Blog Archives

Federal Transportation Bill: Where We Are & Where We’re Going

Earlier this week, the Transportation for America coalition (of which RenewLV is a regional lead on) held a partner call to debrief coalition members on President Obama’s recently-unveiled transportation proposal and the next steps in pushing comprehensive transportation legislation.

Stephen Lee Davis outlines the main points of the White House plan on the T4A blog:

Included in the proposal is an infrastructure bank, a plan to rebuild 150,000 miles of roads, construct and maintain 4,000 miles of rail, and rehabilitate or reconstruct 150 miles of runway and install a new air traffic control system.

But perhaps most notably, the White House hits many of the same notes that T4 America has been sounding for the last two years in the official White House release, focusing especially on the need for a long-term transportation bill, with some serious reforms.

“The President’s initiative, as we understand it based on the broad outlines issued today, will give much-needed help to the economy while kick-starting the long-delayed transformation of the nation’s outdated surface transportation program,” said T4 America Director James Corless in an official statement.

On this week’s call, Corless stressed that the goal is to pass a robust transportation bill in the next 18 months — and the President’s recent announcement helped show that the Administration is behind making this goal happen. Given this window of opportunity provided by the White House, the T4A coalition will continue outreach and advocacy to pass a bill with full support for a balanced transportation network. We’ll keep you updated on any developments over the next couple of months.

Proposed Budgets (Yep, It’s That Time Again)

Budget discussions are underway, both at the state and federal levels. In Pennsylvania, among other suggestions, Governor Rendell is proposing a lift on some sales-tax exemptions coupled with a plan for a lower sales tax (4%, rather than the current 6% rate). The Lehigh Valley’s leaders chimed in their thoughts on the Governor’s budget proposal in today’s Morning Call.

Nationally, Obama’s proposal includes a plan for a National Infrastructure Bank, that would support both national and regional projects. The New Republic reported on this plan, though with slight disappointment that the proposal only focuses on transportation proposals.

Other noteworthy aspects of the national budget: increased funding for the Clean Water and Drinking Water Revolving Funds and more funding for high-speed rail projects. As Pennsylvania moves forward on plans for an integrated state rail plan, the hope remains that the Commonwealth will have several projects eligible for this funding.

Thoughts on these budgets?

Will 2010 Be the Year of Transportation Reform?

Rep. Jim Oberstar hopes so. And US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood expects it to be the case.

The Hill reported last week that Rep. Oberstar is pressing President Obama to back his transportation funding bill, though the White House has yet to take an official position on said bill. Thus far, the bill is encountering the same block that it came up against in 2009 – uncertainty over the funding stream. The last bills were funded by the Federal Highway Trust (FHT) Fund, which is running the risk of running low in upcoming years, as more Americans are cutting back on driving (revenue from the gas tax goes to the FHT Fund).

Providing the administration’s stance, Sec. LaHood stated that the White House would like to see a comprehensive transportation bill passed by the end of 2010, but admitted that the costs of such a bill are a significant worry. Nevertheless, the administration will continue working with Congress in the upcoming months, with the hope of arriving at some sort of solution to the funding problem.

What are your suggestions for where the funding should come from?

Transportation for America Campaign Delivers New Fact Sheets

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Transportation for America has compiled new fact sheets for each state that detail the very real problems that the nation’s transportation system is facing – poor infrastructure, transit cuts, and lack of long-term planning. For Pennsylvania, some of the facts that stand out are the percentages for roads in poor conditions and the rise in travel delay time for the Philadelphia area. Regarding the conditions of Pennsylvania’s roads, the state is falling behind the nation in keeping up with dilapidated infrastructure. Approximately 11% of the state’s roads are in poor condition, while the number is much lower – 5.8% – for the general nation. And the annual delay time for travelers in Philadelphia went up approximately 40% – from 27 hours to 38 hours.

Check out the entire Pennsylvania fact sheet HERE. And keep up with all transportation information by subscribing to our RSS feed.

More Equitable Transportation Policy

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While Congressional members are back in their respective districts during August, many of them are aware of the work that awaits back in Washington upon their return in September. As reported on this blog and on Transportation for America’s blog, one crucial piece of legislation hangs in the air: the Surface Transportation Authorization Act. The current federal transportation bill is set to expire at the end of September and, with it, the federal funding stream for important transportation projects – including road work and public transit maintenance. With this sense of urgency in mind, Representative James Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has ordered a full markup of the bill once Congress is back in D.C. in September, with the goal of bringing it to the House floor within the third week of that month.

Concurrently, another bill, HR 2724, promotes a comprehensive transportation vision for the nation with specific goals for the transportation network. Of the various objectives within the bill, some stand out noticeably: increase walking, bicycle, and public transportation usage by three times; reduce car accidents by 50%; and double the number of destinations accessible by public transportation. Currently, T4A is waging a campaign to sign House members onto this bill, and its counterpart in the Senate, S1036.

And while all of these objectives aim to increase equity in the transportation system, the research and advocacy organization PolicyLink is calling for a transportation network that benefits all people of America. In its latest policy analysis, All Aboard!: Making Equity and Inclusion Central to Federal Transportation Policy, the message is clear: federal transportation policy needs reform in order to be more inclusive. The research piece establishes core principles for achieving equity in transportation, and recommends these components for inclusion into the transportation bill:

  1. Increased access to affordable transportation choices
  2. Increased access to jobs through the transportation network
  3. Extension of transportation modes to all communities
  4. Focus on community health
  5. Promotion of environmentally sustainable communities.

I recommend a read-through of the entire document. Transportation reform requires an overhaul of federal policy, and it is important to take all these perspectives into consideration when the bill is marked-up next month. It is with hope that the Committee will acknowledge these concerns.

Keep up to date with all the latest information on this bill and other transportation legislation by visiting RenewLV’s Join Us page, and filling out the supporter form.

Brief Remarks about Modernizing Transportation

The National Journal Online posted a brief question on their Transportation blog last month. The query: How should the transportation system in America address all of the “new” challenges that society is facing today and will continue to face in the future? In a rather leading – yet, in my opinion, keen – approach, the Journal suggested that the answer to this question should focus on modernizing transportation, rather than merely expanding it. The acknowledgment here seems to be that the solutions to the nation’s transportation problems will not focus strictly on building more roads. Instead, a comprehensive network that integrates pedestrian walkways and public transportation with a system of roads will provide more accessibility and less congestion without the loss of open space.

I invite you to check out the answers provided by the various members of the expert panel. As for the smart growth answer to this question, I would promote the planning of livable communities, which offer multiple transportation choices without placing a significant strain on natural resources. Additionally, I would promote sustainable transportation projects that support economic, community, and recreational development. Tomorrow, as part of the Revitalizing Older Communities series, I will focus on one project in Easton, PA that hopes to achieve these principles.

National Smart Growth Policy

Members of the US Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee introduced a new bill this week that will coordinate policies within the housing, transportation, and environmental sectors. As described in the press release, the Livable Communities Act will “help towns and regions across the country plan and implement development projects that integrate their community’s needs for transportation, housing, land use, and economic development.” The committee hopes that the bill will encourage sustainable planning practices at all governmental levels, and ensure that the various aspects affecting the livability of a neighborhood are integrated together. Some of the key goals in the bill include increased accessibility to reliable public transportation and the creation of more affordable housing.

The legislation will, among other actions, create planning grants for regions, as well as challenge grants that can be used to implement those plans. To oversee the grant distribution, the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities will be established. It was reported a few weeks ago that Shelley Poticha, the current the Co-Chair of Transportation for America, is expected to step into the leadership position of the new office. On a side note, RenewLV, being a supporter of sustainable transportation choices, is a coalition member of the Transportation of America campaign. You can visit the T4A website to learn more about their national initiatives and how local organizations fit into the agenda to push for smarter transportation policy.

With the new grant program established, the Lehigh Valley has an opportunity to come together to address growth issues in our communities. To help in this effort, visit RenewLV’s Join Us page and sign up as a supporter to stay up to date on information related to livable communities and revitalization projects.

Federal Support for LANTA

In line with the established goal to move forward, the Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority (LANTA) is expected to receive $500,000 from the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies (THUD) Appropriations Bill that was reported favorably out of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee last week. The funds will be used to purchase several hybrid-powered buses, which are efficient in reducing maintenance costs, emissions, and fuel consumption. The project will be one of the first major achievements of LANTA’s capital improvements program. As mentioned in an earlier Crossroads post, the transit authority will be working over the next 12 years to update the system to better serve the needs of the Lehigh Valley population. The purchase of hybrid buses will bring necessary upgrades to the system, as well as help cut costs, and provide savings for funding other aspects of the transportation development plan. Concurrently, LANTA is working on improving bus stop signs, installing new waiting shelters, and establishing new connection hubs.

While the verdict for state funding hangs in the air (see last week’s post for background information on Pennsylvania’s Act 44 and the transportation funding gap), it is encouraging to see that federal funding options remain available. LANTA provides a crucial service for many residents of the Lehigh Valley, especially within the city corridors, by giving access to housing, work, and – especially salient this week – recreational activities. With Musikfest in full swing in downtown Bethlehem, driving on much of Main Street is prohibited and parking limited. To accommodate attendees and local residents, LANTA is providing the Shuttleplatz and FestLOOP, two services that are facilitating access to the various festival areas. Check out the Musikfest Transportation Guide for more details about these LANTA services.

To stay informed about the latest developments on transportation funding in Pennsylvania and in the Lehigh Valley, fill out a supporter form on RenewLV’s Join Us page, making sure to check the ‘Transportation’ box before clicking the Submit button.

Community Outcomes in Transportation Policy

National transportation has received significant media coverage over the last month, primarily because of the debate over the authorization of a new surface transportation bill. Unfortunately, given the hot topic of the national health care legislation, the transportation bill did not come up for vote. In order to ensure that federal transportation funding would not run out in September, both the House and the Senate passed a $7 billion patch yesterday. Now, the federal transportation conversation will have to be put on hold for a month, while Congressional leaders are back in their respective districts in August.

While the debate over the federal transportation bill has been fraught with tension between the White House administration and Representative Jim Oberstar, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, it now seems that there is some agreement from both sides about the vision for the future of national transportation. Rep. Oberstar has expressed his hope for a completely restructured policy that favors transit choices and reduces dependence on cars, and, at a recent conference of the National Association of Counties, US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood echoed a similar point, stating “for too long, federal policy has encouraged sprawl and congestion and pollution, rather than quality public transportation and smart, sustainable development.” Furthermore, in his remarks, Secretary LaHood astutely pointed out that decisions made at the county level have a direct effect on achieving livable communities and neighborhoods that are appealing to businesses and new residents. The recognition of this very important role of county government was the impetus for the creation of the TIGER grant program within the stimulus package. The program encourages local county governments to submit transportation outcomes and goals, which will then be matched with an appropriate infrastructure proposal. The result: direct relations between the department of transportation and local governments, with the hope of effectively meeting the transportation needs of each community.  Here’s to better planning initiatives.

Check out Secretary LaHood’s complete report from the National Association of Counties conference, and keep checking this blog for more news about sustainable development and smart growth.

New Period of Transit

In April, the PBS program Blueprint America interviewed Representative Jim Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, allowing him to discuss the new transportation plan that his committee was drafting at the time. Of course, the Surface Transportation Authorization Act 2009 was released early this summer, but these early comments indicate his vision for a new transportation plan in America.

Rep. Oberstar states that he sees this time as “the beginning of a new period of transit.” While he acknowledges that the entire Department of Transportation will need to be transformed in order to update the current national system, Oberstar remains optimistic about the transformation. One of the first steps on his agenda will be an overhaul of the current policy that disproportionally favors highway investments over a transit system upgrade. Currently, highway projects can receive close to 80% of funding from the federal government, with the state providing the remaining 20% of the full budget. In contrast, transit system projects tend to receive about 50% of federal money, giving the states less incentive to invest in public transportation.

How will fundamental change occur in the policies? For Rep. Oberstar, it is a matter of changing mind-sets. He states, “We have to now transform our thinking — to link land use and development to transportation. And not require transportation to go where the land use went.” It is important to connect issues related to smart growth to the transportation debate, because the two are interconnected. Transportaton for America and 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania are two organizations that have been advocates for this approach, and have been vocal in their support of a transportation agenda that focuses on land development issues. Oberstar is hopeful that the Surface Transportation Authorization Act will serve, in part, as a tool for viewing transportation in a new light.

For more updates on national transportation, visit Streetsblog.