Transportation Experts Blog

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Recent Responses

October 9, 2012 08:30 AM

With spending cuts looming and lawmakers eyeing major entitlement and tax reform in the coming months and years, no sector--transportation included--can expect to be spared the budget axe.

The nation's mayors have warned that the $1.2 trillion in automatic year-end spending cuts under sequestration will particularly affect "investments in infrastructure, education, transportation and public safety" and numerous groups have warned about the impact to TIGER funds, Amtrak and other services. The Highway Trust Fund makes no appearance in the administration's sequestration plan, but even that doesn't necessarily mean it won't be subject to the whims of Congress.

Even if sequestration is avoided, transportation won't likely be spared. Last week, the budget watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense

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September 24, 2012 08:30 AM

Whether building highways or dredging ports, environmental regulations are often cited as a drag on progress for all modes of infrastructure. On one hand, such rules help to limit the negative impact industries and projects have on natural resources. On the other, they can slow down progress. But is there a role for public-private partnerships in pushing industry toward reducing its environmental footprint?

Last week, Boeing, in conjunction with American Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, showed off a new airplane, ecoDemonstrator, featuring a set of environmentally friendly technologies. The technologies help "make airplanes operate more efficiently and produce fewer emissions and less noise," said John Tracy, Boeing chief technology officer. And it was made possible, in part, by funding from the FAA's Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions, and Noise (CLEEN) program.

The impact of a single souped-up plane is, of course, negligible. But the effort highlights a potential alternative means of achieving what regulations set out to do: getting indust

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September 17, 2012 08:30 AM

For cash-strapped states, all hope isn't necessarily lost.

Despite shrinking federal funds, innovative tools such as revolving state loan funds present "an increasingly important mechanism for financing and funding infrastructure projects such as state infrastructure banks," according to a Brookings report out last week.

The way such loan funds are implemented is far from perfect, Brookings found, but they can represent an important means of delivering infrastructure projects. The short report walks through how the funds are structured in various states and how they can be improved on. For one, many state infrastructure bank officials say complying with federal environmental and contractual regulations can slow down the investment process--a problem that could be magnified for states with smaller projects and less-developed banks of their own.

A national infrastructure bank, as proposed by the administration, could help relieve states of some of those problems by offering expertise in dealing with complex regulations and project delivery, the report found.

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September 3, 2012 08:30 AM

With Labor Day here, now seems as good a time as any to revisit a constant tension: how to protect infrastructure jobs without restricting innovation.

Last week, the American Association of Port Authorities invited a handful of journalists to tour the Port of Virginia, including the recently built and highly automated APM Terminal there.

The automation has allowed the port to optimize its operations, with giant machines rearranging cargo throughout the night so it can quickly and efficiently be loaded onto ships the next day. Ports in Canada and Mexico have pursued similar automation, port officials said. A failure to adapt amounts to surrendering business to the competition.

But the innovation leaves some workers behind: with the technology in place, the terminal operates with about half of the workforce it would otherwise need, they said.

"We were very careful to include the [International Longshoremen's Association]," one official said. "Many of the workers who were displaced, do eventually get retrained."

Still, the operation underscores a tensi

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August 27, 2012 08:30 AM

The administration on Thursday took a step toward creating a national freight strategy and toward a likely debate over the details.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Thursday announced the launch of the national Freight Policy Council, a group tasked with creating a national strategic freight plan as mandated by the transportation bill signed last month. The idea is for the administration to offer a coherent, nationwide blueprint for improving the network by which goods are transported, easing the cost of trade and hopefully smoothing the economy.
"Our freight system is the lifeblood of the American economy," LaHood said in a statement on Thursday. "We have an opportunity to make not only our freight system, but all modes of transportation, stronger and better connected."
While LaHood made his announcement in Seattle, Wash., railroad, state and port officials at the Port of Virginia touted to assembled journalists the tight integration of rail lines at their facility. States, the federal govern

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August 20, 2012 08:30 AM

The administration on Friday shined a bright light on an issue central to the transportation funding debate: earmarks.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced plans to free up $473 million in unspent infrastructure funds by letting states use the money for eligible projects that would improve transportation and create jobs.

The money--unspent funds appropriated between fiscal years 2003 and 2006--will no doubt come as a pleasant surprise to many state officials whose budgets are in a vise. Only one state, Wyoming, had no unobligated funds, while Alabama had the most at $51 million.

During the drawn-out fight to pass a transportation funding bill, advocates often complained that the congressional ban on earmarks didn't make sense when it came to transportation issues and that it stalled progress. Proponents of the ban on pet projects said it eliminated government waste.

Friday's decision shows that millions of obligated funds were, for whatever reason, never used.

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August 6, 2012 08:30 AM

In the search for a transportation funding solution, an old idea is getting new play: hand responsibility for Medicaid fully to the federal government, freeing up state resources to take on education and infrastructure.

The proposal dates back to at least 1980, when Tennessee's Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander reportedly proposed to President Ronald Reagan a Medicaid-for-education "grand swap." Reagan supported the idea, but it never went anywhere. Now a senator, Alexander revived his push in May. And Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson recently proposed adding transportation funding to the mix.

"Slightly modified, the switch still works," he wrote. "In 2012, states will spend about $200 billion on Medicaid. Against that, federal aid to states for schools and training totals $105 billion and construction grants (mos

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July 9, 2012 08:30 AM

After months of congressional wrangling, President Obama signed the $105 billion compromise transportation bill on Friday. And while the road to reauthorization was long and winding, there was one provision that was never really at risk. It was in the Senate bill and some form would have made it into the House version, too. It extends loan financing for infrastructure projects and was championed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who both pushed for the provision and was a key architect of the bill.

The measure--America Fast Forward--expands the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act funding from $122 million a year to $750 million in fiscal year 2013 and $1 billion in fiscal year 2014. That's more than double the amount proposed by the Bipartisan Policy Center last year. It's been touted as letting a handful of major projects move forward, including

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July 2, 2012 08:30 AM

They finally did it. In an 11th-hour turnaround, Congress passed a compromise transportation reauthorization (including a student loan interest rate extension and flood insurance reauthorization).

The 599-page bill reduces the number of highway programs by two thirds. The controversial coal ash and Keystone XL provisions House Republicans pushed for were dropped, but the streamlining provisions they wanted made it in, including exempting from environmental review certain emergency infrastructure replacements and programs that receive less than $5 million in federal funds. The cuts aren't as deep as many conservatives wanted and the concessions went too far for some Democrats.

Transportation enhancement funding--for things such as bike paths--remains, but a compromise split the funding between localities and states, which have an opt-out. The bill reduces the deficit by $16.3 billion over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The Highway Transit Fund, the key funding source for highway projects, will be exhausted some time in fiscal ye

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June 18, 2012 09:33 AM

The writing is pretty much on the wall. Lawmakers may say they're holding out for a conference transportation bill, but, let's face it, June 30th is fast approaching with no sign of a coming compromise. Senate Democrats are calling on House Republicans to pass a bill; House Republicans accuse Senate Democrats of being unwilling to negotiate. No one's suggesting a bill is imminent.

One of the key hurdles to compromise, House Republicans say, is finding common ground on their environmental streamlining measures.

"On five of our priorities, we have offered a counterproposal.... On three of them it's been a flat 'no,' and on a couple of the others, it's been a very, very minor movement," Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., a conferee, said last week.

Some of those priorities, such as adjusting the trigger for environmental reviews of projects or creating hard deadlines for the reviews, are just matters of ideology. But others seem to show promise for compromise. Republicans want to let states work on projects before a review is complete, with the promise to abandon or a

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June 4, 2012 08:30 AM

For nearly 100 years, federal and state governments have worked together on implementing infrastructure projects, with states creating and maintaining them and the federal government setting standards and providing funding. And, as with so much else infrastructure-related, that partnership has become bloated, inefficient and unsustainable.

OK, that may be a bit of an overstatement, but the Government Accountability Office did find in a surprisingly lucid late-April review, requested by conferee Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., that the current federal-state partnership on infrastructure projects comes with a handful of risks, including "cases where [Federal Highway Authority] was lax in its oversight by trusting but not verifying state activities and cases where FHWA demonstrated reluctance to take corrective action to bring states back into compliance, which can result in ineffective, wasteful, and potentially improper use of federal funds."

The GAO's recommendations are somewhat ideologically split

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May 28, 2012 08:30 AM

At what has become her weekly update on the transportation conference committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., last week said conferees are making steady progress toward a compromise bill that renews federal surface transportation authority for the first time in roughly three years.

About 80 percent of the Senate bill is "non-controversial," she said. Consolidating programs? They found agreement on that. Strong financing provisions? Everyone's on board. Eliminating earmarks? Got it. Pay-fors? They reached compromise on that, too, Boxer said.

"From what I know, I think they found a very sweet spot, a good way to pay for this that will gain very, very broad support among Republicans," Boxer said in the middle of her 20-minute press conference on Wednesday.

Whatever that "sweet spot" is, the pay-fors in a compromise bill will still most likely closely resemble what's in the current Senate bill, a fact underscored by the Joint Committee on Taxation's Friday release comparing the revenue provisions in the House and Senate bills, showing that, well, the House bi

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May 7, 2012 08:30 AM

A Democratic compromise on Keystone could pave the way to a highway bill.

The Democrat-run Senate has a transportation bill it's happy with--and which has a chance in the Republican-led House. Meanwhile, House GOP leadership is pushing hard on a provision that would automatically approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Yes, the pipeline failed in a straight up-or-down Senate vote, but language forcing the president to make a decision on it passed in December when it was attached to the politically hot payroll-tax extension. Could that be all it takes?

A Keystone provision, or a modified version of it, attached to the Senate transportation bill gives almost everyone cover: House Republicans can claim they got the pipeline attached to an acceptable reauthorization (which, they can point out, garnered bipartisan support in the Senate), while Senate Democrats can say they fought long and hard, but had to make the politically tough decision to allow Keystone in the interest of preventing further transportation-related job losses.

The biggest loser is

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April 30, 2012 08:30 AM

With conferees scheduled to meet next week to begin hammering out a new transportation reauthorization, all eyes are now turning back to the legislative details: what are key points of contention and where is there room for compromise?

We all know there will be a showdown over the Keystone XL pipeline. Let's not worry about that because there are no negotiations. Instead, let's look at another area that can and should be negotiated--the intersection between environmental backstops on transportation and the need to speed up infrastructure projects.

That was previewed, in part, on the House floor in mid-April as representatives debated the shell bill that paved the way to conference. House Transportation and Infrastructure Ranking Member Nick Rahall, D-W.V., and Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Ranking Member Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, took to the floor then to protest an amendment that copied over a set of environmental streamlining provisions from Mica's abandoned House GOP bill.

Proponents of the provisions say they would eliminate unnecessary delays, getting

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April 9, 2012 08:30 AM

Editor's Note: Fawn Johnson is off this week.

With gas prices rising, the economy plodding toward a recovery and tax day nearly upon us, the handful of available transportation-related tax deductions may be looking increasingly appealing to Americans seeking an alternative to the expensive drive to work, as the experts at H&R Block point out.

"For taxpayers whose employers provide transportation fringe benefits, using a van pool, transit pass, qualified parking and biking to work can be ways to save money," Kathy Pickering, executive director of the H&R Block Tax Institute, said in a recent release.

The deductions may be small, but they can add up. The most common pre-tax benefits offered by employers, according to H&R Block, include: A maximum of $125 per month for commuter highway transportation, such as a van pool; A maximum of $125 per month for mass transit passes and tokens; Up to $240 per month for parking in a workplace-provided lot, or a mass-transit parking lot; And up to $20 per month for b

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