Transportation Experts Blog

Contributor

Fawn Johnson
Fawn Johnson is a correspondent for National Journal, covering a range of issues including immigration, transportation and education. Johnson is a long-time student of Washington policymaking, previously reporting for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal where she covered financial regulation and telecommunications. She is an alumnus of CongressDaily, where she covered health care, labor, and immigration. Johnson first covered Congress at BNA Inc., where she covered labor, welfare, immigration, and asbestos liability. She has an M.A. from the Annenberg School for Communication at University of Pennsylvania and a B.A. from Bates College.

Recent Responses

June 17, 2013 08:30 AM

Anyone who has had a cell-phone fight with their spouse on their morning commute knows that talking while driving distracts you. So does checking on your kid in the back seat or listening to the radio or a book on tape.

Interacting on the Web goes a level further in terms of distraction, according to a new study by AAA. Things like voice-activated texting or reading of e-mails while driving are even more dangerous than just talking on your phone. Hands-free devices are supposed to allow you to navigate the intricacies of a computer without difficulty, but we all know it doesn't work that way in the real world. (Try asking Siri to find Oyamel restaurant in Washington D.C. and see how well you do.)

AAA is to be commended for scientifically measuring this intuitively obvious phenomenon to bring some heft to this conversation. Using controlled experiments with volunteers and driving simulators, AAA found that there are different levels of cognitive distraction based on the "othe

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June 10, 2013 08:30 AM

Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee took a rail trip last week to New York City to discuss the future of Amtrak--namely its importance to the Northeast Corridor and by implication, its lack of importance to the rest of the country.

Amtrak dominates the travel market in the Northeast, and it also makes money there. The rail system captures 76 percent of the rail and air traffic up and down the East Coast. It lags far behind in the rest of the country.

A passenger rail bill that deals mostly with Amtrak is a major priority for the committee this year. Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., along with his predecessor Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., has tried for years to get more private-sector investment in the government-subsidized rail system. Shuster wants to invite private-sector companies to bid on various operations of the system--from rail-car maintenance to ticket sales.

The efforts have generally met with protest from unions and some Democrats.

Shuster said at the field hearing Friday that the Northeast Corridor "is exactly the kind of exis

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May 28, 2013 08:30 AM

I love a good Rockefeller rant, and we were treated to one during the Senate Commerce Committee's confirmation hearing of Anthony Foxx to be the next Secretary of Transportation. Here is an excerpt:

"We cannot function as a country, and we can certainly not achieve greatness again as a country without having research, without having infrastructure, without having trained people, without having business, having confidence in our future, and thus deciding to invest in our future because they see that we in the government are willing to invest in our future, and they know it as well as we do. They don't want their taxes to skyrocket, but they know, as do a lot of people with a lot of money, that you can't wish for something or you can't minimize yourself into greatness. You can minimize yourself into just a minimal thing."

When it comes to infrastructure, no one disagrees with Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., that you can't minimize your way into a cutting edge transportation network. "I think a robust, strong infrastructure that supports that economy is critical

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May 20, 2013 08:30 AM

I hate driving, actually. The only reason I do it is because my 10-year-old needs someone to cart him around the city. I consider myself as a weirdo on this front because I know most people love their cars.

A new study from U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group indicates that I may be more normal than I thought. It argues that "the driving boom" -from the end of World War II to 2004--is over. "Americans drive fewer total miles today than we did eight years ago, and fewer per person than we did at the end of Bill Clinton's first term," it says.

United States policy on transportation hasn't caught up to this phenomenon, the report argues. Plans for expanded roads and highways that were cooked up a decade ago are still in the works, even though the users might not be there to make them worthwhile. What's more, driving is down most dramatically among millennials, the generation aged 23 to 30, and the people who will make the most use of those roads over the next 50 years. Their habits tend to fa

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May 13, 2013 08:30 AM

A weird thing happened a few weeks ago that I would never have noticed had I not been putting the final touches on a feature story for National Journal magazine on public-private partnerships. (See this week's issue for that story.)

In what locals hailed as a victory against 58 years of toll hikes, a circuit judge in Portsmouth, Va., ruled unconstitutional a $2.1 billion agreement between Virginia's Department of Transportation and two global infrastructure firms to create a new under-river tunnel connecting Portsmouth and Newport. Under the deal, tolls to traverse the tunnel were set to increase from $1.59 to $1.84 per car in 2014, although that tolling schedule is now in doubt.

The ruling left the lawyers and government officials who negotiated the agreement scratching their heads. No one saw it coming. It was a classic case of David and Goliath. The deal with the Australian firm MacQuarie and Swedish firm Skanska had been in the works for years. Former Gov. Tim Kai

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May 6, 2013 08:30 AM

President Obama's nominee for Transportation Secretary, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, puts an end to speculation about who will fill the shoes of the outgoing secretary Ray LaHood. (What happened to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa? He must be destined for other things.)

Last week's nomination of Foxx also sparks other questions.

Policymakers in Washington, D.C. are less familiar with Foxx than they were with LaHood, who spent 10 years in Congress before taking the helm of the Transportation Department. Yet Foxx is like LaHood in that he has no special expertise in transportation issues, but he has a fair amount of experience in government. A Charlotte native, he worked for the House Judiciary Committee and the Justice Department before he returned to Charlotte, where he sat on the city council and eventually became mayor.

The only thing we really know about Foxx's transportation inclinations is that he fought for a light rail and streetcar system in Charlotte. If this fascination with rail turns out to be a passion for Foxx, it could be a huge boon for altern

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April 29, 2013 08:30 AM

Rule Number One in Politics: Do not mess with an elected official's local airport or their flight home. With this tenet, we continue the saga of the Federal Aviation Administration and its (good?/bad?) handling of the automatic budget cuts that were set in place earlier this year by sequestration.

Facing the first week of intermittent furloughs of air traffic controllers, which led to airline delays, Congress fought back.The Senate didn't even have to take a vote last week to pass legislation giving the FAA the authority to move money around within the agency to stop the furloughs. The House passed the bill 361-41. President Obama reluctantly signed off, facing outcry from the public about flight delays and accusations from Republicans of political gamesmanship.

The move marks Congress's first step in undoing the cuts that came to be when Republicans and Democrats failed to reach agreement on a broader budget framework. The FAA fix represents a small slice of the overall sequester, but aviation is also the most visible of the government programs being trimmed. It is uncle

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April 22, 2013 10:25 AM

Transportation chiefs in Congress were a bit stymied over the last two years when they crafted a surface transportation bill that didn't have earmarks. House Republicans were resolute in their determination to get rid of the legislative goodies that have given elected officials a bad name. But it also made a transportation legislator's life that much more difficult: It's hard to write legislation about maintaining roads, bridges, runways, and transit without identifying the specific areas that need tuning up. It's even harder to pass it.

Lawmakers have a similar challenge before them this year in the Water Resources Development Act, which authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct water-related projects such as flood control, port improvements, and river cleanup. Some transportation experts point out that WRDA, which dictates the country's major water infrastructure projects for the next five to 10 years, is actually nothing but earmarks.

"How do you move a WRDA bill forward when historically it's been line after line, naming a project, naming a study," T

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April 15, 2013 08:30 AM

I have to admit, I was barely able to keep my eyes from glazing over when I scanned the White House's budget proposal for transportation. It's not that I don't buy the argument that infrastructure investment is important and necessary for economic growth. It's just that I've heard it too many times from the White House to get excited about it.

Then I talked to a guy who makes his living on it, and he's really excited about this year's budget proposal. D.J. Gribbin heads U.S. Government Advisory and Affairs for Macquarie Capital, an Australian firm that does business with state transportation agencies on major infrastructure projects all over the country. For the first time, Gribbin said, Obama is proposing lifting the cap on private activity bonds, which are issued by local or state governments for the purpose of financing projects through a private investor. Currently, there is a 25 percent limit on the use of this kind of bonding for land acquisitions and an annual cap their use to finance water infrastructure projects.

Gribbin says the lifting the caps would open a hos

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April 8, 2013 08:30 AM

Transportation gurus are fond of saying that the gas tax is a defunct, antiquated, good-for-nothing way of financing roads, bridges, and railways. They are right, of course, but sometimes I forget that despite all that, gas taxes still exist. Until governments come up with a better way to finance their infrastructure, they are probably here to stay.

There is no better example of this phenomenon than the state of Maryland. The state Legislature last week sent a bill to Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley to increase gas taxes by 3 percent this year, and to subsequently index the tax to inflation on an annual basis. The Maryland Motor Truck Association claims the hike would make the state's fuel taxes the highest in the country, but O'Malley insists that the tax is necessary to decrease traffic congestion and build a 21st century transportation network.

Maryland isn't the only state going the way of raising taxes. The New Hampshire House recently approved a 12-cent-per-gallon gas and diesel tax increase. In tight budget environments, it's hard to come up with alternatives.

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April 1, 2013 08:30 AM

President Obama upped his own ante on public-private partnerships last Friday, plugging a major construction project that will allow PortMiami in Florida to be linked directly to Florida's interstate highways through an under-the-bay tunnel. "State, county, and local governments got together and agreed to jointly fund PortMiami Tunnel. Everybody had some skin in the game," Obama said after touring the project. "They did something else--they partnered with a group of private sector companies to finance the design and construction of the project."

The PortMiami tunnel is being paid for by two French companies--Meridiam Infrastructure and Bouygues Travaux Publics--and several state and federal government funding sources.

It is also worth noting that the technological centerpiece of the PortMiami project is a "Tunnel Boring Machine" nicknamed Harriet by the Miami-Dade Girl Scouts that is 42.3 feet high (as high as a four-story building) and a 361 feet long. There's a great picture of Harriet on the Port

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March 25, 2013 08:30 AM

The American Society of Civil Engineers released its 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure last week, giving the nation a D+ overall for the state of its roads, bridges, levees, aviation, dams, energy, etc. Generally, that puts the country somewhere between "poor" and "mediocre." Sounds about right.

There is some mild good news. ASCE does this report ever four years, and the country's infrastructure actually showed improvement since 2009 and 2005, when the all-around grade sat stubbornly at a D. Of course, in 2001, the grade was a D+. But then again, it was a D in 1998. The country's infrastructure is definitely a problem student.

Let's put this in perspective. These engineers are not grading on a curve. To get an A under ASCE's framework, the utility under its inspection needs to be "exceptional." That has never happened. The highest overall grade, a C, came in 1988 from a similar report card issued by the National Council on Public Works. (ASCE cautions against making direct comparisons between the 1988 repo

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March 18, 2013 08:30 AM

Here is a puzzling quandary: If an industry--say, airlines--struggles under federally-mandated taxes that must be added to the price of tickets, how can a federal agency--say the FAA--not struggle under a mandatory 2.5 percent cut? Or can both the industry and the federal agency handle a little bit of belt tightening?

This was a question that piqued my interest at the Aero Club luncheon last week, which was keynoted by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa. The newly minted committee chairman must have made the airline industry cheer when he said that airlines are "the most regulated deregulated industry."

"We treat [airlines] like a piggy bank" with the various taxes and fees that lawmakers attach onto airline tickets, Shuster said. Taxes make up 20 percent of the cost of an airline ticket, according to Airlines for America. "Only alcohol and tobacco do we tax as high as that. It's like it's a sin to fly," Shuster said.

Airlines are forever on the defensive about their ticket prices, and they repeatedly remind anyone

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March 11, 2013 08:30 AM

It's that time of year again. House Democrats convened a press conference last week introducing legislation to expand the "Buy America" requirements for infrastructure investments. In short, the lawmakers want to boost the American raw materials and manufactured components that are required to go into major road, bridge, and transit projects.

The legislation has no Republican support and is unlikely to go anywhere, but it's worth looking at the summary of the proposal to see where Democrats think the current system falls short. In addition, the Transportation Department's overview of the law gives us a textbook example of balancing competing needs--protecting the country's dwindling manufacturing capacity without making it impossible for the private sector to invest in big projects. Legislate, but do no harm.

The Transportation Secr

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March 4, 2013 04:38 PM

Amtrak ridership has grown 55 percent since 1997. That is faster than any other transportation mode over the same time period. Here are some comparison figures: Driving, as measured by miles traveled, only grew by 16 percent. Domestic air travel grew by 20 percent. But here's the catch. Eighty percent of Amtrak's ridership are on short corridors of 400 miles or less. The short runs are responsible for almost all of Amtrak's ridership gains over the last 16 years. Not coincidentally, they are also the only corridors that are operating in the black.

These are the most relevant take-home facts in the latest report on passenger rail from the Brookings Institution.

The success of Amtrak's short runs shouldn't be a surprise, according to the researchers. "Research and international experience show that routes less than 400 miles are the most competitive, especially with air travel," the report says.

Even so, the rese

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February 25, 2013 08:30 AM

Being pissed off at the airport is something we all understand, so that's probably why everyone from President Obama to former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles is talking about how much worse it will be for air travelers when automatic budget cuts go into effect on Friday. It's the public's common denominator.

"When you guys have to go out here to Reagan airport and wait in line three hours for security, you're going to be pissed and so is everyone else," said Bowles at a recent Politico briefing.

Yet Congress appears incapable of fending off the "sequestration" cuts, which were part of a debt ceiling deal negotiated a year and a half ago. The cuts will impact all of government; Washington D.C. is bracing for pink slips. In the transportation world, sequestration will add to the already heavy burden being placed on an infrastructure system badly in of upgrading.

No one really knows what's going to happen. If the budget hawks are right, it could be nothing. But if the sequester amounts to anything, the place where the public will see it first is at

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February 19, 2013 08:30 AM

President Obama loves to invest in infrastructure. He has been asking for a $50 billion in "frontloaded" investments to repair bridges and roads for the past four years. The State of the Union address last week was no exception. His latest name for the plan--notice he doesn't use the term "stimulus"--is "Fix It First." The money would be targeted to the most urgent upgrades, "like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country."

Not to be a downer, but Obama is living a fantasy. Congress has consistently rejected this proposal for years. I think he knows it, too, given that "Fix It First" got one sentence in the actual speech.

Republicans were ready with their rejections. Even before Obama's speech, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he hoped the president wouldn't ask for investments. "Every time he uses the word 'investment,' the American people will hear the word 'spending,' government spending," he said.

We have covered this topic on the blog m

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February 11, 2013 08:30 AM

Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, and Boston rank at the top of the country's worst cities for traffic congestion, according to the most recent urban mobility report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

TTI has lots of ways to measure the costs of congestion, from the number of hours delayed in traffic to the carbon dioxide emission attributed to traffic congestion. This year, the research group introduced a compelling new variable, the Planning Time Index (PTI), which measures the amount of time travelers add on to a trip to meet an important event on time, like a doctor appointment or an airline flight. A PTI value of 3.0 indicates that a traveler should allow three times the actual length of the trip to get their on time--i.e., they would allow 60 minutes for a 20-minute ride in light traffic. (Washington D.C. ranks Number 1 in this category with 5.72, almost three hours designated for a half-hour trip.)

"Washington, D.C., has the dubiou

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February 14, 2013 12:40 PM

The following is a guest comment by Mark Rose, gounder and CEO of Ridezu, a social mobile platform for carpooling.

The fundamental problem here is too many vehicles on a fixed capacity system. Also as the economy heats up the number of vehicles will increase continuing to stress the fixed capacity system. The possible solutions sets are finite:

1) Increase the capacity

2) Reduce the number of vehicles.

I am going to ignore increasing the capacity largely because it’s a tremendously expensive to do as a broad-based solution, although it can be incredibly effective in narrow stretches of high congestion – just make the straw wider at key choke points.

Instead I am going to focus on reducing the number of vehicles. We actually have a great freeway and road system broadly – we just don’t make efficient use of it. Fact: 100 million Americans drive to work everyday alone. More than that, it’s right in front of our eyes. When you’re driving to work - look our your window to your left and right - 90

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February 11, 2013 02:50 PM

Here is a guest response from Matthew Click, Southeast division director for tolls, HNTB Corporation.

Today, states across the country face the daunting challenge of providing reliable transportation alternatives in their metropolitan areas. Urban congestion results in wasted fuel and time for people and puts American businesses at a disadvantage when compared to their global competitors.

While urban transit options help some people commute to work, and freight railroads keep goods moving, the vast majority of Americans drive their cars to work and the vast majority of goods are distributed by trucks. Moving into the future, transit and freight railroads will continue to play an important role, but the overwhelming majority of economic activity in urban areas will depend on roadways – a simple and undeniable statistical fact.

Fortunately, there is a solution to urban congestion. That solution is congestion pricing through delivery mechanisms such as priced managed lanes. Priced managed lanes work by tolling some lanes in an urba

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February 4, 2013 08:30 AM

Who knows what the kids are going to come up with next? Some of them think owning a car is a big bother and would rather rent or borrow one. Others don't even have a driver's license! Their smart phones are an extension of their brains, which makes grown-ups cringe when they get behind the wheel. Still, all that connectivity has tantalizing possibilities for modernizing how people get from place to place.

These were some of the thoughts tossed around at National Journal's "Affordable Mobility" policy summit last week, where automobile manufacturers and greenhouse gas emission specialists convened to talk about how to make travel more affordable and environmentally friendly. For the government, it's a delicate dance to nudge the transportation industry towards greener thinking without squelching innovation. And it's even harder to do without dedicated resources. "We can't control what kinds of discoveries are going to come on line," said Mary Nichols, who chairs the California Air Resources Board. "But we need to fix our infrastructure to give us the biggest bang for t

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January 28, 2013 08:30 AM

It was Christmas Eve at my sister's house, where her twin three-year-olds vied for attention by hanging on the treadmill bars and the grown-ups quizzed me about whether the country would go over the fiscal cliff.

"By the way," said my brother-in-law, "did you know the East Coast ports are about to go on strike?"

Actually yes, I did know. But I was so busy trying to ascertain the fallout of the fiscal cliff crisis that I barely paid attention. The rest of the country was similarly preoccupied.

That's unfortunate. Ports are an integral part of the U.S. economy, and they have the potential to grow exponentially over the next decade. The value of imports through U.S. ports was $1.16 trillion (that's trillion with a T) in 2011, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A recent report from Building America's Future projects that port volume could double by 2020 and quadruple on the West Coast.

Unfortunately, says the BAF report, the U.S. port system ranks 19t

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January 7, 2013 08:30 AM

The Federal Aviation Administration finally got a break. The acting administrator for the last year, Michael Huerta, was confirmed by the Senate to a five-year term to run the agency last week. His nomination finally cleared when Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., lifted his objection to the nomination. (DeMint now heads the conservative Heritage Foundation.)

By all accounts, Huerta is more than qualified for the job. He has been at the FAA since 2010 and has served previous stints at major ports in New York City and San Francisco. He replaces former FAA administrator Randy Babbitt, who resigned after a drunken driving arrest a year ago. Babbitt's demise was the perfect, if ironic, complement to the years of uncertainty in the aviation community over a long-stalled FAA bill that finally passed last year.

Now it's time to think about the FAA's next steps, and they are big-time high-tech. Huerta will be charged with overseeing the transition to GPS-based air traffic control system from the current radar-based system. He also must integrate unmanned aerial systems into the national a

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December 17, 2012 08:30 AM

Cliff metaphors abound these days, thanks to our members of Congress. In my travels, I've run across the deportation cliff, the human cliff, and yes, the transportation cliff. (Thank you, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.). To be clear, there are two cliffs in the transportation world. There is the "fiscal cliff," which would result in an overall cut of about 8 percent in federal funds. That impact on transportation isn't clear, although it would certainly be a blow. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association says that could result in a furlough of 2,000 to 2,200 air traffic controllers, which could ultimately result in fewer flights.

Then there is the approaching 2014 sunset of the surface transportation law, which seems far away but is still of concern for state transportation officials trying to plan out their budgets for major projects. Don't expect action on that one anytime soon, although lawmakers say they're ready to get going next year.

Still, the

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December 10, 2012 08:30 AM

"Trying to market a city without transit is like trying to sell a cell phone without a camera." That was one of the take-home messages from a speaker at an urban planning conference earlier this year, according to my friend who was there. The room was full of city planners who are trying to convince businesses to settle in their areas. Transit is considered key not just because it gives people an easy way to get to work, but it also signals to the private sector that a city is healthy enough to invest in itself.

This week, the American Public Transportation Association released its third quarter ridership report, showing seven consecutive quarters of ridership growth on subways, buses, and commuter rail. There have been 7.9 billion rides from January through September of this year. If the trend continues, it will amount to 10 billion rides by the end of the year. "That's real numbers. These are impactful numbers," said APTA President Michael Melaniphy. "It's not just an urban

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December 3, 2012 08:30 AM

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., will be the next chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and he is a good choice for House Republicans. He is firmly in the conservative fiscal camp and unafraid to say so. He was among the few House members who lingered in the lobby outside the House floor Friday trashing President Obama's recent proposal to avert the "fiscal cliff." He said it would do nothing to solve budget problems. Obama included a $50 infrastructure bank in the proposal. Shuster rejected it with a wave of a hand. There will be no "stimulus," even for infrastructure, in the final budget package, he said.

Shuster enters his chairmanship with the same problems confronted by the outgoing chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who found himself hamstrung by Republican leaders who wouldn't allow any extra money to be spent for the nation's surface transportation system. Despite Mica's best efforts, House members' inability to agree on a trimmed-down five-year highway bill left the chamber at loose ends when it came to negotiations with the Senate. They managed t

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November 19, 2012 08:30 AM

As long as we're touching sacred cows--I refer to the previous post on the gas tax--let's talk about tolling on interstate highways. Is it time to revisit this question?

The era of the massive federal public works project is over. Gone are the days when it is politically feasible to propose $12 billion for a 41,000-mile interstate highway system, as President Dwight Eisenhower did in 1956. And yet it will cost $2 trillion to $3 trillion to reconstruct the current interstate highway system to today's design and safety standards, so says Reason Foundation Transportation Policy Director Robert Poole, a contributor to this blog.

Current law only allows states to toll new lanes on interstates. That makes no sense if the government isn't going to pony up the maintenance funds, says International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association CEO Pat Jones, also a contributor to this blog. "The federal government right now is an obstacle to that. If you're not going to solve the problem then get out of the way," he told me.

The argument against interstate tolling is best summed u

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November 21, 2012 02:32 PM

This is a guest post from Jim Ely, vice chairman of Toll Services at HNTB Holdings Ltd.

The biggest challenge facing our aging surface transportation system is the lack of an adequate and sustainable funding source. State and federal highway trust funds are running on empty, depleted by inflation, rising maintenance costs and increased fuel economy of vehicles. The truth is: Transportation isn’t free. Tolling is a very real solution to funding and maintaining our roadways.

Related to tolling existing general purpose lanes on the Interstate we should note:

First, no one is advocating tolling every lane at every location. Tolling should be selectively used in those states with a significant repair bill and no other way to pay for it and sufficient traffic to ensure adequate revenue. It is a means to an end. That being, keeping the Interstate operational for future generations to come.

Second, motorists are not paying twice. A road is like a house. After it's built, you have to maintain it to extend its life. We should

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November 12, 2012 08:30 AM

On transportation, President Obama can plan on starting his second term the same way he began his first. Then, as now, the funding crisis for the nation's highways was a few years off but approaching fast. When the highway authority expiration date looms in 2014, no one will be prepared for it.

Unless things change.

A federal gas tax increase has been off the table for the last several years because it has been considered politically untenable to ask for more money from taxpayers during a recession. This unquestioned tenet has persisted despite the fact that the gas tax has stayed at the same level, 18.4 cents per gallon, since 1993. Moreover, taxpayers wind up footing the bill for road and bridge maintenance in other ways after the gas tax money runs out.

Now the economy is recovering, albeit slowly. And perhaps more importantly, President Obama doesn't have to worry about reelection. So it might be OK to revisit the suggestion that the gas tax could go up. American Road and Transportation Builders Association President Pete Ruane tried it the day after the electio

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November 5, 2012 08:30 AM

OK, folks. It's election week, and I know a lot of us are ready for it to be over. So let's talk about something that doesn't hinge on election results. How about our long-term infrastructure preparedness?

While politicos spent the weekend knocking on the last voter doors and rolling out their final robocalls before the election, New York and New Jersey were trying to clean up the debris from Hurricane Sandy. New York's Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for big infrastructure protections against future storms--sea walls and levees that aren't there now. Bloomberg, a political independent, also endorsed President Obama for a second term, largely because the president believes that climate change "is an urgent problem that threatens our planet." Obama's challenger, Gov. Mitt Romney does not, Bloomberg said.

F

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October 29, 2012 08:34 AM

The Brookings Institution released a report last week with an astonishing (and potentially controversial) finding: Airports in the largest 100 metro areas handle 96 percent of all international passengers, but they receive only 36 percent of federal funds for infrastructure maintenance and improvements.

The policy argument behind the project is simple, but it has implications far beyond aviation. The authors argue that the government should find out where the international air traffic is and take advantage of it by investing more in those places, not less. "International aviation is one of the fastest growing portions of the national transportation network and an important way to tap into metropolitan-led global economic growth," the report says. Imagine if such an argument were applied to the highway system, the electricity grid, or the postal system--all of which are based on universal utility in rural and urban areas alike.

I can hear the

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October 22, 2012 08:30 AM

There is nothing that gets regular people more riled up than airlines' checked bag fees, increased tolls, or sudden hikes in gas prices. They hate spending extra money on travel, especially when they feel they have no control over the seemingly random price. Unfortunately for the expert commenters on this blog, this type of grumbling represents the lion's share of the general public's experience with transportation policy. The area man only notices infrastructure when it hurts him.

Consumers see the transportation system in a way that the industry doesn't, as Innovation Briefs Publisher Ken Orski pointed out in his comment last week. They don't see crumbling bridges. They see a line of cars in front of a toll booth to cross that bridge.

Here are a few examples of how the public interest in transportation issues is sparked by consumers' wallets:

* In Virginia,

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October 15, 2012 08:30 AM

I once received a lesson in light travel packing from a former military guy: Put everything you need in a pile. Then ask, "What do I really need?" Remove half of your stuff. Then ask again, "What do I really need?" Remove half your stuff again. Now you're ready to hike Pikes Peak.

It seems like similar questions are being asked of infrastructure. Do we really need bike paths? Do we really need to spend above the highway trust fund? NextGen's not really in trouble, is it? It's as if the pencil pushers want to freeze every road, bridge, runway, and railway in place until they are ready to handle them. Compared to the fiscal cliff or the debt ceiling, the need isn't immediate. So infrastructure simmers on the back burner while policymakers put out the bigger fires.

There has not been a scintilla of conversation in the presidential election about infrastructure, unless you accept the tangential debate over the auto bailout. The possibility of an automatic cut in discretionary spending looms over big chunks of the Transportation Department, but nobody is paying attention. (It'

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October 1, 2012 08:30 AM

No one can replace Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, our favorite moderate Midwestern Republican who has passionately told us not to text and drive and also made sure Congress caught hell when the Federal Aviation Administration was facing a partial shutdown. However, unless President Obama has convinced LaHood otherwise, he plans to step down from his post at the end of the president's current term. (In his typical straight-talk manner, he casually mentioned his plans to a Chicago reporter last year, causing an unintended news-cycle firestorm.)

Obama will need a replacement, so it's time to play the parlor game of who the next head of DOT will be: If Obama wins, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been mentioned as a candidate. There is also former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. How about former House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn? What about another moderate Republican in Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio?

If Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wins, LaTourette could also be on the list. (Hey, why not?) What ab

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September 10, 2012 08:30 AM

There were wonky, late night transportation receptions--invite only--at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions that blanketed the political news over the last two weeks. I cover transportation and I wasn't at either one of them. When I surfaced from my convention travels and odd stories about delegates, I wondered what I had missed.

I missed nothing. The word "infrastructure" and "transportation" were absent from both President Obama's and Republican nominee Mitt Romney's convention-capping speeches. Obama once mentioned "rebuilding roads and bridges; schools and runways." Romney didn't mention them at all. The closest we got to a conversation about transportation from the convention podiums were in references to the auto bailout, either as a taxpayer waste or a financial savior, depending on the point of view.

The political platforms were better. They stated each party's point of view on infrastructure, but they offered no surprises. There was very little debate about any of the points during the platform drafting sessions. The

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August 13, 2012 08:30 AM

You have to give House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., kudos for creativity. A longtime foe of Amtrak, Mica attacked on the caloric front as Congress was adjourning for its August recess. He accused Amtrak of losing $833 million in a food service that is subsidized by taxpayers. To drive home his point, he publicly bought (and ate) a $1 hamburger and $1 soda at a Washington D.C. McDonald's. Why, he queried, does a similar meal cost $9.50 on Amtrak? And why, he pressed further, is Amtrak still losing money on the transaction? The cost to the rail service, apparently, is $16.50.

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman acknowledged in a hearing before Mica's committee that Amtrak's food service only recovered 59 percent of its cost last year. (Amtrak's goal is to recoup 70 percent of the costs by 2015.) But Boardman also pointed out that food and beverage services only accounted for 8 percent of Amtrak's total expenses for the year, and more than half was covered by the revenues from sales. "This is a very small portion of a very large business," he

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July 30, 2012 08:30 AM

The Bus Riders Union and several other civil rights organizations took to the streets in Los Angeles last week, saying the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority should restore 1 million hours of bus service that were lost over the last four years. The union charges that the cuts in service, along with fare increases, have disproportionately harmed 500,000 African-American, Latino, and Asian-Pacific Islander bus riders.

That's not all. The coalition wants President Obama to personally intervene in the negotiations between the Transportation Department and the LACMTA. DOT slammed the city for implementing service changes without conducting a legally required analysis about the impacts on minority and poor riders. But the federal government has not gone so far as to require the city to reverse its decisions, which agitates the bus riders.

"We're framing this fight right now as a fight over the future of our city," said Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles. Mann

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July 23, 2012 08:30 AM

Now that the furor over the highway bill has died down, transit guru Rep. Earl Blumenauer D-Ore., senses a moment of reflection is upon us. With some two years to play with until the highway trust fund runs completely dry, policymakers have a chance--but not too much of one--to act on what Blumenauer sees as a fundamental truth: "Transportation reform is what we have to do." That means the gas tax is going to have to go away and be replaced with a "road user fee"--a more sophisticated way of charging people to drive on the roads based on mileage rather than gas usage. Oregon is in its second year piloting a project to test how such a road fee would work, and its director will be in Washington next week to discuss the experience. The hope, according to Blumenauer, is that policymakers will realize they are out of options other than this one. The idea of precisely tracking miles has raised security concerns, but Oregon's pilot study will explore a variety of options: a device that simply tracks all miles traveled without location

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July 16, 2012 08:30 AM

The rest of the country may be putting the brakes on high-speed rail projects, but the concept is alive and well in California. The state Senate recently passed a measure, with only Democratic votes, to put about $8 billion toward initial development of a bullet train to run between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The vote was hailed as a victory by Democrats, who said the project was an economic stimulus for the state.

Then last week, a UCLA economic analysis threw a wet blanket on the fire when it stated that a similar bullet train project in Japan in the 1960s did not create jobs or boost the economy. The study also said that high-speed rail tends to create sprawl because it makes it cheaper and easier to live in bedroom communities. (Depending on your point of view, this could be a good thing or a bad thing.)

Given congressional Republicans' unwillingness to come along for the high-speed train ride and Republican governors' refusal of high-speed rail money, California

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June 25, 2012 08:30 AM

Anyone who has been reading this blog in recent months knows that we have been obsessively following the intrigue surrounding the highway bill. This week marks another pivotal moment. As usual, it coincides with a looming expiration date, June 30, for the federal highway program. These are the two most likely outcomes: 1) a short-term stopgap (30 days or less) with a final deal in the works for a 15-month highway bill, or 2) a six-month extension. Neither option is fantastic.

The transportation chiefs on Capitol Hill have not given up on the notion that they could complete a bill by the end of the week, although the odds are good that they will need at least a small breather extending beyond July 1 to take care of the details. House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., are working with staff to put in writing a deal struck last week on the highway provisions in the bill, which includes language to reduce the number of federal transportation offices and rework the funding for "tr

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June 11, 2012 08:30 AM

It was a pretty poor showing last Friday for an idea touted by House Republican leaders just a year and a half ago. On Friday, only about one-third of the House Republicans cast their votes in favor of a nonbinding, message to legislators that they should keep infrastructure spending within the limits of the highway trust fund, which would have the practical effect of cutting highway funding by about one-third.

Sponsored by hard-core tea partier Rep. Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., the nonbinding instruction to lawmakers only got 82 votes, all from Republicans. The idea was a simple one, to live within our means. But it has such broad-reaching implications for the federal highway program that even serious conservatives like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Ways and Means Committee Chairman David Camp, R-Mich., voted against it. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who is leading the conference committee on the highway bill, cheered the result. "I am very encouraged today that the House of Representatives soundly defeated an irresponsible proposal

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May 21, 2012 08:30 AM

The transportation community in the states should want the federal government to be fired. Over the next few weeks, they are waiting for negotiators in Congress to pass a highway bill. If lawmakers are successful (and there is no guarantee of that), a few much-needed updates to the transportation program would be in place. But then it will only be 18 months, at most, until policymakers have to address again a handful of percolating problems like shoring up the highway trust fund for the long term. If the chambers can't reach agreement, that likely means a shorter extension of current highway authority. Cuts are possible.

This scenario does not offer a ringing endorsement of the federal government as transportation caretaker. The inability of Congress and the White House to articulate and carry out a federal infrastructure policy could give credence to arguments from the right that the states would do a better job of regulating and funding their own transportation. But then Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., colorfully points out the very real problem with that idea--the highway to now

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May 14, 2012 08:30 AM

One of the most carefully negotiated provisions of the Senate highway bill involves "transportation enhancements," a program that provides government funding to help states "expand transportation choices and enhance the transportation experience," according to the Transportation Department. Transportation enhancements are most closely associated with bike paths or pedestrian facilities, but they can also include outdoor advertising management, archaeological planning, or environmental mitigation like cleaning up water from highway runoffs.

Conservatives dislike this program (OK, they hate it) because the projects do not "improve infrastructure condition or meaningfully reduce congestion," according to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla. By contrast, the transportation enhancement program is important to Democrats like Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who insist that preserving alternative traveling options is a core part of the highway program.

The Senate bill would give states the option to use transportation enh

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April 23, 2012 08:30 AM

Everybody take a deep breath. Congress is poised this week to appoint conferees to a long-awaited conference committee that will negotiate a highway bill. Finally. I know that President Obama has dangled a veto threat over the House version, and I know that Republicans are determined to link the politically volatile Keystone XL pipeline to a bipartisan infrastructure bill. It doesn't matter. Fundamentally, this conference committee is a good thing. It gives lawmakers who are familiar with the ins and outs of transportation policy the opportunity to actually hammer out some decent tweaks to the federal highway program.

Streamline the Transportation Department's funding silos? Members in both parties are all for it. Speed up infrastructure projects? Damn right. The concepts have support, but the details also matter. That's the beauty of a conference committee--it focuses on details. And when the political leaders decide they need to act to extend the highway program, as they always do, those details will be ready to go. Other members will talk on the floor about gas prices and e

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April 2, 2012 08:30 AM

Last week was a high-drama in Washington as lawmakers ticked down to the final days before the federal highway authority was set to expire. They extended it. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Congress went home for two weeks.

They still haven't answered the $300 billion question: How do you pay for a long-term reauthorization of the surface transportation program? Isn't it ironic that the parts of the bill that the congressional transportation czars have the least control over are also the ones causing the most problems? House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Md., actually aren't too far apart on some of the wonkier aspects of their highway bill proposals. They both agree on streamlining federal programs, for example, and on speeding up project financing.

How to pay for highway legislation is a decision well above Boxer and Mica's pay grades. It is a question for House and Senate leaders to hammer out. (Or, in the case of last week, to put off until later

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April 4, 2012 10:05 AM

Here is a response from Dan Holler, Communications Director for Heritage Action for America:

When it comes to the problem of how to pay for our nation’s transportation needs, the temptation in Washington is to view Washington as the solution. After tens of billions in Highway Trust Fund bailouts and nine short-term extensions, it is clear Washington does not hold the answer. The real answer is outside the beltway.

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell recently scoffed at the idea of looking beyond Washington for transportation funding solutions, saying proponents of such a move “haven’t looked at any of the state budgets recently.” But the Governor misses the point. It is not that states are awash in cash (the federal government isn’t either), but rather that states are much more efficient.

Last year, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels explained his state “can build in 1/2 the time at 2/3 the cost when we use our own money only and are free from the federal rulebook.” Literally just outside the Washingt

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March 26, 2012 08:30 AM

It's looking like there will be more delays on the long-suffering surface transportation measure. House leaders say they need another three months to hammer out their own long-term bill, even though the Senate has passed its two-year, $109 billion version. (Look for a lot of sniping in the Capitol this week when the three-month stopgap extension is being tossed back and forth between the House and the Senate.)

In practical terms, the delays simply mean more uncertainty for state and city transportation departments and the construction and contracting industries. "The short-term extensions just don't permit us at the federal, state or local level to do any kind of the effective planning for construction that we really need to do," Ashley Swearengin, the Republican Mayor of Fresno, California. "Any kind of short-term extension would really doom our chances for a longer agreement this year."

"We've already lost the construction season. The dithering has led to states delaying decisions," said American Road and Transportation Builders Association President Pete Ruane.

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March 19, 2012 08:30 AM

It took a lot of whining, but the Senate finally passed its two-year, $109 billion surface transportation bill last week on a solidly bipartisan 74-22 vote. The bill won praise from the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AAA and the AFL-CIO. No one thinks that it's perfect, but it would smooth out some of the current kinks in the federal highway program and give the transportation industry certainty that they won't face federal cuts for two years.

And yet...there are still some people who don't like it, and many of them are in the House. A GOP aide told me that Republican members see the Senate bill as "a crap sandwich that they're going to have eat" if they can't come up with an alternative. (That's proving to be something of a problem. House Speaker John Boehner has tried multiple options without getting his caucus to coalesce around one.) Outside the Capitol, Heritage Action for America, a right-wing grassroots group, considered a "no" vote on the Senate bill a "key vote" in determining whether a legislator is sticking to conservative principles.

Conservatives are

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March 12, 2012 08:30 AM

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was in town last week, lobbying as he has been for the last several months for lawmakers to get it together and pass a surface transportation bill. Villaraigosa has a specific reason for his tenacious advocacy, and it's not just that he works closely with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. If Congress passes the $109 billion measure currently being debated in the Senate, Los Angeles would be able to accelerate as many as 12 local transportation projects.

Villaraigosa is championing a specific provision in the Senate bill that would give the Transportation Department expanded abilities to extend credit to local municipalities for "mega public transportation projects." It is part of Villaraigosa's America Fast Forward plan, which he says would create one million jobs in the construction and technical industries and generate $158 billion in total economic output.

Villaraigosa has some great ideas on project acceleration that have been echoed by

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March 15, 2012 10:44 AM

Here is a guest response from Linda Bohlinger, Director of National Management Consulting for
HNTB Corporation:

Adequate funding begins with effectively leveraging the limited federal dollars that will be available moving forward.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa should be commended for supporting the expansion of the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program as part of his America Fast Forward initiative. His admirable vision for completing 30 years’ worth of LA Metro transit projects in the next 10 years most likely will need to rely on support from TIFIA.

Without TIFIA, some of the most significant transportation projects of the last 14 years would have been delayed or deferred due to their size, complexity or uncertainty over the timing of forecasted revenues. According to the Federal Highway Administration, which handles the program, each dollar of federal

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March 5, 2012 08:30 AM

Roads are good. Bridges are good. Construction projects are good. Infrastructure is good. That is the message that politicians around the country are repeating to whatever audience they happen to be addressing. If everyone agrees on these basic points and wants to create jobs, they plead, why can't Congress actually accomplish something and pass the long overdue highway bill?

It's a good question, but the premise is a tad misleading. It is true that everyone agrees with the top-level sentiment that infrastructure investment makes sense for the economy. Digging down deeper, it is not true that everyone agrees on how that investment should work. Some scholars, like our own prolific National Journal expert blogger Gabriel Roth, have floated the idea that the states should do all of the financing and the current federal role should be phased out. Others, like the Obama administration, want a heavy federal role that directs competitive grant money at projects they deem worthy.

A large portion of the dispute over surface transportation in Congress involves unrelated is

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February 27, 2012 08:30 AM

Things aren't looking so good for a comprehensive or long-term surface transportation bill this year. After news broke last week that House Republicans were backing off of a five-year $260 billion highway/energy bill, the best case scenario for legislation lies with the Senate's two-year, $109 billion proposal. That's what the Senate proponents have been saying all along, but there is no guarantee they will get what they want.

The Senate eventually will pass its bill, but senators first must slog through negotiations about which amendments, some completely unrelated to transportation, will be allowed floor votes. In the House, Republicans acknowledge that they are kicking some of the policy decisions for transportation into the next Congress. No one knows precisely what that means, but it sure sounds like a dressed-up extension. If the House and Senate can't agree on a path forward, lawmakers will be looking at a simple extension. Current highway authority expires on March 31.

What happened to the original idea that surface transpo

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February 17, 2012 04:36 PM

If you want proof that President Obama is distancing himself as far from Congress as he can, look no further than his proposed infrastructure budget. The White House proposed $476 billion over six years for surface transportation in the fiscal 2013 budget, which is at least $200 billion more than House Republicans are proposing. It's also at least $150 billion more than current infrastructure spending levels. Obama is aiming high, even though he knows he'll probably get much less. Infrastructure means jobs, and "jobs" are the name of the game for his reelection.

It's an added bonus that infrastructure has been in the news, which gives politicians of all stripes the opportunity to exploit it for reelection purposes. Both the House and the Senate are attempting (and so far not succeeding) to pass surface transportation bills. Obama ideally wants to increase federal infrastructure investment, but he has also praised the Senate for its more modest bill that simply maintains the current spending levels over two years. Leaders say it could take a few weeks to get that measure complet

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February 13, 2012 08:30 AM

Transit groups, along with pedestrian and cycling advocates, are hopping mad about a portion of the House surface transportation bill that removes mass transit funding from the highway trust fund and eliminates dedicated funding for cycling and walking programs. The proposal also cuts one of the most popular parts of the current surface transportation scheme--the $200 million Safe Routes to School program that accommodates children who get to school by walking or biking. The funding proposal, approved earlier this month by the House Ways and Means Committee, will be combined with a larger highway bill on the House floor this week.

House Speaker John Boehner is proud that the bill is streamlined, noting that it eliminates or consolidates 70 government programs. It also has no earmarks, which has soured Boehner on transportation bills in the past. The fiscal conservative thinking in Boehner's reasoning can't help but put at risk federal funding for the bike paths and walking safety programs. There just isn't room for those things in the federal budget when you're trying to shrin

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February 6, 2012 08:30 AM

The generally bipartisan, if wonky, surface transportation issue got a major dose of political (and partisan) medicine last week when House Republicans unveiled their American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act. The measure combines elements of a highway bill constructed by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., with several hot-button energy proposals that are sure to raise the hackles of Democrats and environmentalists alike--new offshore drilling, opening parts of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, and possibly approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Yikes. It's not like Mica was making too many friends with Democrats when it was just a highway bill. Committee ranking member Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., complained as recently as last month that he still hadn't seen text of the proposal. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a moderate Republican, said it was the worst transportation bill he had ever seen. And conservative Republicans are none too pleased either. The Club for Growth wi

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February 7, 2012 09:45 AM

The following is a comment from Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research:

It’s about time that Congress considered a transportation bill. The last one expired in September, 2009. The new draft, which authorizes $260 billion in spending over the next five years, in some ways looks like progress over its predecessors.

The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act is expected to be joined with two other House bills, voted out of the House of Representatives, and reconciled with its Senate counterpart in conference.

The bill streamlines the federal bureaucracy and eliminates or combines 70 different programs, enabling transportation projects to be approved faster. “Shovel-ready” projects might actually be shovel-ready if this bill were passed. Plus, it contains no earmarks (extraneous spending) and it frees states to spend their transportation budgets as they choose, for the first time in many years.

But, in other respects, the bill does not go far enough, and there is room for im

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January 30, 2012 08:30 AM

Republicans' singular focus on curbing government spending has transformed the discussion on transportation over the last year. Earmarks, which once drove the entire surface transportation authorization process, are now a thing of the past. Only recently have congressional leaders agreed that cutting infrastructure spending, as originally proposed in the House, is a bad idea. There were even some questions last fall about whether an extension of the federal gas tax was appropriate under the House's conservative fiscal guidelines. (Both Republicans and Democrats determined that the current 18.4 cent-per-gallon tax is OK, but raising it is a no-no.)

President Obama asked for $200 billion from war savings to be directed toward highways and bridges in his State of the Union address. The proposal is a response to House Republicans' idea to pay for a six-year highway bill with new domestic drilling, according to a senior administration official. Both the White House and Republican proposals are political stunts,

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January 23, 2012 08:30 AM

Last Friday, House and Senate leaders announced an agreement on a long-awaited bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. Republicans withdrew a controversial labor provision that had drawn a veto threat from the White House in exchange for other changes to unionization rules. The deal paves the way for an FAA bill that has been years in the making. Lawmakers were facing a Jan. 31 deadline when the current FAA extension would expire. Lawmakers will pass one last extension this week, and they expect the final bill to be completed in February.

News of the breakthrough caused the aviation community to breathe a sigh of relief. But the deal also could impact future transportation negotiations; labor fights might now be fair game. Republicans backed off of their demand to rescind an administration rule that makes it easier for rail and aviation workers to unionize only after Democrats agreed to tweak how unionization elections are conducted and overseen. The bigge

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January 17, 2012 08:30 AM

Policymakers' appetite for high-speed rail seems to be dwindling to almost nothing. It is old news that congressional Republicans are not fans of President Obama's high-speed rail initiative. They view it as a waste of taxpayer dollars at a time when belt-tightening is of the highest order. The national conversation has not advanced much beyond that point, perhaps because the biggest fans of high-speed rail are distracted by other problems. Democrats in Congress raised only a faint protest when the fiscal 2012 appropriations bill cut funding for the Transportation Department's high-speed rail program. Republicans who ostensibly like high-speed rail said the cuts will allow rail enthusiasts to start over from scratch.

The problems continue at the state level, particularly in California. The California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group recently refused to recommend that bond money be devoted to the state's high-speed rail plan. The review group said the state's business plan lacked "credible sources of adequate funding" that posed "an immense financial risk" to California. Democr

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January 9, 2012 08:30 AM

Like a drunk uncle at a family funeral, transportation projects in major cities tend to air out a community's normally hidden dirty laundry. In the abstract, it is hard to dispute the value of an efficient intercity mass transit system. But when a light rail or subway project threatens to change the landscape of long-inhabited neighborhoods, the impacts become more mixed. Gentrification, regional job opportunities, poverty, housing, and traffic all become part of the discussion. Last week, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report that illustrates the complexity of these questions. Pew and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded a study by a trio of community organizations--an in-depth health impact study of a light rail line being constructed in the Twin Cities, Minnesota.

The summary is here. The technical report is here.

The Central Corridor Light Rail

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January 3, 2012 08:30 AM

The countdown has begun to the Jan. 31 deadline when the current authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration expires. At the last check, lawmakers were no closer to a resolution on their disagreements than they were in September. The contentious dispute about how rail and aviation workers vote for unions has been kicked up to House and Senate leaders, who continue to be distracted by other issues. Shortly before the holidays, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., visibly winced when asked whether he was preparing another temporary extension for the FAA, saying only that House members "won't like it" if they have to push off the long-overdue measure yet again.

Then there is the surface transportation authorization, set to expire on March 31. Granted, Congress has a little more time to hammer out the details of that bill, which has the added political benefit of being a genuine job creator. Still there are problems. Text of the House bill has yet to materialize, and House leaders' plan to include new domestic oil drilling likely w

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December 19, 2011 08:30 AM

Two Northeast lawmakers aren't too pleased with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for raising tolls to cross bridges into New York City. They are angry enough that they want the federal government to step in. The Port Authority announced in August that cash tolls for cars will go from $8.00 to $15.00 by 2015. Five-axle trucks that currently pay $40 dollars will have to pay up to $125.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Rep. Michael Grimm, a Republican from New York, introduced legislation to restore the Transportation Department's authority to determine whether toll hikes are "just and reasonable." The toll-review authority was eliminated in 1987 under a deregulation law. Without going into detail, Lautenberg and Grimm cited "fiscal mismanagement" at the Port Authority as one reason their bill is needed. The measure would order a report from the Government Accountability Office on the transparency and accountability of tolling authority budgeting practices.

When

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December 28, 2011 10:37 AM

Here is a guest comment from Todd Spencer, Executive Vice President, Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association:

For far too long, tolling authorities like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission have operated in the shadows – if not totally behind closed doors. The isolated appointees to these authorities are largely unaccountable to the public, seeing their long-term appointments as a blank check to push for double or triple digit percentage toll increases on what seems like an annual basis. These toll increases amount to nothing more than tax increases on mobility, directly impacting small business truckers and other motorists as they work to keep our economy rolling.

The impact of the Port Authority’s recently approved toll increases on trucks clearly shows how these toll increases will impact the economy. Before the most recent toll increase, it cost a truck $40 to cross the George Washington Bridge into New York City; by 2015, it will cost that same truck $90 – a 125 percent in

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December 12, 2011 08:30 AM

New Year's Eve could be a bad day for the Obama administration if Congress doesn't act to extend the payroll tax cut. But while that fight dominates year-end conversations on Capitol Hill, lawmakers have paid scant attention to another worker benefit that also is set to expire Dec. 31--the mass transit commuter benefit. Without congressional action, the $230 that transit commuters are now allowed to shield from taxation every month will be reduced to $125 per month. The American Public Transportation Association, Transportation for America, and the National Treasury Employees Union all have weighed in urging lawmakers to extend the current benefit as part of any final package that leaves Capitol Hill.

(My take: The chances of action are pretty slim. No one I talk to can

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December 12, 2011 11:28 AM

We have a response from Gerard Bridi, CEO of Edenred North America:

Edenred, one of the nation’s premier providers of transportation fringe benefits, is working with a coalition of other transit benefit providers, transit agencies, national associations, and other stakeholders under the banner commuterbenefitsworkforus.com (www.commuterbenefitsworkforus.com). Through this effort, more than 40,000 letters have been sent to Congress urging action to maintain parity between the parking and transit portions of the commuter benefit.

The transit benefit helps reduce the cost of commuting for an estimated 2.7 million Americans. While it is generally thought of as a tool used to promote transit, conserve energy, improve the environment, and ease congestion, the primary benefit for individuals who take transit or a vanpool is financial. The tax savings enjoyed by these individuals is returned into the economy. Employees who take advantage of the tran

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December 5, 2011 08:30 AM

It's hard to find two better political push-buttons than American jobs and American-made products. It should come as no surprise, then, that House Democrats on the Transportation Committee last week made a big deal about their new proposal to tighten up and expand "Buy America" requirements for steel, iron, and manufactured products in all construction and infrastructure projects. The legislation was billed as "a major proposal to create American jobs."

This is the Democrats' answer to House Republicans proposal to pay for a six-year highway bill with new domestic gas and oil drilling. Republicans also have touted surface transportation and infrastructure legislation as their major job-creating proposal. Democrats are asking (somewhat cheekily), "Where will they create the jobs? In China?"

In truth, it's hard to imagine either the Democratic or the Republican proposals winning out in serious talks about a surface transportation bill. But they do preview

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November 21, 2011 08:30 AM

The House Republicans are making infrastructure the backbone of their own jobs proposal, a foil to President Obama's jobs package. They are offering a long-term (and long overdue) highway bill that would be paid for by expanded domestic drilling. It's a blatant political move, designed to make Democrats squirm because they generally oppose drilling and support infrastructure.

The proposal departs from the traditional "user pays" model of funding transportation, which is best exemplified by the gas tax but also reflected in transit fares or even toll roads. The economic philosophy of user pays is a sound one--frequent commuters pay more for road and rail upkeep than occasional travelers. But the user pay model has broken down over the last ten years because highways and railroads cost more than the current user payment systems collect. When that happens, general treasury funds are added to the mix, muddying what was once a simple equation.

The politics are far behind the economic theories that underlie the user pay system. Increasing the gas tax is an unacceptable idea fo

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November 14, 2011 08:30 AM

The Amalgamated Transit Union represents about 190,000 transit operators, most of them bus drivers. The union's members depend on a robust bus and transit system to keep their organization alive. But, as international president Larry Hanley will tell you, those transit systems also are essential to plenty of city dwellers, particularly those with lower incomes. Anyone who lives in a cheap suburb without a car probably depends on a government-funded bus service to get to work.

It drives Hanley crazy to hear lawmakers in Congress whine that it is impossible to raise taxes when local officials seem to have no problem raising transit fares. Hanley argues that increased transit fares make bus drivers de facto "curbside tax collectors." Commuters don't see fare increases as taxes, and they don't fight them as they might fight other local initiatives. ATU is trying to change that by launching a rider organizing campaign in each of its locals, asking commuters to petition city officials for transit systems (often buses) to get them from home to work and back easily without a car.

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November 7, 2011 08:30 AM

With so much attention focused on the sorry state of the nation's roads and bridges and lawmakers' attempts to pass a long-term highway bill, the impact of traffic collisions can get lost. AAA tried to rectify that problem last week when it released a new report finding that traffic crashes cost $299.5 billion in a single year. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among people ages 5-34 in the United States, according to the report. AAA used calculations from the Federal Highway Administration to put the cost of a single motor vehicle fatality at $6 million. A single injury costs about $126,000.

There are a number of ways to address this problem, among them making safety a "national priority," according to AAA. Seat belt laws, impaired driving countermeasures, and graduated driver licensing systems also would make a difference.

Politically, however, AAA President Robert Darbelnet found the critical button to push in Congress. "This report further underscores the im

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October 31, 2011 08:30 AM

If you dismissed as a political stunt House Speaker John Boehner's suggestion to fund a highway bill with expanded drilling, as I did, you and I both missed a critical development in Republicans' thinking on transportation. House Republicans now believe that current federal spending levels for roads, bridges, and runways are an appropriate use taxpayer dollars. In practical terms, that means they will accept a six-year, $300 billion surface transportation measure as long as the spending is offset. Leaving the critical pay-for problem aside for the moment, Boehner's proposal signals two important things--it marks a departure from Republicans' standard "cut government" party line, and it offers the most specific statement to date from House GOP leaders on how infrastructure fits into their governing philosophy.

Boehner's remarks in September at the Economic Club of Washington were a deliberate concession, according to House Transportation Committee Chairman Jo

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October 24, 2011 08:30 AM

President Obama's jobs bill may be going nowhere in Congress, but it is certainly being loud about it. Senate Democrats are refusing to let the political talking point go by scheduling floor votes on individual pieces of the measure for Republicans to shoot down. This week and next, the jobs debate will focus on infrastructure investment. Politically, it's a good move. People want potholes fixed and roads built, and polls show that they are generally willing to pay a little extra to make that happen.

(I wrote about the jobs and infrastructure message last week.)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has given Republicans a ready excuse to vote against an infrastructure bill that, in less austere times, might be hard to oppose. To pay for the $50 billion in transportation spending and $10 billion infrastructure bank proposals, Reid has added a small tax for millionaires. Republicans oppose the millionaire tax on principle and will have no problem reje

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October 17, 2011 08:30 AM

No one will be happy to see Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood exit public life, but he isn't going away for a quite a while. Last week, the personable moderate Republican from Illinois said he would step down from the White House transportation post at the end of President Obama's first term and would not seek another public office. LaHood has flourished in the Obama administration while his own party has clashed with the White House over just about everything.

A lot can happen between now and the end of Obama's term. As it stands now, Congress is supposed to pass authorization bills for aviation and surface transportation in early 2012. Whether that actually happens remains to be seen, but LaHood will remain a pivotal figure in those conversations. LaHood also is one of the administration's most powerful advocates for infrastructure investment. He has spent much of his time in recent weeks calling on Congress to approve $50 billion for immediate investment in roads and bridges and another $10 billion for an infrastructure bank that would leverage private dollars for large tr

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October 11, 2011 08:30 AM

Congress has put off its fight over surface transportation funding until early next year, and for that we all can breathe a sigh of relief. Still, conservatives like Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., have made it clear that unresolved issues remain for lawmakers when they start discussing transportation policy in earnest. Coburn objected to the "transportation enhancement" funding in the stopgap funding extension as "an indefensible threat against public safety that forces states to prioritize bike paths over bridge repair," according to his spokesman. Coburn removed his objection after Democrats promised an opt-out provision. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., also has criticized bike paths or walkway improvements as unnecessary recipients of federal dollars.

Bike paths are a perennial whipping boy in the transportation funding debates. Conservatives don't like setting aside money for bike paths or other enhancements because they feel those funds should go to roads. With tight budgets, roads and bridges should be top priority, critics

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October 14, 2011 09:18 AM

Here is a guest response from Scott Bricker, Executive Director of America Walks.

While it is true that bikes are at the center of this debate, this is issue is much larger. In looking at the total transportation picture, walking is a critical form of travel that needs to be elevated in the headlines and conversation. Walking occurs at 10 times the rate of bicycling and everyone walks; safe walking passage is critical for some aspect of virtually all trips and to the fundamental framework of our communities and economies. America Walks believes that the impacts of walking on society – economic, health, equity, environmental, etc. – needs to be highlighted in this discussion and that dedicated funding for both walking and bicycle transportation is critical to advance these societal outcomes.

To touch on one aspect, the economic impacts of walking, I want to highlight Main Street, USA. Large cities and small towns alike were built on the principle of conglomeration of merchants and activities in a central location, and often along one street. These Main

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September 26, 2011 08:30 AM

Everyone can relate to traffic congestion; and opinions on it are close to universal. People hate it. Traffic isn't like ozone rules, abortion, or even seat-belt laws, where it's fair to say there are at least a few varying attitudes. One would think, then, that it would be easy to harness Americans' ritual anger at traffic jams to compel policymakers to do something about it.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Frustrated drivers aren't an organized constituency, despite their high blood pressure. Lawmakers and administration officials emphasize job creation or safety when they talk about transportation and infrastructure investment. The industry groups that are impacted by those decisions follow suit by focusing on the funding mechanisms for highways, bridges, railways, and airports. The annoyance of a series of brake lights on I-66 in Virginia is largely left out of the conversation.

Yet there is a lot of data about traffic that theoretically could be turned to political use. The Texas Transportation Institute is scheduled to release its annual urban mobility report t

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September 19, 2011 08:30 AM

Environmentalists, tax watchdogs, free market advocates, and (most importantly) bus enthusiasts have teamed up to suggest that policymakers rethink taxpayer subsidies designed to keep small rural airports afloat. Their timing is prescient. Lawmakers only last month scuffled over whether to cut the Essential Air Services program; some Republicans say it represents political pork and federal bloat.

A study released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Reason Foundation, and the American Bus Association, found that bus service from small towns to major airport hubs costs considerably less than the EAS-subsidized airline hops from rural airports. Bus service also results in less fuel consumption and unhealthy emissions, the study found.

The coalition analyzed 38 EAS communities that are within 150 miles of a large or medium hub airport. The taxpayer subsidies per year for flights from the small airports to the larger ones are $60.8 million; passengers pay

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September 19, 2011 01:28 PM

Here is a comment from Brian Sowa, Executive Director of the Rural Air Service Alliance:

In the halls of Congress, Rural America has always been fighting for its life – fighting to ensure that Dallas, South Dakota is able to compete with Dallas, Texas for its fair share of federal taxpayer dollars. This fight is waged across all sectors of industry, from small, rural hospitals vs. large urban medical centers to family farmers vs. international agribusiness interests; and here we go again with predominately urban bus systems vs. small air carriers and airports serving rural communities.

Many of those launching the most recent attack against the Essential Air Service (EAS) program will say this characterization of rural vs. urban misses the mark entirely; that they are simply sick and tired of paying the bill for yet another “temporary” federal program that doles out millions of dollars with very little tangible benefit to them. Point noted. The rural air service community has long advocated fo

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September 12, 2011 08:30 AM

When President Obama called for $50 billion in infrastructure spending last year, nothing happened. The same request likely will go nowhere now, but the sentiment is still appreciated in transportation circles. As part of a $447 billion jobs plan proposed to Congress last week, Obama revived his call for $50 billion in immediate spending on highways, transit, rail, and aviation. He also proposed a new infrastructure bank, to be capitalized with $10 billion, to jump-start large projects that also involve state and private-sector investments.

It could be a while before lawmakers can digest the president's infrastructure plan with any real thought. The House and Senate are still coming to terms on simple extensions of both the aviation and surface transportation systems. They are far apart on the substance of longer-term reauthorizations. The Federal Aviation Administration's current authorization expires Friday, Sept. 16, and the surface transportation law expires Sept. 30. House Republicans last week proposed a 5 percent cut to the FAA's funding for a three-month extension, but

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September 6, 2011 08:30 AM

Remember last Labor Day, when President Obama used the national stage to roll out a $50 billion infrastructure plan to create jobs by repairing and expanding roads, runways, and railways? That proposal became irrelevant almost immediately. It met a shrug from the Democrat-controlled Congress and was followed by a massive upheaval in the mid-term elections that led to a Republican majority in the House.

Now, Obama is trying again. But this time he's striking out on his own. Last week, he announced a jobs and infrastructure effort that can happen entirely within his domain. Over the next month, several federal agencies will identify "high-impact, job-creating infrastructure projects" that can be expedited now, without congressional approval. The order extends to the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, and Transportation, which will each select up to three high-priority infrastructure projects that can be completed within the control and jurisdiction of the federal government. The plan is considered a "common-sense approach" to spurring j

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September 8, 2011 10:23 AM

Here is a guest response from Ken Graham, CEO of HNTB Infrastructure:

For the past 60 years, America has viewed transportation creation and funding by individual sector - highway, aviation, mass transit, rail. These systems were the innovations of their time, but times have changed and we must take a new approach. Anything the Obama administration can do to speed up approvals and assure state departments of transportation - and the companies that support them - that federal dollars will flow to complex projects of long-term significance will help. The president can leverage valuable lessons from the success of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants, which have allowed the U.S. Department of Transportation to direct funding toward innovative multimodal projects that have traditionally been difficult to fund through existing federal programs.

A long-term, well-funded national transportation plan must consider transportation investments in the context of a balanced, linked multi-modal strategy - one that moves people and goods as effici

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August 29, 2011 08:30 AM

There are some 150,000 bridges in need of repair in the United States, according to the Department of Transportation. Last week's 5.8 magnitude earthquake sent engineers out to inspect many of them along the East Coast to ensure their safety, a prescient reminder that bridge and road solidity can't be taken for granted forever. "This is insanity. We can't rely on earthquakes to make us take a closer look at our bridges and roads, and we certainly shouldn't be in a situation where structural issues in 100-year-old bridges are going unnoticed," said Laborers' International Union of North America General President Terry O'Sullivan.

If an earthquake won't get peoples' attention, how about a Sept. 30 deadline? LIUNA and other transportation groups are sounding the alarm that without congressional action to reauthorize surface transportation funding, hundreds of thousands of job could be in jeopardy and the safety of the roads and bridges in question. "Without reauthorization, projects will have to be dramatically slowed, with a moratorium on new projects, because the state cannot c

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August 15, 2011 08:30 AM

The White House last week announced the first ever fuel efficiency standards for trucks, buses, and other heavy-duty vehicles. If the rule is adopted, vehicles manufactured between 2014 and 2018 will be required to reduce their fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 10 to 20 percent, depending on their type. The administration projects that oil consumption will be reduced by about 530 million barrels, and greenhouse gas pollution will be reduced by approximately 270 million metric tons.

The beauty of the heavy truck proposal is that it was largely supported by the trucking industry. President Obama thanked some of those representatives at a private ceremony at the White House. The American Trucking Association gave it the thumbs up, saying it moves the industry in the right direction. Smaller trucking companies were a little more dubious because they felt the government was moving too fast.

The big truck standard came on the heels of a broader announcement from the White House to ramp up vehicle fuel-economy standards to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 for regul

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August 8, 2011 08:30 AM

The congressional shouting match that preceded last week's resolution of the Federal Aviation Administration's partial shutdown made it painfully clear that labor issues are a monkey wrench that could destroy otherwise bipartisan legislation. Although the initial debate over a temporary extension of FAA funding began with a spat over rural airport subsidies, it quickly devolved into a fight over how rail and aviation workers can vote to unionize. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, repeatedly took the Senate floor to object to Democrats' attempts to extend the FAA's funding, saying the National Mediation Board overstepped its bounds by changing how non-voters are counted in union elections. (They used to count as "no" votes. Now they don't count at all.) Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., blamed Delta Airlines for hawking "anti-worker language" in a House FAA bill that reversed the NMB's decision.

This isn't the first time labor issues have stymied the FAA bill. Last year, the bill was stalled over a dispute involving FedEx and

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August 1, 2011 08:30 AM

The debt-ceiling crisis has knocked off the front pages another government situation that is equally as messed up and mirrors the broader stalemate in Washington. The Federal Aviation Administration has been in partial shutdown for more than a week after lawmakers failed to extend its funding. That leaves 4,000 federal employees on furlough and puts hundreds of airport construction and maintenance projects on hold. It's becoming a familiar refrain: lawmakers seem unable to compromise. The FAA conversation began with questions about whether it was appropriate to cut back rural airport subsidies on a stopgap funding measure, but it has blown up into a full-fledged public war about why the broader FAA reauthorization hasn't been completed after four years.

Here are the outstanding issues, according to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood:

1) Republicans and Democrats have polar opposite opinions about last year's National Mediation Board decision that counts non-voters as no's in rail and aviation union elections. Republicans say NMB overstepped its bounds. Democrats say NM

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July 25, 2011 08:30 AM

A casual viewer at last week's hearing in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee would have thought Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., were superheroes for achieving a deal on a surface-transportation bill. "The fact that this committee was able to reach agreement on a bipartisan basis is nothing short of miraculous," said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. By contrast, House Republicans and Democrats are at loggerheads over a six-year, $230 billion surface-transportation bill.

The Senate outline, yet to be drafted into actual legislation, is the product of compromise. It doesn't please anyone completely, but it's considered better than the alternative of a six-month or one-year stopgap. Because of funding shortages, Boxer and Inhofe had to sacrifice their goal of a six-year bill, settling for a two-year reauthorization. After much back and for

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July 18, 2011 08:30 AM

Recent research from the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute in Perth, Australia, confirms that urbanites around the world are using their cars less. This "peak car use" phenomenon is occurring in at least eight major countries. (In the United States, that trend was noticed a few years ago by the Brookings Institution.) In Europe, cities where automobile use actually declined from 1995 include London, Stockholm, Vienna, and Zurich. In the United States, they include Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Scientifically, no one knows exactly why car use is diminishing, but the Curtin University researchers cite a few theories, including growth of public transportation and high gas prices. The most interesting hypothesis comes from Thomas Marchetti, the researcher who noticed that human beings appear to hit a psychological wall when it takes more than an hour to get to work. Th

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July 11, 2011 08:30 AM

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., rolled out a six-year, $230 billion surface-transportation bill last week, and the reviews were, well, negative to mixed. Republicans on the committee said the bill, which would cut current transportation money by about 35 percent, maximizes the value of available funding and provides stability for states that have been living from stopgap to stopgap for the past two years. The measure would dedicate $6 billion to the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program, which, in theory, would finance $120 billion in projects. It also would consolidate or eliminate some 70 projects considered duplicative and limit Highway Trust Fund money to just highway spending. In the familiar Republican slant away from federal government, the measure would distribute more than 90 percent of federal highway program funds to states, "allowing state and local transportation officials to

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July 5, 2011 10:32 AM

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made two separate announcements last week about providing funds for transportation projects that cited environmental benefits as their main selling point.

On Monday, DOT announced that 27 transit projects will receive $1.58 billion "that will improve public transportation access for millions of Americans while reducing our dependence on foreign oil and curbing air pollution."

On Wednesday, DOT announced a $101.4 million competitive grant for transit providers, proposing "projects that create 'green' jobs, promote the use of clean fuels and cut our nation's dependence on oil."

Maybe LaHood is on to something. A recent national phone survey from the Mineta Transportation Institute found that the public's meager 24 percent support for a

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June 27, 2011 08:30 AM

June 29 marks the 55th anniversary of President Eisenhower's signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, popularly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. The statute created the Highway Trust Fund, which was designed to pay for 90 percent of highway-construction costs. States were required to pay the remaining 10 percent of the costs. Eisenhower considered the project to be one of his most important accomplishments. "More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America.... Its impact on the American economy--the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up--was beyond calculation," he said in his memoir.

Today, the surface-transportation funding system waits in limbo for a congressional reauthorization; revenue from the gas tax is slowly declining, and transportation industry participants grouse about unmet infrastructure preservation and maintenance needs. The federal portion of the cost of the Interstate highway system has been paid for in part by

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June 20, 2011 08:30 AM

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., last week came up with a pretty cool way to unveil an idea that he has been tossing around for some time. His policy proposal, which comes as no surprise, is to separate Amtrak from the Northeast Corridor and open the heavily trafficked route up to private competition. The public rollout of the proposal was unique--part town hall, part press conference--a Webcast and teleconference operated out of the committee room in front of a live audience.

Mica's bill would create a competition for high-speed and intercity passenger-rail service and infrastructure contracts, to be run out of the Department of Transportation. It is designed to lower the proportion of taxpayer subsidies that goes toward rail, but it is really a direct repudiation of Amtrak. Mica has been highly critical of Amtrak for years, arguing that it is costly and discourages private investment.

The privatization plan was immediately criticiz

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June 27, 2011 11:54 AM

We have a guest comment from Jack Lettiere, former New Jersey DOT Commissioner and former NJ Transit Board Chairman.

The title of your article truly represents an unsettling fact.... it is really the same old debate. Given its context and nature, it will yield the same result for our customers and commuters... not much! Where is the new thinking? Before we begin a discussion of whether the private sector can do a better job than Amtrak, we should first be asking what are we trying to achieve in the NEC and why.

I would suggest that our focus on Amtrak vs. privatization may be a premature discussion. The old debate concentrates on 'how" Amtrak should operate rather than on "what" it is we really want to accomplish.We need to consider ALL of the services provided by ALL rail transit providers (e.g. Amtrak, NJ TRANSIT, MARC, SEPTA, etc) and how do we best use these resources (equipment, stations, staff, rights of way) to meet the apparent needs of the NEC customers. This approach is Business 101.Without an understanding of what we want to achi

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June 20, 2011 03:08 PM

I strongly support the recommendations in the Mica-Shuster Intercity Rail bill. The recommendations are right on and format innovative and impressive

As a transportation professional for many years I have long been advocating the importance of the Northeast Corridor and the need for real high speed (150MPH to 200MPH) service.Bringing private sector talent to bear on issue through rigorous competition with specified performance criteria, as the bill proposes, may yet bring effective and profitable high speed rail service to this unique corridor.I believe that the private sector, its engineers and designers, construction, maintenance and repair contractors, operators and financiers have the will and capacity to meet the challenge.

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June 20, 2011 03:01 PM

Here is a guest comment from John Robert Smith, President and CEO of Reconnecting America:

Representative John Mica (R-FL), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, announced a far-reaching plan to privatize the Northeast Corridor (NEC) as well as intercity passenger and commuter rail service.

I applaud the Chairman’s focus on creative approaches to improve the nation’s intercity rail system. We agree with the Chairman that America still needs a national rail system and that taxpayers need to be protected. But we have concerns that this approach may fall short on these goals.

These concerns include:

1.The fact that very few, if any of the long-distance lines will attract private sector funding. The focus on privatizing the Northeast Corridor will weaken the existing national system. Removing the profitable NEC from the current system of shared benefits deprives the rest of the nation’s rail system of critically needed operating assistance. This approach, as proposed, may weaken or termi

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June 6, 2011 09:12 AM

I have been interviewing staffers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee as part of a broader project for National Journal magazine profiling "Hill People." To a person, Republican and Democratic staffers on the committee say they want to see a six-year surface-transportation reauthorization bill completed this year. Everyone knows that's a tall order. It's already June. There are few options to pay for the proposal because of Republican mandates on spending and taxes. The earmark ban further complicates the endeavor.

It is significant, however, that no one disagrees with the overall goal. With a green light from House leaders, staffers could soon find themselves happily horse-trading the bill's details over pizza and Diet Coke. The only question is how they would narrow their focus, given the tight budget constraints. Smart Growth America may have provided one clue that could inch the committee down the yellow brick road. A report released last week found that between 200

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May 31, 2011 08:30 AM

It's a familiar refrain to anyone involved in transportation: Infrastructure investment means jobs. But the transportation sector hasn't cornered the market on the "jobs" talking point. For environmentalists, investment in clean technology means jobs. For unions and manufacturers, products built in the United States mean jobs.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has connected the aforementioned dots in a single bill dubbed the SMART Act that attempts to encourage the growth of the domestic transportation-manufacturing industry by giving preference to domestic supply chains when the government awards infrastructure grants. The idea is to expand public transit and rail services using domestic manufacturers. Brown expects that 27,600 transit buses, 4,000 passenger rail cars and locomotives, and 220 light-rail cars will need replacing over the next six years. If all of that production went on inside the United States, it would be a significant boost to the economy, he argues.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are cheering Brown's emphasis on mass transit and rail. Those investments reduc

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May 23, 2011 08:58 AM

The Congressional Budget Office offered lengthy, detailed (and dry) testimony last week that outlined the options for paying for highways. Limiting spending to the amount garnered from the current fuel tax would result in $13 billion less per year than the current amount, CBO said. Spending enough to maintain the current performance of the highway system would require about $14 billion more per year than current levels. Funding projects whose benefits exceed their costs requires more than just maintenance, meaning federal annual spending would have to double, to about $94 billion annually.

The figures provide a good backdrop for a story that really isn't about numbers--it's about trust in government. Democrats and President Obama say investments in infrastructure can do nothing but help the economy. But Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, adequately summed up Republicans' skepticism: "There is a lot of rebranding going on over on the left. What use

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