Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Blogger Candidate Forum: Transportation Funding Hits Speed Bumps

https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2017/03/a-hostile-budget-for-urban-transportation/519783/?utm_source=nl_link4_031717


Washington D.C. metro
Photograph by Pablo Martinez Monsivals/AP Photo
citylab.com
Hello Everyone:

It is time for the weekly edition of Blogger Candidate Forum.  Karma is wonderful thing.  In 2009, Representative Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) shouted "you lie" during former-President Barack Obama's maiden speech to Congress.  Several years later, at a town hall meeting in his constituency, audience members shouted "you lie" at Rep. Wilson.  Got to love karma.  Alright, on to today's subject: transportation spending.

Transportation measures where quite prominent on the November ballot.  For Blue urban dwellers, like Blogger, they offered a glimmer of hope seeping through the dark Republican clouds.  On either side of the political aisle, there were those who thought that newly elected President Donald Trump would follow through on his much ballyhooed promise to spend the $1 trillion investment to

build new roads and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways, all across our wonder nation.

This all sounds wonderful but if President Trump's budget proposal goes through, rural transportation program could also feel the pain of budget cuts.  To date, the proposed 2018 Federal Budget has not been actively discussed in Congress, thus whatever cuts are still up in the air.

Amtrak conductor
pressherald.com

Laura Bliss reports in her CityLab article, "For Urban Transit, a Hostile Budget," "But where heard opportunity, others sensed hot air."  POTUS's proposed federal scheme   those fears: "The Department of Transportation (DOT) is slated for a $2.4 billion cut."  In short, urban public transit systems, Amtrak, and aviation networks should be ready to feel the pain.

Transportation policy makers were were predicting the TIGER grant, the program that awards billions in extremely flexible grants to local transportation projects since 2009, would take a big hit.  This program is a unicorn, it enjoys bipartisan Congressional support.  TIGER has helped create a bus-rapid transit line in Birmingham, Alabama; commuter rail infrastructure in Chicago, Illinois.  If it goes through, the proposed budget would eliminate the program, "stating it would save the feds $499 million annually."

Agency-by-agency look at the proposed
2018 Federal Budget
bigstory.ap.org
 The next proposal to the transportation budget is a cap on the Federal Transit Administration's Capital Investment Program-"New Starts."  Ms. Bliss writes, "The budget proposes 'funding to projects with existing full funding grant agreements only.'"  This translates to Boston's Green Line extension and the Portland-Milwaukee light rail project in Oregon would be spared.  However, most of the "shovel-ready" projects, to borrow a phrase from POTUS, do not have a full agreement in place.  This includes, to the dismay of Blogger's San Francisco Bay Area friends, Caltrain's electrification project.  Ms. Bliss reports, "Dozens   of projects would in limbo, among them several metros that passed major transit referenda in November, including Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Seattle."  Transportation researcher and consultant Yonah Freemark (@yfreemark) assembled a full list that can be viewed on his Twitter feed.

Despite billions in local funds earmarked and available, these and other cities would run into serious problems bring these projects to fruition, "not to mention their promises of improved mobility, environmental mitigations, and economic development."  Those potential benefits extend well beyond the confines of the city, but the budget proposal does not see it this way.  The document states,

Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects... (http://www.federal-budget.insidegov.com; date accessed Apr. 12, 2017)

"President's Proposed $1.15 Trillion Discretionary Budget (FY 2017)
grist.org

Mr. Freemark observed, "That's strange language...for a president who wants to pass a federal infrastructure bill."  He tweeted,

If his government believes this, what projects would an infra bill?

In an aside, "Toll roads, perhaps, and maybe more gas and oil pipelines."  Further,  "which 'inner cities' does Trump plan to revitalize if not those in the metros on the cut-list?"

The Trump budget proposal also advances two primary Republican desires: "privatize the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control function and axe funds for Amtrak."  The budget document also proposes the total elimination of support of intra-state train service, that would allow Amtrak to focus on better managing its State-supported and Northeast Corridor train services (Ibid).  This maybe a challenge, considering that one of the most critical and necessary projects is improvements to NEC service-"the highly complex Hudson Tunnel Project-is on the list of 'New Starts' projects that would be passed up for funding."

Trump Budget Plan
whsv.com
President Trump's budget also proposes ending the $175 million Essential Air Service programs, "which subsidizes flights in and out of rural airports."  This may be problematic for POTUS because targeting access to rail and air travel could affect his rural support base.  Ms. Bliss writes, "...this document seems to operate on the assumption that rural Americans do not wish to travel further  than their cars can take them, as it shows an unflinching commitment to funding new roads and highways."

The proposed budget gives priority to the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects grant program which, according to the plan,

...supports larger highway and multimodal freight projects with demonstrable national or regional benefits...(Ibid)

A few key points to keep in mind: "This budget does nothing to touch the largest pot of federal transportation spending, which is the Highway Trust Fund."  Money from the perpetually insolvent fund comes from a gas tax that has not been adjusted in 24 years and is allocated based on in entrenched 80-20 percent split between highways and mass transit.  Therefore, it will take a massive act of congress will (or divine intervention) to change this split one way or another.

Another key point to remember is Congress argues and ultimately settles the federal budget, not President Donald Trump.  Already, Democratic lawmakers have been quick to point the big fat lies implicit in the budget in regards to POTUS's commitment to transportation, infrastructure, and the Republicans have promised to push back on specific cut.  Transportation secretary Elaine Chao came out in support of the TIGER program.  Laura Bliss speculates, "The President may just be lobbing dirtballs at buses, trains, and plains-now it's up to Congress to either join in or fire back."

Whatever the ultimate final outcome of the budget negotiations, "Transit funding, which was already tenuous in recent administrations, is not about to get easier to come by."