Tuesday, February 7, 2012

FTA Seeks Proposals for Next Round of Veterans Transportation & Community Living Grants

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has just published a notice inviting applications for a new round of funds under its Veterans Transportation and Community Living Initiative (VTCLI). The notice appears in the February 7, 2012, Federal Register, and also is on-line at the FTA Veterans web page, www.fta.dot.gov/veterans. Applications are due April 19, 2012. Project selections will be announced in the summer of 2012. Additional information for the benefit of prospective applicants is on the FTA Veterans web page; specific questions may be sent by email to VeteransTransportation@dot.gov.

As was the case with the first round of VTCLI grants, FTA wants these funds to be used for the establishment of "one-call/one-click" transportation centers that help better connect veterans, military families and service members with the range of transportation options in their communities. FTA again is requiring successful applicants to demonstrative substantive partnerships between public transit agencies and veterans/military stakeholders in their communities as a central element of how these integrated one-call/one-click services would be designed and deployed.

The bulk of the funding for this initiative is $25 million in FTA Section 5309 bus and bus facilities funds. Therefore, there are a number of statutory restrictions that may present some hurdles to prospective applicants: units of state, local or tribal government are the only eligible applicants; FTA funds may be used only for 80 percent of project costs, and the remainder must be derived from non-federal dollars or in-kind resources; funds may not be used for mobility management activities, nor for any operational costs.

New this year, FTA is augmenting the Section 5309 funds with $5 million out of its discretionary research account. This allows interested applicants to request up to $50,000 (or half their Section 5309 funded amount, whichever is less) to support coordinated planning, marketing, public engagement activities, etc., that directly help support the success of the Section 5309-funded project, but which expenses are ineligible for Section 5309 funding. These "research" funds would be provided at a 100 percent federal share, and do not carry any non-federal matching fund requirement.

For the most part, FTA anticipates it will NOT award any "Round II" VTCLI grants to projects that were funded in the first round of grants, which were announced in November 2011. However, "Round I" projects may be able to apply for the research funds if they can demonstrate that such funding is needed to help get their Section 5309-supported activities carried out more successfully.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Federal Transit Administration Shows Grantees the Money

If you're a grantee of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), there's one Federal Register notice you probably await more than any other. That would be the annual list of FTA's apportionments and allocations. With Pres. Obama having signed the FY 2012 transportation appropriations into law on November 18, those who depend on FTA formula grants have been waiting with bated breath for this year's announcement, which was published in the January 11, 2012, Federal Register.

This year's notice runs 71 pages in length, most of which is taken up in tables showing allocations of FTA's various formula-based grants to states and urbanized areas, along with a healthy dose of other useful and important information. Although no substitution for reading the notice yourself, here are a few interesting aspects to this year's apportionments notice:

1. It's not a full-year apportionment. Because current transportation authorizations expire March 31, 2012, FTA is able to allocate only half of the funds derived from the federal Mass Transit Account. Depending on what actions Congress and the President take this spring (more extensions? reauthorization?), it's reasonable to expect one or more similar notices later this year, making the rest of FTA's funds available....once authorized.

2. FTA is giving a "heads up" on forthcoming discretionary grant competitions. Now that Congress largely has given up the process of "earmarking" specific projects in appropriations bills, FTA, like other federal agencies, has more money available for discretionary grants of its own design and determination (subject, of course, to federal authorizations). So, in this year's apportionments notice, FTA indicates that there soon will be national competitions for (a) "State of Good Repair" bus & bus facility grants ($650 million expected to be available, solicitation of applications likely to be announced later this month), (b) "Livability" bus & bus facility grants ($125 million expected to be available, solicitation to be announced later this month), and (c) "Veterans Transportation and Community Living Initiative" bus & bus facility grants ($25 million expected, solicitation to be announced later this month). FTA also gives the heads up for this year's rounds of some other discretionary grant competitions: Section 5308 Clean Fuels bus grants ($51.5 million to be available, solicitation  to be announced later this month), Section 5339 Alternatives Analysis grants ($25.0 million to be available, solicitation likely to be announced in February), Section 5311(c) tribal transit grants ($15.0 million to be available, solicitation to be announced in February), and Section 3038 over-the-road-bus accessibility grants ($8.8 million to be available, solicitation anticipated in March).

3. FTA continues to use 2000 population data. The Census Bureau is still in the process of analyzing 2010 census data to identify urbanized areas, their populations, etc. Until these data are released, FTA has to continue relying on 2000 data for the population, population density, and other demographic factors in its funding formulas. Once released, these data may lead to significant changes in the distribution of Section 5307, 5311, 5316 and 5317 funds as places find their urbanized area status categorized differently under the 2010 census. To help prepare for these changes, FTA has launched a "Census and FTA Formula Grants" page on its website, which is in the process of being populated with useful, explanatory information.

Therefore, it seems reasonable to say that this 71-page document leaves FTA grantees with a couple of immediate assignments. For one, all current recipients of FTA formula grants know what steps they need to follow next as a result of the apportionments notices. Second, those who are considering the FTA State of Good Repair, Livability, or Veterans grants should begin doing some background research, as FTA has indicated these solicitations will hit the airwaves in the next few weeks, and will have fairly quick application deadlines.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

VA Proposes Rules on Forthcoming Transportation Grant Program

The Dept of Veterans Affairs (VA) is planning to launch a program of grants to state veterans service agencies and local veterans services organizations to help provide transportation to VA medical care for veterans in "highly rural areas" (defined in this case as those counties or county equivalents with population densities of less than seven persons per square mile). This program is being established as a result of Section 307 of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010, which Pres. Obama signed into law on May 5, 2010 (P.L. 111-163). The legislation authorized $3 million per year from FY 2010 through FY 2014, and called upon VA to establish a program of $50,000 grants during this period to help states and local veterans service organizations address veterans' medical transportation needs in highly rural areas.

Before the VA can begin soliciting grant applications, they need to have the program structure in place, so they currently are seeking public comment to the rules they have proposed for this program. A notice appears in the December 30, 2011, Federal Register. While most of the proposed regulation for this program is simply a re-statement of the legislation, VA does have some elements that need meaningful input, such as the scoring criteria for applications under this program and the proposed reporting requirements for this program's grantees. Comments are due February 28, 2012.

For more information on this planned program, as well as the Veterans Transportation Service and other VA transportation initiatives, contact the VA's David Riley by email (david.riley3@va.gov) or phone (404-828-5601).

Friday, December 23, 2011

Federal Appropriations - the year-end wrap

It seems almost as if the FY 2012 appropriations were all about buses. Once Congress got down to work, they first churned out the "Minibus," an appropriations bill that covered Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation and HUD. And then, to finish up all the necessary spending bills, along came the "Megabus," which funded everything else. Below are a few pertinent highlights from these bills, followed by a coda from the "Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act," which Congress just completed before racing off on its holiday break.

First, from the "Minibus," which was signed into law last month:

Funding to the Federal Transit Administration goes up to $10.6 billion, an all-time high. Within the FTA portfolio, formula grants (which would include Section 5307, 5310, 5311, 5316, 5317) all increase by 0.2 percent. The legislation allows for Section 5307 funds to be used to cover urban transit agencies' fuel costs, up to a nationwide total of $100 million. There's a 22 percent increase in funding for New Starts/Small Starts fixed guideway spending, accompanied by provisions that require 40 percent non-federal match for those grants, and require Bus Rapid Transit projects to be funded out of the Section 5309 bus/bus facilities account instead of the Section 5309 New Starts/Small Starts account. FTA "TIGGER" grants are eliminated. No funding is designated for DOT "livability" grants. The DOT-wide "TIGER" program is funded at $500 million.

HUD's Community Development Block Grants continue to decline, and are funded at $2.9 billion in this legislation. Within the HUD portfolio, no funding is identified for "livability" projects, but the final version of this legislation is at least tolerant of livability being an allowed, if not appropriated, use of HUD dollars (the initial House legislation would have banned funding for livability).

Then, from the "Megabus," which Congress sent to Pres. Obama on December 17 for his signature:

  • Medicaid funding is estimated at $270.7 billion in FY 2012, which would be a 4 percent increase from FY 2011.
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is authorized only through a portion of FY 2012; its funding will be the prorated share of $16.5 billion for the year.
  • Workforce Investment Act programs continue their gradual decline, and are funded at $4.9 billion in FY 2012.
  • Vocational Rehabilitation grants will be maintained at the $3.1 billion level.
  • Community Services Block Grant programs will increase to $713.6 million for FY 2012 (despite having been recommended for a 50 percent cut in President Obama's budget request).
  • Older Americans Act Title III-B funds for supportive services, senior centers, etc., will be maintained at the $367.6 million level.

Finally, the "payroll tax cut" bill which just finished being negotiated between the House and Senate includes a short-term extension of the TANF authorization, through February 29, 2012 (TANF was set to expire on December 31). The legislation is silent on the Internal Revenue Code's Section 132(f) "qualified transportation fringe benefit," which means that - as of January 1, 2012 - the allowance for tax-free transit benefits drops back to the pre-ARRA level of $125 per month (this amount may be adjusted slightly by the IRS to account for inflation).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Planning to use your cell phone & drive a commercial vehicle? Think again!

Talking and texting on handheld devices in motor vehicles continues to gather a large amount of media and highway safety attention. While actions such as the National Transportation Safety Board's recent recommendation that there be a nationwide ban on the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (including both handheld and hands-free cell phones) and US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood's ongoing campaign against all forms of distracted driving have attracted the most widespread attention, other actions more directly affect the operations of public and human services transportation.

Most recently, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued a final rule restricting the use of cell phones by operators of commercial motor vehicles. This rule was published on December 2, 2011, and takes effect January 3, 2012.

At its core, this rule is very straightforward: drivers of commercial motor vehicles are prohibited from using handheld mobile telephones while driving the vehicle, except in emergency situations. Motor carriers (i.e., the companies and entities employing drivers of commercial motor vehicles) are prohibited from allowing or requiring their drivers to use handheld mobile telephones while driving, except in emergencies. States are to adopt laws or ordinances that are consistent with this restriction. Drivers found to have repeated violations of this restriction will face suspensions of their commercial drivers licenses (CDLs).

Note that FMCSA already has a regulatory restriction against "texting" while driving a commercial motor vehicle. The December 2 rulemaking modifies a couple of small aspects of the texting restriction to help it confirm to the handheld mobile phone restriction. Although there has been much discussion, and forays into highway safety data, about broadening the scope of these rules, no further action has been taken by FMCSA to date. Their restrictions currently apply only to texting on mobile communication devices while driving, and using handheld mobile telephones while driving. However, many agencies and employers, and even some states, have more extensive restrictions on the use of mobile devices while driving.

Of course, even though the nature of this rule is fairly simple, its applicability to public transportation and to the various forms of human services transportation becomes much more murky. A few general tips are below, but if you're concerned about compliance, the most important steps are to contact your state's motor carrier safety agency (typically housed within your state DOT) or your state's FMCSA office.

For providers of public or human services transportation, it would appear you MUST comply with the FMCSA restrictions on using handheld mobile phones if:

You are operating a motor vehicle for which federal law requires the driver to hold a CDL and this vehicle is used for interstate transportation (of course, most states have near-identical requirements for intrastate transportation), or
You are operating a vehicle designed to seat between 9 and 15 passengers (including the driver) in interstate transportation for which you are compensated, whether through passenger fares, contracts, grants, etc. (again, most states have near-identical requirements for intrastate transportation).

Because FMCSA's regulatory authority extends only to activities of interstate commerce, it would appear the FMCSA restriction on handheld mobile phones and texting do not apply to drivers of motor vehicles who are the direct employees of units of federal, state or local government. However, it's entirely possible that drivers who work for state or local government, and the agencies employing them, are covered under individual states' motor carrier safety regulations, including restrictions on the use of handheld phones and mobile texting devices. Moreover, the FMCSA "governmental" exclusion cannot be extended to the contractors or grantees of federal, state or local government, nor to nongovernmental private entities created by the action of state or local government.

As a final reminder, neither these nor most other FMCSA regulations apply to the operation of vehicles designed to seat 8 or fewer passengers, even when interstate in nature.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Incremental Steps Forward

The mass media may have been abuzz over the recent setback when the House failed to consider a temporary continuing resolution for the federal government's spending (for example, the Los Angeles Times reported "House rejects government funding bill as shutdown looms"). Reality hasn't yet been quite so dire. Consider the following bits that have taken place on Capitol Hill in the past few days:

1. A short-term extension of SAFETEA-LU was signed into law on Sept. 16. It sustains most federal highway and transit spending authority at current levels through March 31, 2012. Note that this is an authorization, not an appropriation. Federal funding for transit and highway projects are dependent on the annual appropriations bills.

2. The Senate Appropriations Committee just approved its version of a FY 2012 Transportation-HUD spending bill that would fund most federal transit programs at close to their FY 2011 levels. This is in contrast to the transportation spending bill that moved through the House Appropriations Committee earlier this month, in which most federal transit and highway spending would be cut by more than 30 percent.

3. The House has just passed a short-term extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which would sustain its spending authority at current levels through December 31, 2011.

4. The Senate Appropriations Committee also has cleared its version of a FY 2012 Labor/Health & Human Services/Education appropriations bill. Other spending bills also are advancing, albeit in fits and starts, through the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

With respect to the annual appropriations for the upcoming fiscal year, the overwhelming assumption is that they will be folded into some form of an omnibus appropriations act, which has become the more common way Congress has handled its control of federal purse-strings in recent years, but the tendency is to base these catch-all bills on whatever has been done to date with individual bills, so the farther along they are, the greater sense we would have of what to expect.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Congress: Moving Right Along?

This week, Congress keeps racing the clock, moving down parallel tracks in terms of FY 2012 appropriations and the need to extend (and eventually reauthorize) the SAFETEA-LU highway and transit legislation. All of this is supposed to be done by September 30, of course.

In today's news, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee reported out a four-month extension of SAFETEA-LU, which, if agreed to by the other Senate committees of jurisdiction, the full Senate, and the House, would tide surface transportation authorizations over through January 31, 2012. Conceivably simple, even this glide path is said to be facing numerous obstacles, according to DC Streetsblog and other sources.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, the House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee drafted its version of FY 2012 spending, which includes a 30 percent reduction in funds for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and its programs. The draft bill provides for a tiny increase in Section 5309 funding for "new starts" and "small starts," but dictates that these funds are only available for small starts and for honoring those Full Funding Grant Agreements currently in place for new starts. The cuts all would be taken, presumably pro rata, in FTA formula grants, planning and research. In a bit of explanation on its website, the appropriators say "the Committee is prepared to support a higher formula bus spending level should a new, multi-year authorization bill be enacted."