Friday, September 25, 2009

Two recent GAO reports of interest

While I generally defer to the NRC "Tappy Grams" e-newsletter to announce new reports and publications, I couldn't hold my breath on these two.

A couple of weeks ago, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report, Metropolitan Planning Organizations: Options Exist to Enhance Transportation Planning Capacity and Federal Oversight (GAO-09-868), looking at the capacity of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs). My colleague Sheryl summed up this report succinctly: GAO review of what MPOs do and whether they actually improve transportation planning. It also makes recommendations to enhance MPO performance. GAO recognizes that with the imminent expiration of SAFETEA-LU, better information “on the effectiveness of MPOs’ transportation planning activities is needed, especially in light of government and industry associations’ proposals for increasing or modifying MPOs’ authority, responsibilities, and funding.” The report does a good job of explaining what tasks Congress has assigned to MPOs, their funding, and the broad spectrum of MPO characteristics. Particular challenges are the public participation requirements, the lack of authority to implement plans, and obtaining reliable data; also noted were difficulties finding and retaining staff with necessary skills. Suggested statutory changes were discussed, including greater MPO flexibility, authority to implement projects, “an increase in the population threshold for mandatory MPO creation,” increased funding to generate more reliable data, and outcome-based performance requirements.

Hot on the heels of the MPO examination, GAO issued a report looking at the DOT-HUD collaboration on housing and transit, Affordable Housing in Transit-Oriented Development: Key Practices Could Enhance Recent Collaboration Efforts between DOT-FTA and HUD )GAO-09-871). While speaking highly of the agencies' partnership, GAO found "While these interagency efforts have produced numerous strategies, local housing and transit officials told GAO that these strategies had little impact, in part, because they have yet to be implemented. However, the agencies have not yet developed a comprehensive, integrated plan to implement all efforts, and without such a plan, the agencies risk losing momentum. GAO has previously identified key practices that could enhance and sustain collaboration among federal agencies; when compared to these practices, GAO found that HUD, FTA, and DOT have taken some actions consistent with some of these practices--such as defining a common outcome. However, weaknesses in agency housing data and analytical transportation planning methods will limit these agencies' ability to effectively monitor, evaluate, and report results--another key collaboration practice. GAO found that other collaboration practices, such as establishing compatible policies and procedures, could be taken to strengthen collaboration. Finally, without a more formalized approach to collaboration, including establishment of memorandum of agreements, these agencies may not effectively leverage their unique strengths."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Extensions? Continuations?

Congress has less than a week to do something. The current federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. None of the annual appropriations bills have become law. SAFETEA-LU also expires on Sept. 30. Expect lots of whirlwind activity from Capitol Hill, and even more rumors and speculation.

As of today, it looks and sounds like there will be a one-month continuing resolution on government spending, probably tied to the Legislative Branch appropriations measure, which is the closest to being ready to present to Pres. Obama for his signature. It's actually pretty likely that quite a few of the other appropriations bills, possibly even the DOT bill, could then be cleared for signature into law during October (By the way, if you're looking for a quick status of appropriations bills, bookmark the Library of Congress' THOMAS web site).

Less clear is what's to be done with extending SAFETEA-LU, although some kind of extension is virtually guaranteed. Yesterday, the House passed a bill, H.R. 3617, that would extend SAFETEA-LU for three months, to Dec. 31, 2009. However, it doesn't sound like the Senate is too keen on this idea, with Senate offices still buzzing about doing an 18-month extension of SAFETEA-LU. One of the latest rumors, which sounds logical, but is only a rumor, is that there may be a one-month SAFETEA-LU extension folded into the above-rumored continuing resolution. That's one way to keep the federal transit and highway programs moving forward, but there are many in this field who still blanch at the memory of the many 1/12 at a time funding allotments while waiting for what is now SAFETEA-LU to be completed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

FTA Announces TIGGER Grant Winners, short-term extension looms for SAFETEA-LU

Yesterday, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood announced the 43 recipients of $100 million in competitive ARRA grants under the Transit Investments for Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction (TIGGER) grant program. As described in the official DOT press release, these grants are for a variety of bus, facility and rail projects in urban, suburban and rural areas. Writing for DC.Streetsblog, Elana Schor reminds us that the $1.5 billion multimodal pool of US DOT "TIGER" grants (not to be confused with the FTA "TIGGER" grants) are slated to be revealed this autumn, as well.

In another of Elana's DC.Streetsblog postings, news is out that the wheels are in motion for a 3-month extension of SAFETEA-LU. Recall that there is a raging debate in DC about whether to extend SAFETEA-LU for 18 months, or reauthorize it immediately. In any event, some kind of extension becomes necessary as the current highway/transit authorization expires on Sept. 30.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Health Reform Takes Senate Stage

The Senate Finance Committee will be wrestling with health reform this week. NY Times reports 564 amendments have been filed for the committee to consider. For most transportation interests, the leading issue in this debate is what will happen with Medicaid. In both House and Senate, the pressure's on for expanding Medicaid to all persons living at 133 percent of federal poverty lines, which would include many of the "working poor." As a side note, NPR recently reported on federal employees who can't afford their part of the premiums for feds' health benefits (note: listen to the 5-minute story, or download the transcript, as the NPR web story doesn't go that far). Governors are very worried that this expansion will create crises in states' budgets, although House and Senate bills currently hold states harmless. For transportation providers, it's less clear what that sort of Medicaid expansion would mean, as most of the new enrollees are, as mentioned, working people who can't currently afford health coverage, and thus more likely than current Medicaid enrollees to have existing transportation resources; on the other hand, they are likely to have dependents who may need access, so it's kind of hard to predict what would happen on the streets. Also in the House and Senate bills, there may be language that would - for the first time - add transportation as a specifically covered benefit within Medicaid (remember that, despite the billions of dollars now spent every year on Medicaid transport, it's done because a couple of federal courts said so, not on account of any statutory authorization). For more information on this possible change to Medicaid law - admittedly with a certain bias - see the CTAA web site.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Senate Passes FY 2010 Transit Spending Measure

On Thursday, September 17, the Senate passed its version of FY 2010 Transportation-HUD appropriations. The House had passed its version of this bill (H.R. 3288) on July 23. A quick read of the transit sections in these two bills show they’re not too far off from one another. The Senate would fund the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and its programs at $11.1 billion, which is about 8 percent more than this year’s funding. The House comes in slightly lower, at $10.5 billion, which is about 2 percent above this year’s transit funding.

Aside from specific project earmarks, which always are grist for House-Senate conference committee negotiations, the greatest difference between House and Senate FTA funding is in the “Section 5309” funding for fixed-guideway new starts and small starts: Senate funds this category at $2.3 billion, House would appropriate $1.8 billion (which essentially is the same as this year’s funding). There also are differences in House and Senate approaches relative to the funding of transit-related energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction projects, with the Senate appropriating $100 million to these, and the House directing that unearmarked bus and bus facility funds be used for these projects.

The lion’s share of federal transit spending comes from the category of “Formula and bus grants,” which would receive $8.3 billion in both House and Senate bills, which is one percent above this year’s figure. Both the House and Senate make identical allocations among the categories under that heading:

Clean Fuels Program: $61,500,000
Over-the-Road Bus Accessibility Program: $10,800,000
Urban Area Formula Grants: $4,757,130,662
Bus and Bus Facilities: $584,000,000
Fixed Guideway Modernization: $1,756,134,569
Planning Programs: $113,500,000
Elderly and Persons with Disabilities: $140,680,447
Nonurbanized Area Formula: $607,025,922
Job Access and Reverse Commute: $164,500,000
New Freedom: $92,500,000
National Transit Database: $3,500,000
Alternatives Analysis: $25,000,000
Alternative Transportation in Parks and Park Lands: $26,900,000

House and Senate have made some programmatic shifts from this year, primarily to reduce the amount of discretionary bus and bus facility grants by about $300 million, with offsetting increases in rural and urban formula transit funds. The House Appropriations Committee attributed this decision to the fact that FY 2009 was the last year of SAFETEA-LU project earmarks.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Senate Poised to Wrap Up DOT Spending Bill

The Senate is expected to complete debate and pass its version of FY 2010 Transportation/HUD appropriations today. In yesterday's floor debates, a series of amendments sponsored by Senators McCain and Coburn were defeated; these amendments would have trimmed numerous aspects of states' highway and transit funding programs. This morning, the Senate will consider five last amendments, and then pass the measure, which would go to House-Senate conference negotiations.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Transit Spending now on Senate floor

Having returned from the August recess, the Senate is now debating the FY 2010 Transportation-HUD appropriations bill. Here's what Congressional Quarterly is reporting on that measure:

'Debate on the Transportation-HUD spending bill (HR 3288) has already begun in the Senate, and Democratic leaders have said they hope to work through the bill early next week.

'“We would like to have some of these amendments over Friday and Monday be offered so that we can move expeditiously to this really important appropriations bill and be moving quickly by Monday afternoon on this,” said Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee.

'The Senate’s version of the measure would provide $122 billion in funding for transportation and housing programs for fiscal 2010, including $42.5 billion for the Federal Highway Administration, $18.1 billion for Section 8 tenant-based vouchers, $11.1 billion for the Federal Transit Administration and $15.6 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration.'

Thursday, September 10, 2009

FTA Considers Capital Project Management Rules - seeking comments

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is considering the possibility of issuing regulations about how its grantees manage "major capital projects." In that vein, FTA published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) in the September 10, 2009, Federal Register, and on its website. Basically, this notice presents a number of questions that stakeholders are welcome to answer and address as appropriate to their views. Historically, the project management guidelines being discussed have affected only rail and other fixed-guideway projects. However, one of the first questions in this notice is one of scope - how to define the "major capital projects" that may fall under any regulations that arise from this. Comments are due November 9, 2009. For more information, contact Aaron James or Carlos Garay of FTA at or respectively.