided that this policy should be in the form of an ordinance and have the weight of law rather than simply be part of a resolution which does not transcend governing body changes. “

Amtrak – Amtrak announced that they have begun testing new bike-friendly baggage cars to alleviate passengers of the hassle of boxing and checking their bikes as luggage. These baggage cars, which are manufactured in New York state, are expected to be put into service on all 15 long-distance routes by the end of this year.

New Jersey Transit – The agency has unofficially launched its first-ever one seat ride summer shore rail service from Penn Station to Bay Head using new energy-efficient dual-powered locomotives. Riders will save 25 minutes by not having to change trains at Long Branch, which will likely boost ridership to the shore and alleviate summer parking in shore towns. » Continue reading…

What’s the Difference? GROW AMERICA Act vs. MAP-21 Reauthorization

The current federal transportation bill, MAP-21, is expiring soon, and our leaders in Washington have come up with two new bills to potentially replace it. Earlier last month, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee released its MAP-21 Reauthorization proposal, which was unanimously approved within just a few days. The other proposal is the GROW AMERICA Act, which the White House released in late April. As MAP-21 nears expiration, it’s important to understand some key differences between the two options currently on the table and what they would both mean for investments for sustainable transportation:

  • Overall amount and length:
    • GROW AMERICA Act (GAA): $302 billion — an increase of $87 billion over the current bill — and four years long
    • MAP-21 Reauthorization (M21R): Maintains current funding levels (plus inflation), six years long
  • Amount going to highways and roads:
    • GAA: $199 billion
    • M21R: $265 billion for highways and a highway-focused freight program
  • Amount going to transit:
    • GAA: $72 billion. Also funds the popular New Starts/Small Starts transit grant program from the Transportation Trust Fund (the proposal’s new name for the Highway Trust Fund), not from general revenues. The proposal creates a new grant program called the Rapid Growth Area Transit Program ($2 billion over four years).
    • M21R: Because the Senate EPW Committee is only responsible for the highway portion of national transportation funding, it is unknown what M21R has in store for transit, passenger rail and some other safety programs.

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Connecticut Senator Murphy Calls on Congress to Enact a “Sensible, Modest Increase” in the Federal Gas Tax

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy called on Congress to raise the federal gas tax Friday in New Haven. | Photo: Joseph Cutrufo/TSTC

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy called on Congress to raise the federal gas tax. | Photo: Joseph Cutrufo/TSTC

“For 20 years, Congress has had its head in the sand, pretending that money is going to fall off trees for infrastructure. It’s time to stop pretending.”

That’s what Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told a crowd in New Haven on Friday, where he called on Congress to enact a sensible, modest increase” in the federal gas tax to pay for badly-needed road, rail and bridge maintenance.

The federal gas tax, now 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn’t seen an increase since 1993. Murphy’s proposal calls for 6-cent per gallon increases in 2015 and 2016, which would bring the tax up to where inflation would have taken it over the last two decades.

Senator Murphy’s message was well-received by an audience which included not only transportation advocates and labor unions, but also members of local chambers of commerce. Senator Murphy noted that raising the gas tax has support from a broad constituency, including two groups that don’t tend to find much common ground.

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington supports this, the AFL-CIO supports this,” Murphy said. “Both business and labor understand the imperative of fixing this problem.”

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