GOP Transport Bill Guts Innovation and Alternatives While Subsidizing Same Ol Same Ol

The White House transport proposal, which put forward a $302 billion four-year surface transportation authorization, ups the current level of spending by $20 billion per year. With respect to rail funding, it proposed reorganizing intercity passenger rail funding into Current Rail Service and Rail Service Improvement programs, merging the Amtrak funding which was authorized in FY 2013 and 2014 with the Higher Speed / High Performance rail program which was zeroed out in the funding that passed Congress.

For the 2015 budget year, it proposed:

  • for Federal-Aid Highways an additional $7.1b (+18 percent)
  • for Transit-Formula grants, an additional $5.3b (+62 percent)
  • for Transit New Starts, an additional $370m (+15 percent)
  • for TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery), an additional $650m, (+108 percent)
  • for "Current Rail Service", an additional $1.1b (+43 percent compared to previous Amtrak authorization)
  • for the new "Rail Service Improvement Programs", $2.3b
  • for the new Freight Program, $1b
  • for the new Critical Immediate Investments stimulus spending (aka "Fix It First" projects), $4.85b
  • for the new Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation (FAST), $1b
  • for the new Rapid Growth Area Transit Program, $500m

But the President proposes budgets, the Congress authorizes spending and appropriates the funds within (and sometimes well under) those authorized levels, and with the current Republican House Majority, any White House transportation budget is largely a work of fiction. It is, at most, a set of ambit claims for the complex three-way negotiations over budgeting between the House, the Senate, and the White House.

However, now the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee has released its Fiscal Year 2015 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development funding bill, so now that three-way negotiation process can get started. The tl;dr version of the House proposal is, "If you like our current collapsing infrastructure, boy do we have a budget for you!"

Cut That TIGER! Cut That TIGER! Cut That TIGER, cut that TIGER! ...

The first big challenge facing the transportation appropriation is that it isn't the transportation appropriation ... it's the transportation and housing appropriation. And the transportation and housing appropriation has a problem on the housing side. There is a disagreement between the White House OMB and the Congressional CBO over the income that will be received from Federal Housing Authority mortgage insurance premiums. As a result, while the House budget appropriates $1.2b more dollars from the general fund than the current budget, it appropriates a total that is $1.8b less in real terms, after taking into account both inflation and Congressional projections of FHA premium payments,

It goes without saying that all of the programs that are labelled "new" in the President's budget proposal are left out of this House budget appropriation. But with $1.8b to cut in real terms from the housing and transportation budget, the Republican appropriation shelters the popular Community Block Development grants on the housing side by taking the budget knife to transportation funding.

In the proposal, transportation funding is reduced by nearly $730m. Of that, Amtrak Capital investment is cut by $200m (-19 percent), and so putting off still further the date when Congress meets the promise made in the 1970's to bring the Northeast Corridor up to a state of good repair. There is an even larger dollar cut to New Starts program through the Federal Transit Authority of $252m (-13 percent).

But by far the biggest part of the transportation cut is the TIGER program, which is slashed from $600m to $100m.

In addition to an 83 percent cut in funding, the appropriation would slash the range of projects that TIGER can fund. As Streetsblog USA points out: "GOP Appropriations Bill Would Turn TIGER Into a Roads Program":

... the GOP proposes to limit TIGER grants to projects that "address critical transportation needs," defined as roads and bridges, ports and freight rail.

And just to be clear about what they mean, the GOP adds, "The legislation does not allow these funds to be used for non-essential purposes, such as street-scaping, or bike and pedestrian paths." Also ineligible are transit projects that would be eligible for New Starts or other FTA grants, carpool projects, ADA compliance for sidewalks, highway and transit safety improvements, planning, congestion mitigation, intelligent transportation systems, anything related to congestion pricing (including electric toll collection and travel demand management), or recreational trails.

Note that while anything eligible for New Starts or other FTA grants are forbidden, there is no such rule for projects that would be eligible for funding as Federal-Aid Highways. So the only dual-eligibility allowed on the passenger side are projects aimed at shoring up our increasingly obsolete car-dependent transport system. Since TIGER grants are competitive grants, this would mean that road and bridge projects that are competitive in terms of official Cost/Benefit analysis with port and freight rail projects could gain TIGER funding, while noncompetitive road projects could turn to formula-based Federal-Aid-Highways funding.

And, of course, they would no longer have to compete against rail or bus transit investments, investments in transport cycling, or investments in support of pedestrians.

In other words, from the perspective of the Republican majority on the appropriations committee, the way to ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely is by reducing the share of funding made on a competitive basis, relative to funds awarded on a block grant or formula basis, to reduce the range of competition to exclude projects that would otherwise offer the best bang for the buck.

Also note that anything that actually solves traffic congestion by either offering alternative paths or by charging motorists for the congestion costs they impose on others is forbidden ... the only allowed response to traffic congestion is to build more roads, to encourage sprawl development relying on those roads, to increase vehicle miles travelled, to recreate the traffic congestion except for longer average drives.

This House appropriations bill did not extend the budget knife to passenger air travel — since, of course, a lot of Republican House members are quite frequent flyers. So the $149m program of subsidized air fares to rural airports is maintained, and the NextGen Air Traffic Control system is fully funded.

This House appropriations bill also engages in a substantial amount of transport policy making through the appropriations process:

  • For Amtrak, where operations of long-haul passenger services often sees trains fully occupied over the more popular segment of a route but with a number of empty seats in other segments of the route, Amtrak is forbidden from offering discounts of more than 50 percent off of regular fares to fill those empty seats, on pain of losing federal subsidies for those routes, though of course subsidized rural air service is not presented with the same obstacle to maximizing revenue as Amtrak
  • There is language in the bill blocking construction of a light rail line on Richmond Avenue in Houston, since it seems interfering with the growth of one of the more successful light rail systems in the country at the level of individual alignment options is not an "earmark"
  • There is language designed to block California HSR construction from proceeding
  • Weight limits on trucks in Wisconsin, Idaho and Mississippi are raised, which, again, is not an earmark since it is a give-away of the right to cause unfunded road damage rather than a giveaway of money

In terms of the three responses to the climate crisis — commit suicide faster, commit suicide slower, or don't commit suicide at all — this transportation appropriation proposal plants Republican policy firmly on the side of committing climate suicide faster.

Our Borked Federal Budgeting Process

There is one point on the budget process that I've passed over to first look at the policy implications of this budget. And that is, this is an appropriations bill ... it came out of the House Appropriations committee.

There is no Authorization Bill for these appropriations. As Streetsblog USA notes:

Note: What the House GOP released yesterday wasn't an authorization bill but an appropriations bill for 2015. So far, there is no authorization guiding transportation spending for 2015, and as such this appropriations bill says that its funding levels are "contingent on the enactment of new transportation authorization legislation." Nothing can be appropriated that isn't authorized.

This is yet another example of our broken federal budgeting process. The appropriations committee is engaged in doing the appropriations committee's job, by proposing appropriations in advance of the authorization to spend that money. Indeed, they go further than that and try to stand in for the way that budget authorizations often attempt to pre-empt the job of regulatory legislation, so they are setting forth an appropriations bill attempting to do the job of an authorization bill in turn trying to do the job of regulatory legislation.

And why does the appropriation committee want to take on anybody else's job? Well, in this case, perhaps because their own job is so scary. As Transport for America pointed out when the White House made its Transportation budget proposal:

Just to extend MAP-21 at the same funding levels, the trust fund requires an infusion of $19 billion next year or $100 billion over 6 years. We know that finding that sort of money won't be an easy task, but having that conversation is the first crucial step. The President and House Ways and Means Chairman Camp both deserve recognition for presenting their preferred approach of using corporate tax reform to plug the funding gap.

The elephant in the room here is the slow motion collapse of the Highway Trust Fund system. Actually stepping in and solving that problem requires coming up with not just new approaches to funding the transport system we presently fund, but also new more cost-effective means of accomplishing that transport.

And that is likely to require politicians to do the job they are purportedly elected to do: make the tough choices.

Faced with the terrifying prospect of having to make tough choices, far better for the House Appropriations Committee to pre-empt the job of the authorizing committees and appropriate not-yet-authorized programs along the lines of just doing thing the way they have always been done.

And the fact that doing things the way they have always been done is a suicidal approach for the country as a whole, offering no serious prospect that we can survive the coming century with a coherent national economy ...well, just never mind that, there's a fund raiser to attend back home, so let's push this out the door and head out to the airport.

Conclusions & Conversations

The Sunday Train does not end at the end of the essay ... not even the end of an essay that took two weeks to arrive at. Rather, the end of the essay is just the beginning of the conversation.

And, as always, any topic in sustainable transport is on-topic in the Sunday Train. So feel free to talk about CO2 emissions reduction, energy independence, suburban retrofit and reversing the cancer of sprawl over our diverse ecosystems, or the latest iPhone or Android app to map you bike ride. Whatever.

On this particular topic, what are your thoughts on not only what direction a "don't commit suicide at all" transport policy would take ... and how we push for a federal political alignment that is able to not commit suicide at all?

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