As some of you are aware, the current federal transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU, expired last night at midnight. Over the past two months, the debate had been vacillating between the passage of a new bill and an extension of the old bill. US Representative James Oberstar, Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was determined to bring a new and updated bill to the House floor for a vote by the end of September, while US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called for an 18-month extension of the current bill. Since the House of Representatives voted in favor of a 3-month extension of the current bill, transportation officials have been waiting for the Senate’s decision. Unfortunately, the US Senate was unable to pass an extension in time, leaving only one choice: passing an emergency one-month extension.
While this one-month extension will ensure that current transportation operations do not completely stop, it will still mean that states will no longer have access to their share of $8.7 billion in transportation funding. This so-called “recsission” was written into the original bill, and, essentially, it returns money back to the federal government that has not been contractually-obligated. Transportation for America, a coalition that RenewLV is a part of, has posted more information and details about the latest developments on their blog, and I encourage you to read their recent post to learn more about this issue.
Also, if you would like to voice your comments and thoughts related to this matter, post them below or e-mail RenewLV.
The New York Times blog Economix is running a three-to-four part blog narrative by Edward Glaeser, professor of economics at Harvard University, that provides a cost-benefit analysis of the administration’s high-speed rail vision. Some of the costs that will be analyzed will include the initial construction and operating costs. Currently, Glaeser reports that the up-front costs are ranging from $22 million a mile to $132 million a mile. In his upcoming posts, more will be said about the operating costs, and the benefits for riders (and, perhaps, the benefits for a region served by high-speed transportation).
While it is important to calculate the start-up costs, another crucial part of the high-speed rail initiative is the investment return, a much more difficult figure to determine. Yes, a significant amount of money must be spent initially in order to establish rail service, but this spending is an investment, one that will reap benefits beyond finance. The potential to increase economic development and vitality has been shown already, but, additionally, rail can revitalize communities and create vibrant neighborhoods. The result is a prosperous and thriving region.
Over the weekend, The Morning Call ran a story that examined the funding issues hovering over Pennsylvania’s transportation system. Since the Federal Highway Administration denied a request to add tolls to Interstate 80 in 2008, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has been reviewing options for generating revenue, as mandated by Act 44, a transportation funding law approved by the state Legislature in 2007. Under Act 44, an estimated $930 million was supposed to be paid yearly to PennDOT by the Turnpike Commission. Unfortunately, given the Federal denial, this number will be whittled down to just $450 million. But the Commission is not giving up yet.
Latest reports state that turnpike officials are reapplying for federal approval after meeting with representatives from the state Department of Transportation and the Highway Administration. The application was denied approval because it did not ensure that the money collected on I-80 would be used to directly improve that highway – a necessary requirement for tolling. The Commission will address these issues before resubmitting the application for approval.
While a new application might pass approval, it will not be the last hurdle for turnpike officials. The tolling plan has been opposed by most residents living along I-80, which has pushed some members of the state legislature to rally against the proposal. Furthermore, the plan never gained the full approval of the Governor, who preferred a public-private partnership (P3) that would lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike – an option that was rejected by the state legislators, mainly on the House side. But the P3 plan is not dead yet. Recently, a bill was introduced into the State Senate that would authorize public-private partnerships to pay for road and bridge work. It is unclear what the future holds for this legislation, but it is important to point out that the only aspect of transportation under consideration here is bridge and road funding.
The other side of the coin involves the funding shortfalls for public transportation, an issue that is rarely addressed. As shown in the above chart, the Turnpike payment in Act 44 allocates over 40% of the money to public transportation, and short of hiking fares, it remains to be seen how public transit will weather the financial shortfalls.
The Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee has put together an informative presentation about Act 44 on its website, and I invite you to flip through it. As always, keep checking this blog for more information about transportation on the national and state levels.
Tune in to PBS Channel 39 this weekend to see Steven Bliss, Executive Director of RenewLV, featured on Tempo Public Square, discussing what is needed to establish a running regional rail service in the Lehigh Valley area. Some of the various issues examined during the program will include the estimated project costs, ridership projections, and benefits of rail service, as well as a discussion of implementation challenges.
With a growing population in the Lehigh Valley, the area is ripe for a regional rail network. Currently, RenewLV supports the study of rail service in the Lehigh Valley, examining the expansion of NJ Transit through to the Northampton and Lehigh Counties. This study serves as an important step towards creating rail service in the Lehigh Valley, which will provide travel options and increased economic opportunities.
Tempo PublicSquare: Regional Rail airs this Friday, June 19th, at 7:30 PM and 11PM, with a repeat showing on Sunday, June 21st, at 11:30AM, on PBS39, Channel 39.
Occasionally I read the blog site “Talking Points Memo” which is an overwhelming website featuring news and blogs and clips of all the ins and outs of a day’s work in the nation’s capital and elsewhere on the political frontier. It is a blog site perhaps best known for the investigative reporting on the firing of the eight US Attorneys under then-A.G. Alberto Gonzales. Last week, reporter Elana Schor posted a piece about the near-elimination of funding for mass transit projects out of the $825 Billion economic stimulus package being proposed by the new administration. Its very short, and worth a read. Everyone expects trade-offs in negotiating a package like this, but this is particularly disappointing.
From House Rep. Jim Oberstarr:
“The reason for the reduction in overall funding — we took money out of Amtrak and out of aviation; we took money out of the Corps of Engineers, reduced the water infrastructure program, the drinking water and the wastewater treatment facilities and sewer lines, reduced that from $14 billion to roughly $9 billion — was the tax cut initiative that had to be paid for in some way by keeping the entire package in the range of $850 billion.”