Category Archives: Federal Policy
The phrase “smart growth” has a liberal connotation, but that label is unfairly given. Smart growth policies benefit everyone. It is not a partisan issue; at least it shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Conservatives often attack smart growth policies, but I think this is a result of a misunderstanding of the impact smart growth policies can have on a community.
David Goldstein wrote a blog post highlighting the reasons why conservatives should support smart growth policies, namely “economic freedom, limited government, and responsibility.” (Read the blog post here.) He brings up many good points that should appeal to both sides of the political divide. He sums up his argument perfectly when he writes:“Smart Growth looks at these issues in a holistic way. It does not advocate eliminating land use planning, nor letting anyone borrow money regardless of their ability to repay. But in many ways it does reduce the heavy hand of government and other big bureaucracies to tell you what to do.” (emphasis original)
Smart growth policies will benefit our entire community, but we must join together in the effort to establish these policies in our communities first. Liberals, conservatives, and independents alike should stand together to implement these changes to improve our communities. No matter the demographics or political affiliations, smart growth will benefit us all.
Unless this is the first Crossroads article that you have read (in which case, welcome!), I assume that you’ve noticed a trend throughout many of our posts on smart growth: studies show that average people want it, local mayors and town boards aim for it, small businesses benefit from it, and neighborhoods thrive on it. We’ve written about studies that demonstrate how various principles of smart growth benefit the economy, the environment, and public and private health. Lately, we’ve been able to blog about how the nation is seeing more and more of it.
But all too often, the overwhelming evidence of local and nonpartisan support for smart growth feels a bit…lacking. Sure, a survey of 2,071 people from the United States shows that 77% of them support smart design programs. Yeah, an analysis of how local transportation money has been spent proves that complete streets are spreading both in major cities like New York and San Francisco and in small towns in Idaho. But what does that mean for us? These are local efforts, and while they demonstrate a trend, we have yet to feel that “woah…Smart Growth is awesome” moment for ourselves in the Lehigh Valley.
But let’s say that this is your first visit to Crossroads. Have you ever heard of “smart growth” before?
Even if you do not know the term, chances are pretty good that you are familiar with the principles it represents. You wish it was easier to use mass transit, you’ve heard of “urban revitalization,” and you’ve noticed at some point in your life that it feels safer to walk on a sidewalk than on a poorly lit street on which cars routinely try to shatter the sound barrier. You want to feel safe letting your kids ride their bikes to friends’ houses, and you wish you could walk around the corner when you need one or two things for dinner, instead of having to jump in the car.
The guiding phrase itself is far less important than the practices it stands for. While the common word is a useful way to connect with like-minded groups and succinctly refer to a varying collection of thoughts, to the average person “smart growth” changes nothing — but the installation of sidewalks does.
Using and spreading the obscure phrase will not help us promote “smart growth” among the average people (all of us) who stand to benefit from it. Only two things that can do that. One, as I mentioned before, is the “woah” moment. Imagine, after having lived in Allentown for the past 10, 20, or 30 years, leaving. Imagine returning five years later. Imagine coming back to find a thriving downtown. Fantastic, affordable, safe places to live, just blocks from restaurants, bars, and your office. Drastically less traffic on the streets. Unobtrusive bike racks on curbs, for you, your neighbors, and your coworkers. A healthy, vibrant, safe, happy community.
If we continue to move forward, that’s coming. But it might take a bit of time, and it will definitely take a bit of work.
Until that moment, we rely on the second thing to promote the movement: the making mainstream of principles included in “smart growth.” While we try to work towards that through Crossroads, Facebook, and Twitter, we are clearly biased. What we need is institutional acknowledgment of Smart Growth.
Fortunately, we have lately begun to see this on the federal level. The EPA supports sustainable development. The President and the Department of Transportation and the continue to push for mass transit and alternative transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development sponsors many programs consistent with Smart Growth.
There’s also the Centers for Disease Control.
While economic and environmental benefits are frequently touted by the smart growth community, public health benefits are sometimes mentioned as an afterthought. They’re just as important, just as easy to prove, but somehow, they tend to take a backseat. RenewLV has made an effort over the past year or so to bring public health to the forefront of our push for smart growth in the Valley, both through the inevitable health benefits that come from other policies (such as walkability and mass transit), and through the establishment of a Regional Health Department (see here for more information about this campaign).
The federal government appears to see the health benefits of smart growth, as well. The CDC has a page dedicated to “community design.” It echos the public health arguments that RenewLV has made:
Community design refers to all the elements of a community that are human-made and form the physical characteristics of that community. It includes:
- buildings, such as schools, workplaces, and homes,
- parks and recreation areas,
- transportation systems, and
- places to buy food.
Well-designed communities can improve public health. The design and maintenance of our communities may be related to:
- chronic diseases,
- injury rates,
- mental health, and
- the effects of climate change.
Through design, communities can attempt to offer residents:
- opportunities to incorporate routine physical activity into our everyday lives,
- cleaner air,
- lower risk of injury from vehicle accidents, and
- decreased effects of climate change.
According to the page, the CDC actively tracks data on community design as it relates to public health concerns including “types of transportation to work, air quality (ozone and PM 2.5), childhood lead poisoning, and motor vehicle-related fatalities.”
The page is not promoting anything specific, nor does it represent the transformation of the CDC into a leading “smart growth” advocacy group. It simply represents an acknowledgment that Smart Growth has real effects: this is not some crazy scheme based on theory and fantasy. Smart Growth is real, it benefits everyone in many different ways, and it can be successful in any urban community.
Last week, Americans had the privilege of enjoying a live broadcast as the 112th Congress presented its latest round of political theater. As the clock ticked closer to a government shutdown, it started to feel as if the split-party Congress had zero chance of reaching a budget agreement. For the entire long and painful first act, we watched, read, and listened as politicians from both sides of the aisle threw blame at each other harder than any pitcher hurled a fastball on opening weekend. Neither side could agree on terms: House Majority Leader John Boehner struggled to balance the demands of the Tea Party and the less-rabid members of his party, while the Democrats fought to use their remaining powers of control to counter attacks on social policies wholly unrelated to fiscal conservation. Meanwhile, President Obama was left sounding like the disappointed father of two bickering children, pleading with them to just share the crummy plastic toys.
But late Friday night, with less than two hours left before the shutdown, the curtain closed for intermission when a deal was finally reached (although according to today’s NY Times, the agreement may be at risk). This news was certainly welcome to government workers, families of soldiers, homebuyers, visitors to national parks, and countless others. However, the details of the deal were not immediately known. All that was announced was that cuts to federal spending for the rest of fiscal year 2011 (through this September) will total around $39 billion — more than the $33 billion the Democrats proposed in their original compromise, but less than the $61 billion called for by the GOP-controlled House, or the staggering $100 billion screamed for by the most vocal of the Tea Party. The suspense was palpable, a perfect cliff hanger for the second act.
On Monday, Act II began as the specifics of the compromise bill started to trickle out. The entire bill is far too lengthy to discuss on Crossroads, but here are the areas of the most importance to RenewLV and the smart growth community.
Please note: information is still a tad bit sketchy, and specifics may change by the time the bill is fully passed. Every effort has been made to check all information against the House’s and Senate’s Appropriation Committee’s multiple press releases, all dated Monday, 4/11 and Tuesday, 4/12.
Housing and Urban Development
This one hurts, folks. The Department of HUD suffered a host of brutal cuts, including a $942 million cut to HUD’s community development fund. Additionally, there is a 16% ($650 million) cut to the Community Development Block Grant, a 33% ($50 million) reduction to the Sustainable Communities Initiative, and a 19% ($456 million) cut to the public housing capital fund. Fortunately, there is a piece of great news to take the edge off: the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG; see below for more information), which stood to lose almost one-third of its funding ($285 million), will only be cut by $20 million. Even that (relatively) small amount can do harm, but we certainly can be thankful that the originally proposed cut did not come to fruition.
The Environmental Protection Agency: Although the EPA’s total budget is decreased by a painful $1.6 billion (16%) from last year, it could be worse. Last week’s GOP attempts to reverse various climate regulations and block the EPA’s ability to create rules on global warming were successfully defeated.
Conservation: The budget deal represents a 12% cut to the National Resources Conservation Service, including a tough 55% cut to the Watershed Rehabilitation program. Land and Water Conservation Fund (land acquisition) programs are cut by 33% ($149 million).
Public Health: Thankfully, good news on this front. While there are various cuts to health care programs, reductions to many public and community health initiatives have been avoided. The Prevention and Public Health Fund (discussed in this Crossroads post) was untouched, despite a $750 million cut proposed by the GOP. However, the CDC’s budget was cut by 9%.
Food and Drug Administration: Although the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s funding decreases by 1%, The FDA’s FY 2011 budget actually sees a 4% increase over last year. As the Senate press release points out, “this funding level will allow the FDA to begin implementation of the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act.”
Compared with 2010, there is a $900 million cut to transit spending. Additionally, President Obama’s proposed high-speed rail system faces a $1.5 billion cut for FY 2011, while about $400 million in last year’s funds were rescinded. This leaves $1 billion for this year.
The President’s “Race to the Top” program escaped cuts, but the Pell Grant program has been trimmed – grants can no longer be used for summer school.
While I am grateful that the draconian $61 billion in spending cuts from H.R. 1 did not pass, the cuts in this budget compromise are still, in simple terms, brutal. In fact, the cuts are the largest in U.S. history. I am particularly happy about the survival of the Community Service Block Grant, but even that relatively small reduction, combined with the other cuts to HUD, have the potential to do great harm.
I wrote about potential reductions to the CSBG and CDBG back in February, after President Obama announced his original budget proposal. The community service grants represent a significant source of funding to organizations such as the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV), which are crucial to job creation and economic development. I don’t think that anyone, left or right, would disagree with me in saying that unnecessary spending must be reduced in order to close the federal deficit. However, cuts that come at the expense of vulnerable citizens and actually hurt the economy, such as those to community development and transportation programs (which have the potential to create a multitude of jobs and stimulate the economy), are just plain foolish.
An announcement this month from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) serves to reinforce one of the key reasons that RenewLV supports the establishment of a regional health department, which would encompass all of Lehigh and Northampton counties.
On February 9, HHS announced a $750 million investment in prevention and public health for 2011. Building on a similar $500 million investment last year, the program is funded through the Prevention and Public Health Fund, an important component of the Affordable Care Act. According to the HHS press release, the $750 million, which will be distributed mainly through grants, is broken down into four categories:
- Community Prevention ($298 million): These funds will be used to help promote health and wellness in local communities, including efforts to prevent and reduce tobacco use; improve nutrition and increase physical activity to prevent obesity; and coordinate and focus efforts to prevent chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
- Clinical Prevention ($182 million): These funds will help improve access to preventive care, including increasing awareness of the new prevention benefits provided under the new health care law. They will also help increase availability and use of immunizations, and help integrate behavioral health services into primary care settings.
- Public Health Infrastructure ($137 million): These funds will help state and local health departments meet 21st century challenges, including investments in information technology and training for the public health workforce to enable detection and response to infectious disease outbreaks and other health threats.
- Research and Tracking ($133 million): These funds will help collect data to monitor the impact of the Affordable Care Act on the health of Americans and identify and disseminate evidence-based recommendations on important public health challenges.
There are two things worth noting from the press release. First, a grant within the ”Public Health Infrastructure” category could be used to help offset the initial investment required to create a regional health department. While this is just speculation for now (specific details regarding the grants are not easily accessible), it seems likely that such a project to improve local public health infrastructure would be able to find support.
Second, a regional health department would have more success when applying for grants under all four categories. A larger health department presents a more competitive application than two smaller ones. The Allentown and Bethlehem Health Bureaus have a very poor chance of winning grants if larger municipalities such as Philadelphia choose to apply to the same programs. The proposed regional health department, however, covering over 600,000 people, would have much improved chances, and would be more likely to net the federal money.
This competitive advantage would combine with an increase in state funding. We know that a regional health department would receive $3 million from the state that the two current independent health bureaus are missing out on. State public health funding is allocated on a per capita basis under Act 315 and Act 12. Therefore, a larger population serviced by a regional department would be eligible for greater funding.
Keep in mind that the Affordable Health Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund represents a $15 billion investment over 10 years. So, a regional health department would be competitively applying for these specific funds for at least the next 8 years, in addition to countless other federal grants.
For more information, take a look at the following resources:
By now, you have probably seen President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget. If you are reading this blog, it’s likely that you are a smart growth advocate. If that’s the case, chances are that you are as torn and surprised as I am at how the President has managed to both promote a key principle of smart growth, while critically wounding another.
I’ll start with the bad news. Obama’s budget reflects a proposal he alluded to in his State of the Union address: cutting in half the Community Service Block Grant (CSBG). The CSBG is a main source of funding for community action groups (including the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, a major partner of RenewLV). These groups provide a multitude of services, with the overall goal of helping people achieve economic security. They directly and indirectly promote job creation, small business ownership, and other programs to help those in need get back on their feet. The effects of this cut in funding, if it is passes in the final budget, may prove devastating. Take a look at the National Association for State Community Service Programs’ (NASCSP) press release regarding the cut.
The good news is that the budget proposal contains a few significant measures to invest in smart growth programs. Smart Growth America‘s CEO and President Geoffrey Anderson posted a statement on the organization’s blog applauding the President. He notes the particular provisions endorsed by Smart Growth America, including those which (quote):
- Support an interagency effort led by HUD and the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to help distressed cities and regions utilize public resources more strategically and to form partnerships to support job creation and economic development.
- Stimulate economic growth in areas stymied by brownfields by providing technical assistance towns and cities and maintaining an area-wide planning program to integrate sustainable community development with environmental remediation activities.
- Invest in sustainable, innovative communities by providing $150 million to create incentives for more communities to develop comprehensive housing and transportation plans that result in sustainable development, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and increased transit-accessible housing.
- Preserve the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program. This will continue to enable State and local governments to address infrastructure, affordable housing, and economic development needs in their communities. [Note that the CDBG is different from the CSBG. The CDBG also faces proposed cuts.]
- Include a six-year framework for funding surface transportation programs to modernize the country’s transportation infrastructure, create jobs, and create sustainable investments for long-term economic growth. The President plans to work with the Congress to ensure that the plan will not increase the deficit. This type of reform are precisely in line with recent polls, including one released today by the Rockefeller Foundation which shows that voters believe strongly that providing a modern, safe infrastructure is a primary role of our government.
- Promote infrastructure repair policies that will ensure that transportation agencies stop siphoning off money intended to rehabilitate bridges and highways.
It is great to see that the President has produced a fiscally responsible budget that promotes aspects of smart growth. However, the vision shared by organizations like RenewLV are not limited to a few specific programs and resources. Smart growth encourages those initiatives as a means to achieving a viable urban reality, in which American cities live up to their promised potential. Cutting the CSBG has the potential to destroy programs that fight poverty, aid small businesses, help children receive an education, and promote safe, diverse, healthy neighborhoods. In other words, community action groups support economic growth and directly work towards smart cities.
Fortunately, the budget proposal is just that: a proposal. In the coming months, the President will have to negotiate with advocates from around the nation and with Congress in order to draft a finalized budget. Please, consider lending support to the effort to save the CSBG. Sign this online petition to remind the President of the importance of community action groups, and stay tuned to RenewLV and CACLV for updates.
The proposed federal support for transportation and infrastructure initiatives are fantastic. It’s just a shame that these provisions come alongside such damaging cuts to our communities.
Thanks to a very generous sponsorship provided by the conference organizers, last month I had the opportunity to travel to Portland, Oregon, to attend the 10th edition of Rail-Volution, a national conference that concerns (naturally) rail transportation, but is really about how transit and transportation are connected to the goals of creating vibrant, high-quality communities and regions.
With about 1,200 attendees, as well as dozens of workshops, Rail-Volution was an ideal way to learn about how communities across the United States and elsewhere are using transit to foster economic development as well as to create strong communities and increase mobility and choice. Workshops covered a diverse set of topics. Here’s a very small sample of the types of sessions offered during the four-day conference: “Private Investment in Transit-Oriented Development (TOD): A Lender’s Perspective”; “Building Community Support for TOD”; “Weaving Transit into Existing Communities”; “New Directions in Public-Private Partnerships,” and “Getting the Most Out of Station Area Planning.”
Also, Rail-Volution featured various “mobile workshops,” where attendees could tour areas of Portland that showcased the city’s transit system as well as its many, many transit-oriented neighborhoods. (I had a chance to tour a few of Portland’s “20-Minute Neighborhoods. These are areas designed to provide residents with access to all their daily services and amenities — including transit hubs — within a 20-minute walk, or about a one-quarter to one-half-mile radius.”)
The role of federal policy in promoting TOD and walkable, mixed-used communities was a common theme at the conference. One of the best plenary sessions featured senior-level staff from each of three federal agencies (HUD, EPA and DOT) that are participating in the Sustainable Communities Partnership, discussing the progress (and challenges) in getting their agencies to align their funding priorities with an eye toward advancing livable communities and regional equity.
Rail-Volution 2010 happened to take place about a week after HUD had announced the winners of $100 million in major regional planning grants (part of the Sustainable Communities Partnership). Additionally, another round of major federal grants — the “TIGER II” grants, about $600 million in funding for 75 innovative transportation projects — were announced from D.C. during the course of the conference. Needless to say, there was a lot of buzz around both these grant programs, and the conference provided a great setting in which to informally meet some of these awardees and talk one-on-one about their work and their approach to securing federal funding.
Another area of federal policy that figured heavily in the conference was New Starts, the Federal Transit Administration’s primary program for funding new and expanded transit systems. New Starts was a topic of much discussion (and a few different conference sessions), not only because the program is “oversubscribed” (i.e., too many applicant systems chasing far too few dollars) but also because USDOT is working to make community-building benefits of transit more of a factor in how applicants are scored. This is a significant departure from prior policy (enacted under President Bush in 2005), which had elevated cost-effectiveness above all other scoring criteria for New Starts applicants.
While the conference covered public financing for transit and TOD in-depth, the focus of the workshops and other sessions were clear on one point: In an era of constrained public budgets, states and regions are going to need to focus on funding new transit projects through mechanisms that combine public and private financing. In Pennsylvania in recent years, the term “public/private partnership” (or “P3″) has typically been taken to mean leasing the turnpike to a private operator, but regions and states represented at Rail-Volution described a variety of creative ways that government could work with the private sector to finance transit projects that foster mixed-use, mixed-income developments. As one speaker noted, “Transit is always going to involve some type of public subsidy. But public funding can never be the whole story.” Another speaker identified no less than 25 different mechanisms by which private-sector involvement could be integrated into funding transit and TOD.
Everyone knows that planning and implementing transit projects and systems is a long-term play. But the clear (and pervasive) message from Rail-Volution was the importance of looking at what’s possible to get started on right now in your region. For example, several speakers noted the value of beginning the process of station-area planning early, even before the actual transit infrastructure (such as rail lines) is in under development. This points to the importance of work already underway in Lehigh Valley cities to channel development into central business districts and foster commercial/entertainment hubs and a mix of pedestrian uses. Similarly, LANTA is beginning to look at bus rapid transit (BRT), which can itself foster TOD while also setting the stage for higher modes of transit (such as rail) in the future.
The key is using success in these near-term opportunities to build momentum toward a long-range vision not just for transit-oriented development, but for what we want our communities to look like 5, 10 and 20 years from now.
DCStreetsBlog did an interview series(Part 1, part 2) with Maria Zimmerman the Deputy Director for Sustainable Communities at the department of Housing and Urban Development, and Brian Sullivan from the Office of Public Affairs. The series highlights not only the importance and reasoning behind the three agencies’ partnership, but also the challenges of working together. It’s a really informative series. Here’s a few choice sections, mostly on the technical issues the agencies have had to overcome:
Maria Zimmerman: In terms of messaging, we have always felt there is a strong economic need for investing more smartly, leveraging our resources. Federal coordination is just cost effectiveness.
That message is one we can be stronger on. We’ve talked about some of the environmental and quality-of-life reasons for sustainability – we can do a better job of explaining what are the costs of not investing this way and what are the savings if we do. It’s really about trying to invest more wisely.
MZ: To set up the process to review the grants, we all had these amazing firewalls of our internet systems to prevent hacking, and literally just getting between the firewalls was an unbelievable headache. That involved countless calls, and countless IT people. And yeah, we have different budgeting codes from OMB and from Congress, so coordinating can be quite a bit of effort.
Sullivan: We didn’t even have their phone number a year ago.
MZ: For instance, for HUD CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) money, we have a preference for local hiring. And our funds can be used as a match for DOT funds, but DOT has provisions against local hiring – you have to do a competitive bid. So if you have a project and you’re trying to bring together DOT and CDBG money, you either have to create a strange artificial wall, or what most folks do is say, we’re not going to pool that money – it’s too hard. That would require a Congressional fix.
There are real improvements in quality of life to be gained from the partnership. A concerted government effort towards achieving livability and sustainability is a pretty big step in the bureaucracy, and it’s really encouraging to see what steps the organizations are taking agency-wide in their pursuit of livable communities. What really interests me, though, is how these agencies have to work together to begin to work together — overcoming competing policy goals and regulations, making their technology compatible, and even something as simple as talking to each other. It’s a way for the agencies to reduce duplication of effort, standardize the technologies they use and achieve something close to economies of scales in their policies.
With the ARC tunnel scrapped, Mayor Bloomberg of New York is proposing an extension of NYC’s subway system into New Jersey. Eliot Brown of WSJ writes:
The plan is an attempt to expand rail capacity and grab some of the $3 billion in federal money that had been set aside for a rail-tunnel project between New Jersey and Manhattan, according to multiple people familiar with discussions over the project. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spiked the rail tunnel three weeks ago due to concerns about cost overruns…
With a preliminary price tag of $5.3 billion, the new plan calls for the no. 7 tunnel to be further extended under the Hudson River to connect with New Jersey Transit trains in Secaucus, people briefed on the concept said.
So while ARC may be dead and buried, this is plan may at least end well. That is, assuming that all parties involved can come to an agreement, and that the funds can be successfully reallocated. I also have my doubts about how pleased Gov. Christie is that a mayor from another state is working to find a replacement for a program he canceled.
Edit: Here’s another article to contrast to Bloomberg’s announcement and the entire ARC struggle.
Eric Jaffe of Infrastructurist discusses China’s growing high speed rail program:
China has quietly finished laying the tracks for the longest bullet line in the world. Spanning more than 800 miles, the line will link the Chinese capital of Beijing with Shanghai, an economic hub on the east. Travel between the two cities will drop to four hours—down from 10—when train service begins in 2012.
As the BBC points out, five years ago China had no high-speed rail track to speak of. Today, at roughly 4,000 miles, China’s bullet train network is already the world’s most extensive. That total is set to double within two years, according to the World Bank, which would give China more high-speed mileage than the rest of the globe combined.
Granted, HSR and a subway system aren’t the same thing, but it’s worth knowing that China is trouncing the U.S(and the rest of the world) in transit infrastructure investment.
I don’t represent RenewLV’s stance on the gas tax, but here’s my take on it and some of the history behind the issue.
The federal gas tax is rapidly becoming a new political third rail, alongside certain social services. With Republicans controlling the House, it’s less likely the tax will be increased — or that the continuous tax break will be ”canceled” as some see it — but the gas tax is still one of those pesky pieces of legislation that needs attention. Having not been adjusted since 1993, this per gallon tax has not kept pace with inflation or the changing per capita demand for gasoline as automobiles see higher CAFE standards. Consequently, while the price per gallon may be increasing, the fraction of this that goes to funding road infrastructure has only been decreasing.
There’s a report by Robert Pirog of the Congressional Research Service that helps to shed some light on the history of the tax, as well as what a political nightmare it is. It was first introduced in 1919 in Oregon and within 13 years was in effect in some form in every state, with the tax itself ranging from $.02 to $.07 per gallon (for comparison, $.02 and $.07 in 1932 would be worth $0.32 and $1.12, respectively, in 2010 dollars). It was permanently enacted by the federal government in the 1940s and was periodically adjusted to either pay for highways or for deficit reduction. It was most recently adjusted by Presidents George Bush Sr. and Bill Clintion.
Where we are today, however, the gas tax has not been adjusted for 17 years. Were the tax to have kept pace with inflation, it would have moved from $.184 in 1993 dollars to $.27 in 2010 dollars. Couple this decrease in real revenue with the fact that improved CAFE standards have helped to reduce individual consumption of gasoline, and you have a revenue stream that is slowing to a trickle at a time when infrastructure investment is needed more than ever. In the eyes of some, this continuous depreciation in the gas tax due to inflation is actually a tax break that occurs every year. Since tax breaks without reductions in spending add to the deficit, it’s fairly apparent what the net effect is.
As it currently stands, user fees make up a continuously decreasing portion of highway funding. Since the gas tax by and large goes towards road infrastructure (with incredibly minor portions directed towards public transit), a real decrease in revenues from the tax reduces what the federal government can invest in roadways. This is amazingly important as the focus at all levels of government on automobile use is propped up, in part, by the myth that user fees pay for highway usage. It’s used as a counter-argument against increased investment in public transit, as mass transit, in the eyes of some, can only be funded if it at least breaks even immediately.
With technological momentum behind systems of highways, and most Americans being socialized to use the car over all other modes of transportation, it would take time for a public transit system to reach enough demand to be profitable. Public transit tends to take a long time to build up, so it’s not such a bad idea to start before roadway congestion becomes even worse and public infrastructure decays even further.
There is some momentum currently in place to slowly increase the fuel tax, but not much. On the one hand, there’s Sen. Voinovich(R-Ohio) and Sen. Carper(D-Del)who suggest increasing the tax at a rate of 1 cent a month for 25 months, in order to let the economy slowly adjust to the effects of the tax. The tax increase would see 15 of the 25 cents going towards the Highway fund, and the other 10 going to deficit reduction. Increasing the gas tax is also suggested in the Debt Commission’s proposal to decrease the deficit, though admittedly this might make the adjustment even less likely of passing.
Compounding the improbability of an increase in the gas tax is the rise to Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure – say that five times fast – of heir apparent Rep. John Mica(R-FL). While in the past Mica has shown himself to be a supporter of expanding transit infrastructure, he has been staunchly opposed to increasing the gas tax.
As I see it, ultimate goal of bringing the gas tax in line with contemporary needs and RenewLV’s Sustainable Transportation Initiative have a lot in common: they encourage reduced reliance on solely the automobile, increased usage of mixed use landscapes and transportation, and seek to promote infrastructure systems that are economically and environmentally sustainable.
Tax increases during a recession are barely politically palatable. The gas tax is also a regressive tax increase, due to the nature of its implementation. However, it pays for public road infrastructure while also placing the costs onto the greatest users of roads. By internalizing a portion of the costs of highway usage (the gas tax doesn’t even remotely touch the environmental or health damages accrued from automobile usage), demand for automobile usage and infrastructure would decrease, while increasing public desire for multimodal transit. Reinvesting in our existing infrastructure, establishing new systems of public transit, and shrinking the federal deficit; the gas tax is a difficult measure to support, but it is what’s needed.
What a federal transportation bill ultimately looks like — and when (and if) it actually gets done — is a big deal for the Lehigh Valley and regions across the nation. Federal funding has always been central to supporting transportation projects and its offshoots (such as transit-oriented development, complete streets, etc.). The current federal surface transportation — SAFETEA-LU — expired more than a year ago (it’s been extended several times), and until Congress passes a new comprehensive bill, states and localities cannot be sure what the federal transportation funding picture will look like.
This makes it very tough for transit agencies and departments of transportation to plan. I can say that in almost every discussion of transportation for the Lehigh Valley — whether on passenger rail, bus rapid transit, bike infrastructure, pedestrian safety, or roads — the uncertainty surrounding the federal bill is a constant theme. You hear it all the time: “We can’t do much until we see what happens at the federal level.”
Given that last week’s election shifted the political landscape Washington, the prospects for Congress moving a new transportation bill are not clear. Fortunately, our friends at Transportation for America held an in-depth briefing call today to lay out where things stand. Some of the highlights:
- With former Housing Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar losing his seat in Congress last week, the leading advocate for pushing a balanced, forward-thinking transportation bill at a level of $500 billion is out of the picture. T4America Director James Corless notes that a $500B is not going to happen, and that even $400B might not be feasible.
- T4America indicates that transportation is one of a handful of issues that the White House believes it could get bipartisan support in the next two years. At the same time, Corless notes that the window is really in the next 12 months or so–once you get into late 2011, you’re into the 2012 campaign season, and movement on the bill gets less likely.
- T4America expects that the new transportation bill will emphasize innovative financing mechanisms, such as public/private partnerships (“P3″s) and a National Infrastructure Bank. Also, principles like accountability and performance measures (which T4A has been pushing) will likely be part of the bill.
- Although last week’s election results overall seemed to carry a “less public spending” message, T4America pointed to a Center for Transportation Excellence report showing that at the local level, 22 of 30 transportation funding measures passed, totally more than $500 million in investment over five years.
Corless was clear on the fact that more will be known in the coming couple months, as the House leadership is selected and committee chairmanships are assigned. RenewLV will continue to provide updates via this blog and through our website. To follow every detail and development on the federal surface transportation bill, some of our favorite sources are Transportation for America (naturally), The Transport Politic, and Streetsblog Capitol Hill.