As many of you know, a multiyear federal transportation bill was last approved by Congress in 2005. The followup to that bill should have been signed into law in 2009 but Congress has never been able to agree on the size and scope of the bill. So nothing has happened.
With the national economy still sputtering and job creation at the forefront of the national conversation these days, President Barack Obama this morning called on Congress to finally get a new transportation bill to his desk. See the above video.
There are outlines of such a bill that have been produced in recent weeks by the House and Senate — albeit starkly different versions. Metro is keeping an eye on the bill because the agency is hoping the bill will make the America Fast Forward the law of the land.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reveals that the White House is changing course when it comes to the federal surface transportation funding bill. Obama is now calling for a road-construction bill that would put people to work immediately and get existing infrastructure projects underway. This represents a change from previous plans for developing a national infrastructure bank – a plan that would take years before it actually began to fund projects.
The new plan from the White house and Democrats is to pass a two-year, $109 billion bill but as we’ve discussed before House Republicans have different ideas:
The plan is likely to run into opposition elsewhere in Congress, however. House Republicans are pushing a six-year, $230 billion bill. Their plan would reduce transportation spending by about a third from existing levels, as it relies only on funds generated by the current 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax.
So there’s the possibility for another stalemate over the bill once Congress returns from August recess. There is one idea that seems to have bipartisan support, and that’s an expansion of the Transportation Infrastructure and Innovative Finance Act (TIFIA) which is the backbone of Mayor Villaraigosa and Metro’s American Fast Forward plan (previously known as the 30/10 Initiative).
TIFIA provides low cost loans, guarantees and credit lines to eligible projects. Project eligibility is weighted by a number of factors including economic significance, quality of life improvements, public-private partnerships and environmental sustainability.
TIFIA’s annually funding is currently $122 million but proposals for expansion from both the House and Senate would raise funding to $1 billion and modify requirements so that more projects would be eligible.
Metro has received a $548 million TIFIA loan for the Crenshaw/LAW light rail line and expects to receive a $640.8 million loan for the Westside Subway Extension.
This is all starting to matter because the clock is ticking: the deadline for passing the new transportation bill or extending the current bill is September 30 (Congress returns to work on September 6) . If a new bill isn’t passed or the current bill extended it would mean the shutdown the entire federal funding program for highways and transit – an outcome that would put the recent FAA shutdown to shame.
Nice graphic from Metro staff showing that business leaders across the country are supporting America Fast Forward, the federal legislation that would allow Metro and other transit agencies to use federal loans and financing to speed up construction of big projects.
If Metro can persuade Congress to adopt the law as part of its next big transportation spending bill, the agency is hoping to use AFF to accelerate the building of the 12 transit projects — and many worthwhile highway projects — approved as part of 2008’s Measure R sales tax increase.
Problem is, many in Congress aren’t in much of a spending mood these days — even if AFF would cost a lot less than directly funding projects. We posted earlier today that the New York Times editorial board is predicting the debt-ceiling deal approved by Congress earlier this month means gloomy times ahead for states and cities. And KPCC also has a good report showing that it’s going to be politically difficult to secure more federal dollars for transportation without a federal gas tax increase — which is unlikely anytime soon.
At least in the meantime we can see that business leaders across the United States understand the need to jump-start transit construction. Doing so means creating jobs, not to mention transportation infrastructure to help people get to jobs for many decades to come.
I wanted to point readers to a Metro staff report from earlier this month that looks at the six-year federal transportation spending bill being floated by Republicans in the House of Representatives.
And it doesn’t paint a very pretty picture of what the bill would do to Metro: big-time spending cuts. If Metro were to lose 30 percent of its federal funding for the next six years, here are the $1.44 billion in cuts it would have to make to its capital spending:
•Cut $240 million in operating funds.
•Cut $260 million in bus purchases.
•Cut $70 million in rail vehicle purchases.
•Cut $70 million in paratransit vehicle purchases.
*Cut $400 million in rail system repairs.
•Cut $400 million in highway improvement projects.
It’s a tough issue because the bill, as proposed by Rep. John Mica (R-Florida) does include some provisions needed for America Fast Forward — the changes in law Metro is seeking to accelerate the building of Measure R transit projects.
It’s also worth noting that the bill has an uphill battle. Republicans may control the House, but Senates are in the majority in the Senate and a Democrat is occupying the White House and there’s this little election thing next year. The cuts shown above wouldn’t just hit Metro hard, they would also impact spending plans by many other big transit agencies in urban areas, where voters often lean toward Democrats.
The crafting of the next federal transportation spending bill is finally underway after literally years of delay due mostly to partisan politics.
The U.S. House version of the bill was released earlier this month with elements of America Fast Forward, which would enshrine in federal law the kind of federal loans and financing that Metro needs to accelerate the construction of Measure R transit projects.
And now the Senate’s bill is starting to take shape, with similar good news: America Fast Forward made the cut, although this isn’t surprising considering that Senator Barbara Boxer has a big hand in shaping the Senate’s version of the bill and has also been an ardent supporter of AFF.
A word of warning: between the House and Senate bills, there still is not everything that Metro needs for AFF to work to its full extent.
A Central Link light rail train at Beacon Hill station. Photo by Flickr user ishell.
If friends ever try that to claim you can’t have a successful transit system without rails in the ground, just nod politely and tell them to visit Seattle. The Emerald City didn’t have an inch of modern rail transit until a starter streetcar line opened in 2007 and a light rail line debuted in 2009. As for that short monorail of theirs, it’s mainly a tourist attraction with pretty meager ridership.
Seattle’s transit bread and butter has been its robust network of buses. Thanks to those buses, the city can tout the fact that nearly 18 percent of all commuting trips are by transit. In that category Seattle ranks 14th nationally, ahead of several rail-served cities such as, for example, Oakland. That East Bay city has eight BART stations connecting it to San Francisco.
That’s not to knock rail transit — far from it. The increased capacity rail provides can make it a sound investment in very busy corridors. And that’s where Seattle region is targeting its transit investments.
Below is the news release from Metro on the news earlier today that the Westside Subway Extension is about to secure a $640.8-million federal TIFIA loan. As the release states, Metro staff will be working in the next several weeks to determine the exact impact the loan will have on the construction timeline.
TIFIA Loan for Westside Subway Extension Achieves Welcome Milestone
Earlier today, U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein issued a joint press release announcing that the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) was taking a major step toward approval of a $640.8 Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan for the Westside Subway Extension. The expansion of the TIFIA program is a centerpiece of Metro’s America Fast Forward initiative, which also calls for the creation of a Qualified Transportation Improvement Bond (QTIBs) program.
“Today’s announcement is a critical step towards creating an ambitious, multi-faceted transit network and putting Angelenos back to work,” Mayor and Chair of the MTA Antonio Villaraigosa said. “With this latest, generous loan commitment from the federal government, we will extend the Metro Purple Line from Koreatown to Century City all the way into Westwood, better serving the 300,000 commuters that pour into these job centers every day and putting approximately 40,000 Angelenos back to work.”