Monday, December 27, 2010

CDL-Holding Drivers: Don't Use Handheld Devices While Driving

Drivers who are required under federal law to hold Commercial Drivers Licenses (CDLs) would be prohibited from using cellphones or similar handheld devices for conversation or texting while driving, under a rule proposed last week by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

There is a lot of literature and data to support the need to prevent "distracted driving," of which cell phone/texting use is a critical risk. The proposed rule would not place new restrictions on two-way or citizen-band radios. However, since many community transportation organizations are using cell-phone based technologies for their core communication functions, study and comment on this proposed rule is well-advised.

The proposed rule was issued in the December 21, 2010, Federal Register. Comments are due to FMCSA by February 22, 2011.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Transit Benefit "Parity" Will Continue for one more year

Today or tomorrow, Pres Obama is expected to sign an $858 billion package of tax cuts and extensions into law. While some provisions of this legislation, such as the extension of unemployment benefits, and a temporary rollback of payroll taxes for Social Seucrity, will be noticed by almost every working and non-working person, there is at least one nugget of news for the transit community.

Sec. 727 of the tax relief bill continues the temporary "parity" of tax-favored transit benefits for one more year, through December 31, 2011. This means that employers can continue to provide tax-free transit and vanpooling benefits of up to approximately $230 per month under Section 132(f) of the Internal Revenue Code. This is the same as the amount of tax-free parking benefits employers are allowed to provide.

Prior to enactment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), transit benefits were capped at an annually adjusted rate that was approximately half the value of allowed parking benefits. ARRA provided a temporary increase for transit, but this going to expire this month, and the transit benefit would have reverted to an estimated $120 per month, were it not for this legislative action.

Other aspects of the "tax relief" bill may be noticed in some corners of the transit community. There are extensions of the Work Opportunity Credit and New Markets Tax Credits, which can facilitate employment of certain populations and tax-favored investments in economically distressed areas, respectively. Some "post-Katrina" and "post-9/11" tax credit programs also are extended. On the other hand, the "Build America Bonds" program created under ARRA is not being extended, and new bonding will come to an end this month.

In other news, Senate efforts to pass a comprehensive "omnibus" appropriations bill have fallen apart. Senate leaders are regrouping, to see what next steps to take. Since the current continuing resolution expires this weekend, some action is imminent, but it's hard to gauge whether the next legislation will sustain government spending for a few days, a few months, or the remainder of the current fiscal year.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Preparing for extensions, continuations

As widely reported, federal spending for the current fiscal year (i.e., the year ending September 30, 2011, or FY 2011), has not been finalized by Congress and Pres. Obama. The current "continuing resolution" is keeping the federal government in business through Dec. 18, 2010.

The House has passed a massive, government-wide continuing spending bill that would sustain federal programs and activities through the remainder of the fiscal year. Under this legislation, most federal programs would be sustained at their FY 2010 funding levels, with some adjustments here and there. The House bill appears to be devoid of specific project earmarks.

For a number of reasons, this bill is believed to face an uncertain fate in the Senate. Until something predictable starts to emerge in Senate deliberations, I'm loath to post or predict funding levels.

In the transportation arena, one of the critical components of the House spending bill is a one-year extension of the current SAFETEA-LU highway and transit legislation, continuing these authorizations through September 30, 2011.

Speaking of extended authorizations, another piece of legislation, the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, was just signed into law by Pres. Obama. While the headline features of this bill are guaranteeing settlements for Native Americans (over BIA-administered trust accounts) and African-American farmers (concerning improperly denied farm loans), a key feature of this legislation for public and community transportation stakeholders is an extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program authorizations through September 30, 2011.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

HHS Publishes FMAP rates for 2012

One of the most important numbers for state budgeting and other purposes is the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, or FMAP. At its core, this number represents the rate at which the federal government will reimburse states for medical services they provide through Medicaid, but FMAP rates also are used in a number of other federal programs, including the Children's Health Insurance Program, support to states for child support enforcement, some payments to states through the Child Care and Development Fund, and some assistance to states for foster care and related programs.

Because these programs, especially Medicaid, represent huge portions of states' budgets, FMAP-based reimbursements loom large in state budgeting. As a result, state agencies and their partners are taking note of a notice published today (November 10) by the US Dept of Health and Human Services, establishing the FMAP rates that will be in effect from October 1, 2011, through September 30, 2012. FMAP rates are calculated every year. Current and historical rates are posted on-line by the HHS Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE). The rates for FY 2012 appear in the November 10, 2010, Federal Register, but soon will make their way to the ASPE web site.

For transportation providers, FMAP rates may be behind-the-scenes, but are significant. States spend close to $3 billion a year on non-emergency transportation through their Medicaid programs, much of which is provided by public and community transportation services. Since the overwhelming majority of states claim these transportation expenses as a "medical" expense, reimbursed by the federal government at the FMAP rate, any change in those percentages will affect the bottom line of states' Medicaid budgets, and can influence the ways in which states procure and pay for their Medicaid non-emergency transportation.

If you are unfamiliar with FMAP rates, here's a bit of background. They are calculated annually using a formula based on each state's average per capita income. The lower a state's per capita income, the higher its FMAP. By law, no state FMAP can be lower than 50 percent, nor higher than 83 percent (14 states have FMAPs of 50 percent; Mississippi's FMAP is the highest, at 74.73 percent in FY 2011 (going down to 74.18 percent in FY 2012). The District of Columbia's FMAP is set at 70 percent; the FMAP in territories and possessions is fixed at 50 percent. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, there was a temporary increase of at least 6.2 percentage points in every state's FMAP, which has steered nearly $92 billion of additional federal investments into state Medicaid coffers.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Heed This! FTA Posts Annual Certifications & Assurance Notice for FY 2011

If you plan on receiving funding from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) this fiscal year, please take note of their latest "Certifications and Assurances" notice, which was published in the November 2, 2010, Federal Register, and which is available on the FTA website. The fine print may seem eye-numbing, but there is comfort in knowing that there were only modest, updating, changes this year, and there is even greater comfort in knowing that you're agreeing to uphold applicable federal requirements in the receipt and use of your FTA funds. All FTA grantees must agree to these. If you have questions, contact your FTA regional office.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

National Transit Database - What's Going to Count?

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) uses its National Transit Database (NTD) for a number of purposes. Most significantly, NTD data are used to determine how funds are distributed under the FTA Section 5307 (formula grants for urban public transit) and fixed-guideway modernization programs. Since these two programs account for 55 percent of the FTA program, it's important to the transit community and to FTA that NTD data be reliable and consistent.

In recent years, the urban transit network has branched out in many innovative ways. More urban transit services are provided to specialized audiences, such as customers of human services programs. Urban transit providers are using new modes of service delivery, such as "flex route" or "route deviation" services, bus rapid transit, and vanpools to better serve various customers and communities. With commuting distances growing longer every year, many urban transit providers are extending services into surrounding rural areas, or even providing transit services that connect multiple urbanized areas. In order to assure that these urban transit systems are able to receive the FTA formula funds they need for these services, accurate NTD data are essential.

To that end, FTA is seeking comments on some amendments it hopes to make to the NTD reporting procedures that will be used in the 2011 reporting year. This solicitation of comments appears in the October 5, 2010, Federal Register at page 61553, and also appears on the FTA website. Comments are being collected through December 6, 2010.

Some of the NTD reporting topics for which FTA is seeking customer input are: (1) circumstances and criteria for reporting vanpool data to the NTD; (2) reporting for commuter bus, bus rapid transit, and various forms of rail transit modes; (3) clarifying some definitions of certain aerial tramway and rail-related reporting terms; (4) consistent reporting procedures for transit agencies with 9 or fewer vehicles, including those that operate in both urbanized and rural areas; (5) simplified financial balance sheet reporting; (6) rules of attribution for transit agencies operating in more than one urbanized area, or that operate in both urbanized and rural areas; and (7) procedures for responding to any changes in urbanized area status that may occur during the 2011 NTD reporting year.

Official comments on this FTA notice should be made electronically through (use docket number FTA-2010-0027]. For further information on the NTD and this particular FTA notice, contact FTA's John Giorgis by phone (202-366-5340) or email (

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Access Board Announces Field Hearings on proposed new vehicle guidelines

In July, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board ("Access Board") announced its proposed new vehicle accessibility guidelines for transit vehicles.

A bit of information on that proposal appeared in a previous "NRC Capitol Clips" posting.

If you're interested in speaking out with regard to the Access Board's proposal, take note of two recently announced field hearings. One is in Chicago on September 30, the other is in Washington DC on November 8. Since the notice is fairly brief, the entire announcement (taken from the September 8, 2010, Federal Register) is below....

SUMMARY: The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance
Board (Access Board) will hold two public hearings on a proposed
rule to revise and update its accessibility guidelines for buses,
over-the-road buses, and vans.
DATES: The first public hearing will be held in Chicago, IL on Thursday,
September 30, 2010 from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. (CST). The second public
hearing will be in Washington, DC on Monday, November 8, 2010 from
9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. (EST). To pre-register to testify, please contact
Kathy Johnson at (202) 272-0041 or
ADDRESSES: The first public hearing will be held at the Courtyard Marriott
Magnificent Mile, 165 East Ontario Street, Ontario Rooms B and C, Chicago,
IL 60611. The second public hearing will be held at the Access Board
Conference Room, 1331 F Street, NW., Suite 800, Washington, DC 20004.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Jim Pecht, Architectural and Transportation
Barriers Compliance Board, 1331 F Street, NW., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20004.
Telephone (202) 272-0021. E-mail
SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: On July 26, 2010, the Access Board published a
notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) in the Federal Register to revise and
update its accessibility guidelines for buses, over-the-road buses, and vans.
75 FR 43748 (July 26, 2010). The comment period on the proposed rule ends on
November 23, 2010. The Access Board will hold two public hearings on the
proposed rule during the comment period. The dates and locations of the
public hearings are provided in this notice. The public hearing locations
are accessible to individuals with disabilities. Sign language interpreters
and real-time captioning will be provided at the public hearings. For the
comfort of other participants, persons attending the public hearings are
requested to refrain from using perfume, cologne, and other fragrances.
To pre-register to testify, please contact Kathy Johnson at (202) 272-0041

Friday, August 6, 2010

Senate passes bill to continue Medicaid relief

Federal spending on Medicaid will continue at the higher rates established under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, or the "stimulus bill"), under legislation passed by the Senate on August 5, which the House is expected to endorse on August 10.

This temporary increase in the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP), which is the rate at which the federal government reimburses states for their medical expenses under Medicaid, has been slated to expire December 31, 2010. However, the budgets in almost every state are such that they simply cannot absorb Medicaid expenses at the lower, pre-ARRA, reimbursement rates. The Senate's legislation extends that FMAP increase for 6 months, to June 30, 2011.

Inasmuch as 37 states and the District of Columbia all provide non-emergency medical transportation service to their Medicaid enrollees as a medical expense, reimbursed at the FMAP rate, this legislation will be likely to have a major positive effect on the continued transportation access to health care services for Medicaid enrollees.

Three side issues are of note with regard to this legislation: (1) ARRA also created a program of supplemental "emergency" funding for states' Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs, which continues to be slated for expiration this year; (2) ARRA increased the allowable dollar amount of employees' tax-free transit benefits to $230 per month, but that increase is slated to expire on December 31, 2010; and (3) social media fans have noted that the first announcement calling the House back into session for its August 10 vote on this bill came as a "tweet" from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which is the first time that Twitter was used to conduct official business of the House of Representatives.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On ADA's 20th Anniversary, New Guidelines Proposed for Transit Accessibility

On July 26, 2010 - the 20th anniversary of the signing into law of the Americans with Disabilities Act - the US Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board ("Access Board") published proposed guidelines that - if implemented - would make sweeping changes to the specifications for accessible transit vehicles in the US.

These are proposed guidelines. Nothing is final. Comments are being collected by the Access Board through November 23, 2010.

Transit professionals, disability community advocates, and manufacturers of transit vehicles and accessibility features are aware that these proposed guidelines are the latest iteration in a series of proposals the Access Board circulated in spring of 2007 and autumn of 2008. Based on comments received on those proposals, the Access Board has refined its draft guidelines in this latest publication; evidence suggest that these guidelines are close to what is intended as a final rule. If so, look to such a document being published in the spring or early summer of 2011.

The current proposal, along with a wealth of background information, is found at the Access Board's website,, or can be retrieved as a 43-page PDF from the Federal Register (July 26, 2010, Federal Register, page 43747 et seq.). In this proposal, the Access Board has 21 leading questions to which they specifically are requesting informed comments, but they are welcoming public comment on all aspects of the rule.

Technical experts and concerned stakeholders should comb this proposal closely, and prepare their comments for submission.

There seem to be a few truly significant aspects to the proposal, including all-new dimensions and rules of definition concerning wheelchair securement positions on transit vehicles, all-new language to define the accessibility of ramps for low-floor transit vehicles, new requirements for automated stop announcements on many buses (specifically, all buses of 22 feet or more in length that are used by transit agencies with 100 or more buses in service for fixed-route transit), and new guidelines concerning accessibility of bus rapid transit (BRT) services.

Although little about this proposal addresses wheelchair lifts (perhaps that's a sign of evolving technologies in accessible public transit?), it's interesting to note that the earlier idea of increasing the maximum weight to 660 lbs has been dropped, and these accessibility guidelines continue to speak to the requirement of a maximum of 600 lbs that lifts and other accessibility features must be designed to accommodate.

Finally, it's good to recall that any guidelines, once finalized, would affect only future acquisitions of transit vehicles (including buses, over-the-road coaches, and vans that are used for public transit). Just as was the case when the current guidelines were issued in 1991, nothing about these rules would require any retrofitting of any transit vehicles in current use.

If you have concerns or expertise, it is vital that you submit comments on this proposal. Repeatedly, the Access Board's proposal notes items in which they have received contradictory or incomplete information from the field to inform their final guidelines, so they may really need to hear from you this time around.

Monday, July 26, 2010

House to Act Soon on Transportation Spending

Later this week (probably on Wednesday July 28 or Thursday July 29), the House is expected to vote on its version of FY 2011 Transportation-HUD appropriations.

As reported in a prior "Capitol Clips," the House spending bill would increase Federal Transit Administration (FTA) spending by 5 percent over current levels. Almost every dime of the transit increases proposed in the House legislation would go to increases in the FTA formula grant programs. It would appear the House is all but disregarding the Administration's request for funding its livable communities initiative (some funds are identified in the Secretary of Transportation's office budget for this), and is also disregarding the Administration's request for a multi-billion dollar infusion of funds into a national infrastructure bank.

It's harder to tell when the Senate will act on its version of Transportation-HUD appropriations. The Senate's version of this bill was approved by its Appropriations Committee on July 22, but the timing of Senate floor action is hard to predict. Its spending bill would not increase FTA programs by any significant amount. Although the Senate does not go along with the Administration's request for transportation funding of the livable communities program, it would call upon FTA and the Federal Highway Administration to jointly allocate $200 million of their planning capacity building funds to support planning efforts that better links transportation and housing.

In case you're looking to follow these bills more closely, it's good to note the bill numbers currently assigned to House and Senate bills: HR 5850 and S 3644, respectively.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Spending Bills Take One Step Forward in House

In the current Congressional climate, it's not really clear how next year's federal spending bills will be handled (okay, so most of the pundits, lobbyists, and other observers of the annual appropriations process are predicting that everything will be bundled into one or more catch-all, or "omnibus" appropriations bills after the November elections). Nevertheless, several subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee did their part this week, right before Congress took off for the Independence Day recess.

This week's "markups" in these panels included FY 2011 appropriations for (i) Agriculture, (ii) Legislative Branch, (iii) State and Foreign Operations, (iv) Commerce, Justice and Science, and (v) Transportation and HUD.

Much can change between now and final enactment of the FY 2011 appropriations, especially in the absence of a SAFETEA-LU transportation reauthorization. However, the House "T-HUD" appropriations draft at least gives an indication of how transit and related programs may fare next year.

Overall, the House panel calls for a 5.4 percent increase in transit spending over this year's levels. That's an interesting figure, given President Obama's call for a "freeze" in domestic discretionary spending.

Here's how the House draft bill addresses aspects of the federal transportation program....

Within the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) programs, the draft House bill would increase formula grant programs (known to most FTA grantees by their authorizing statutes as Sections 5307, 5310, 5311, 5316 [JARC] and 5317 [New Freedom]), together with funds for fixed guideway modernization and buses and bus facilities by 7.4 percent, to a total of nearly $9.0 billion. FTA's administrative and staff budget would increase $32 million over this year's amount; the Washington (DC) Metrorail system would receive another infusion of $150.0 million and FTA major capital funding for "new starts and small starts" (all of which are rail and fixed guideway projects) would remain at this year's level of $2.0 billion.

The House bill would provide $20 million to the Secretary of Transportation's office for "Livable Communities" investments. The Secretary's office would receive $400 million for more rounds of "TIGER" grants.

Within the rail program, the House bill would provide $1.4 billion for high-speed rail projects, and would provide nearly $1.8 billion to Amtrak for operating, capital and debt service expenses.

It's far to early in the process for anyone to be taking these figures to the bank, but if you want to read more, be sure to visit the House Appropriations Committee's website.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ten More Days to Prepare those TIGER II Pre-Applications

Quick update: If you're interested in applying for the Dept of Transportation's "TIGER II" discretionary grants, you may be relieved to know that the deadline for submitting this program's required "pre-applications" has been extended, to July 26, 2010. The deadline for final applications remains August 23, 2010.

This competition is one of the recent flurry of grants and notices related to the DOT-HUD-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities and their commitment to promote livable communities. We recently summarized this effort both here and in the NRC's Express Stop blog. Details on the TIGER II program, including notices, FAQs, and more, can be found on the DOT's website at

Friday, June 25, 2010

"Livability Money" soon to hit the streets?

All of a sudden, the offices at Dept of Transportation (DOT), Dept of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - the three members of the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities - have started announcing funding opportunities and other initiatives in support of the federal agenda to support more livable communities.

If you'd like to read some details that seek to decode this latest flurry of activity, check out The Express Stop blog of my NRC staff colleague, Sheryl Gross-Glaser. She's got the answers. And if you're looking for money, act fast! There's a 30-day window for getting mandatory pre-applications submitted, and the clock is ticking. Interested applicants might want to dial in to a June 30 webinar on the topic hosted by our colleagues at PolicyLink.

As if the funds aren't exciting enough, the Federal Highway Administration and HUD just announced contracting flexibility (determined on case-by-case bases) to improve jointly-financed projects, effective right away, all in support of the federal government's livability principles, which are turning out to be a critical set of guideposts for all sorts of federal decision-making these days.

Looking for more information on this livability stuff? Check out the Livability Bookshelf on our National Resource Center website.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On TANF & Transportation

A product of the 1996 "welfare reform," the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program has been around for more than a decade. Transportation plays a key role in this program's success, and TANF is an important financial partner in public transportation, too. Given the current state of states' budgets, and the current state of the national economy, with persistent high rates of unemployment, it's important to give TANF a fresh look.

First a bit of the basics. TANF has an annual appropriation of $16.5 billion, not including a significant expansion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). In the federal budget, TANF is mandatory spending, similar to Medicaid, Medicare, Food Stamps, and other so-called "entitlement" programs. The federal agency administering TANF is the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) within the Dept of Health and Human Services. According to ACF data, states currently are spending $400 million a year in their federal TANF funds on transportation, which they match with $44 million in state “maintenance-of-effort” funds for transportation services. ARRA created a one-time "TANF Emergency Fund" of $5 billion, which expires September 30, 2010.

When the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act eliminated the previous Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and replaced it with TANF, responsibility for establishing program rules, services and details were left largely in the hands of states. States receive TANF as a block grant, with allocations based primarily on their 1994 levels of AFDC spending. These amounts don't change, even when states' economies plummet and unemployment (and thus the degree of TANF demand) rises.

States often call their TANF programs by unique, state-specific, names, and set most of their own procedures for how TANF-related services are provided. States are not required to spend any of their TANF funds on transportation. But almost every state does, in some way or another, because the lack of transportation continues to be documented as one of the leading barriers to employment participation, especially among otherwise-unemployed single mothers (not surprisingly, the lack of child care continues to be the other leading barrier to employment participation among this segment of the "at-risk" population). States can provide transportation as part of the direct "assistance" they provide to TANF recipients (typically using vouchers, transit passes or related strategies), in which case TANF funds tend to follow the individual, are tracked closely for eligibility, and have to comply with the time limits and other person-specific requirements of TANF. This practice is especially prevalent at times like our current economy, when TANF-eligible populations are more numerous and demands on TANF resources are peaking. States also have the opportunity to provide TANF-related transportation as "non-assistance," meaning that they are helping to finance transportation networks that serve the needs of the TANF-eligible population, but not in ways that are directly delivered as benefits to individuals. For example, in the late 1990s, many states were using their TANF funds to match Federal Transit Administration "Job Access and Reverse Commute" grants to provide systems of transportation services addressing all low-income populations, not just the populations receiving direct TANF assistance.

The FTA/DOL Joblinks Employment Transportation Initiative, operated by the Community Transportation Association of America, has focused a lot of energy on TANF and created a host of TANF-related documents over its 12 years (and counting) of operation. This post is not meant to recap or replace that wealth of literature, but simply aims to point out a few reminders about TANF and transit programs.

The first reminder, as stated above, is that states have an abundance of flexibility and autonomy to create TANF-funded services in ways that suit their circumstances.

Second, TANF is one of the very few non-DOT grant programs for which federal agencies created guidance directing the relationship between TANF and FTA grants. Although it predates the current SAFETEA-LU authorization, there is a joint guidance document, officially issued by the Federal Transit Administration, the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), and the Administration for Children and Families, that explains, from each of these agencies' perspectives, how their funds - JARC, TANF, and the old Welfare-to-Work grants - can be used together. At the headquarters level, the staff of FTA, ETA and ACF all have said this guidance remains in force. It can be found on the FTA website at

Third, SAFETEA-LU makes statutory references to TANF in its authorization for ALL of the Federal Transit Administration's formula grant programs:

Urban transit....
49 USC 5307(e)(4):
"Use of certain funds. - The prohibitions on the use of funds
for matching requirements under section 403(a)(5)(C)(vii) of
the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 603(a)(5)(C)(vii)) shall
not apply to the remainder [ie, the non-FTA share of project costs]"

Elderly/Disabilities transit....
49 USC 5310(c)(3):
"Use of certain funds. - For purposes of paragraph (2)(B)
[defining the non-FTA share of project costs], the prohibitions
on the use of funds for matching requirements under section
403(a)(5)(C)(vii) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C.
603(a)(5)(C)(vii)) shall not apply to Federal or State
funds to be used for transportation purposes."

Rural transit....
49 USC 5311(g)(4):
"Use of certain funds. - For purposes of paragraph (3)(B)
[defining the non-FTA share of project costs], the prohibitions
on the use of funds for matching requirements under section
403(a)(5)(C)(vii) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C.
603(a)(5)(C)(vii)) shall not apply to Federal or State
funds to be used for transportation purposes."

Job Access and Reverse Commute.....
49 USC 5316(h)(4):
"Use of certain funds. - For purposes of paragraph (3)(B)
[defining the non-FTA share of project costs], the prohibitions
on the use of funds for matching requirements under section
403(a)(5)(C)(vii) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C.
603(a)(5)(C)(vii)) shall not apply to Federal or State
funds to be used for transportation purposes."

New Freedom....
49 USC 5317(g)(4):
"Use of certain funds. - For purposes of paragraph (3)(B)
[defining the non-FTA share of project costs], the prohibitions
on the use of funds for matching requirements under section
403(a)(5)(C)(vii) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C.
603(a)(5)(C)(vii)) shall not apply to Federal or State
funds to be used for transportation purposes."

The above language was inserted in each of those portions of authorizing legislation specifically because Congress did not want there to be an impediment in the use of TANF funds (which is the reference to Section 403 of the Social Security Act) with regard to coordination with FTA funds. This is notable, in that it is the only statutory requirement of "coordination" that imposes a requirement on non-DOT programs; the language specifically addresses TANF as a partner in all FTA grants.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Public Health & Transportation: There's a Connection

[Third in my occasional series of postings about how health reform legislation is changing the landscape for coordinated public and human services transportation.]

Title IV of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) addresses public health and disease prevention. Although the legislation's expansion of Medicaid will have a larger dollar impact on transit services, this is the one section of the "health reform" legislation that specifies a role for the U.S. Dept. of Transportation in helping the federal government create a healthier America.

The Secretary of Transportation already has gone on record as a champion of his department’s role in helping promote healthier communities. He has said so in many speeches, in his “FastLane” blog (take particular note of his posts on May 11, April 20 and April 6, 2010) and in other venues. He is a champion of this cause, but he is not alone in seeing that transportation investments and partnerships can do much to help achieve healthy outcomes in terms of physical fitness, obesity prevention, access to preventive health services, health improvements resulting from better access to fresh and nutritious food, and decreased incidence of chronic health conditions as a result of transportation-related environmental improvements in our air, soil and water.

Drawing on decades of research results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other agencies, Title IV of PPACA addresses strategies to create healthier communities and improve public health outcomes.

The Secretary of Transportation is named to a 12-member council, chaired by the Surgeon General, that is to provide coordination and leadership to support prevention, wellness and health promotion and to help create and support the infrastructure that results in a healthier America. On June 10, 2010, Pres. Obama signed an executive order that officially brought this National Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health Council into existence.

This council is charged with creating a National Prevention and Health Promotion Strategy, along with other reports and recommendations for improving the overall health status of Americans and their public health.

Prevention & Health: Putting Money on the Table

Reports and strategies, such as those to be pursued by this council, are important, but policy and federal investment are at least as important. Under PPACA, there is a $15 billion program of mandatory spending to provide a national investment in prevention, wellness and health promotion.

This prevention and wellness program is expected to build on a $640 million “Communities Putting Prevention to Work” program established under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, or the "stimulus bill"). In that program, numerous projects have been launched by states and community-based organizations in efforts to increase physical activity, improve nutrition, decrease rates of childhood and adult obesity, and decrease smoking prevalence. As one illustration of this, the “active living” program established at Section 4201 of PPACA repeatedly cites “infrastructure improvements” as eligible uses of its appropriated funds, and the statute clearly includes transportation among that infrastructure.

Studies published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and others have shown that investments in public transportation correlate with positive health outcomes, and directly relate to this program’s goals of increased physical activity, reduced obesity, and improved access to nutrition. Under the ARRA program, administered by CDC, numerous projects that support active living and community design have been launched, including the inclusion of health outcomes in the transportation planning processes undertaken statewide in North Carolina and Rhode Island, to name but two examples.

This facet of emphasis on wellness and community health promotion is new under PPACA. It is an opportunity for the Department of Transportation to work with its partners to show that transportation activities, ranging from support of bicycle and pedestrian projects, to the support of enhanced public transit services, to the multidisciplinary planning and delivery of services envisioned under the DOT-HUD-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities, all play central roles in promoting and supporting a healthy America.

The Dept. of Transportation has acknowledged its role in this dimension of PPACA and health outcomes in its draft Strategic Plan. While many of the programmatic results from that plan are awaiting legislative authorizations, the DOT and its partners in the Coordinating Council on Access and Mobility (most of whom also are members of the newly established National Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health Council) should begin discussing and coordinating likely federal strategies that promote transportation’s role in disease prevention and health promotion. This opportunity must not be wasted as a channel through which DOT, its federal partners and its non-governmental partners are able to promote outreach efforts, community partnerships, federally funded innovation, and other steps that produce demonstrable improvements in public health and nutrition access and outcomes.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Same Goal, Different Approaches?

For starters, writing about introduced legislation is a dubious prospect, since the vast majority of bills that are introduced in Congress go absolutely nowhere. However, the Washington Post had an article in its June 11 edition about transit operating assistance, which is too important an issue not to discuss.

As the Community Transportation Association, the Amalgamated Transit Union, Transportation for America, and others have repeatedly observed, public transit systems across the country are suffering for a lack of operating revenues, since all their traditional sources of non-federal funds - state/local fuel taxes, local property taxes, state income taxes, state/local sales taxes - are at very low levels, with no real signs of recovery on the near horizon.

Through rallies and other actions, members of Congress have become aware of the transit pain that so many communities are experiencing. Two divergent legislative paths have emerged:

Congressman Russ Carnahan
(D-Mo.) introduced a bill, H.R. 2746, which would allow Section 5307 federal transit grants to urbanized areas with more than 200,000 population be able to use some of these funds to help cover their operating costs (under current law, these "large-urban" areas' Section 5307 funds can only be used for capital assistance, with a few narrow exceptions). To date, this legislation has picked up 131 co-sponsors in the House; at a time when almost everything in the House of Representatives splits along party lines, it should be noted that there are 7 Republican co-sponsors of Rep. Carnahan's bill. In the Senate, very similar legislation (S. 3189) was introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

The other legislative strategy is found in legislation introduced last month in the Senate (S. 3412) by Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and in the House (H.R. 5418) by Mike McMahon (D-N.Y.). The Dodd-McMahon legislation would authorize a one-time supplemental appropriation of $2.0 billion, which would be distributed using existing formulas to all Section 5307 and Section 5311 grantees.

The problem these bills would address is very real, and very current, as the reports on transit service cuts and fare increases continue to stream in, and as cities' transit agencies continue to struggle with balancing their budgets in the current economy. So far, no hearings or other Congressional action on either the Carnahan-Brown or Dodd-McMahon bills has taken place or been scheduled, nor does any substantive action appear to be likely in the near future. Nonetheless, transit interests from New York to Los Angeles, to everyplace in between, have been joining DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff in saying that something needs to be done to help transit in urban America.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

FMAP - the most important four letters in Medicaid

[This is second in my occasional series of postings about how health reform legislation is changing the landscape for coordinated public and human services transportation.]

In the Medicaid realm, arguably the most important concept is the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, or FMAP. This number represents the portion of eligible costs that the federal government will reimburse to states under Medicaid for the medical services they provide. Every state gets a unique FMAP, recalculated annually, that is based on each state's per capita income relative to the nation's average per capita income. In essence, the lower a state's per capita income, the higher its FMAP. Under Medicaid law, no state can have an FMAP below 50 percent, nor higher than 83 percent. However, states' FMAP rates all were boosted by approximately 6 to 9 percentage points (the amounts varied by formula and other factors) as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). There also is an "enhanced FMAP" rate calculated for each state under an administrative formula; this rate primarily is used to determine federal payments to states for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

The fact that every state has a different FMAP, and that every state's FMAP is subject to change every year, can be one of the challenging factors when trying to link states' Medicaid activities with public transportation or other Medicaid-related services. Under the just-enacted health reforms, different aspects of Medicaid-covered services and programs can have different FMAP rates, which could become an even greater challenge, although the generally increased federal funding should make these partnerships and programs possible.

The Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) within the US Dept of Health and Human Services determines FMAP rates each year, which are published in the Federal Register, posted on the ASPE website, and are available in other places, as well.

For states, FMAP rates are huge concern. As the National Association of State Budget Officers, National Governors Association, and National Conference of State Legislatures report every year, Medicaid is one of the top three expense items in every state's budget (the other two are corrections and education). Of these, Medicaid is unique in that the federal government establishes the eligible population to be served and the scope of medical assistance to be provided to this population, and then leaves it up to each state to cover as much as 50 percent of costs, regardless of the state's ability to generate the needed funds.

Therefore, when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, or "health reform") became law, numerous FMAP provisions were made as an effort to soften the blow to states' budgets. Two of these instances have a direct bearing on transportation:

  1. The mandatory expansion of Medicaid to all persons at or below 133 percent of poverty is financed at an FMAP of 100 percent in 2014 (when that requirement takes effect), scaling down to 90 percent federal share by 2020.
  2. Elsewhere in PPACA, every state can use specified higher FMAP rates when providing certain home- and community-based long-term care services for persons with disabilities.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On Extenders and Expirations

Public and community transit systems may have to get by with $500 million less in operating revenue next year.

The "tax extenders" bill (see the May 20 Capitol Clips posting for relevant details) continues to be a moving target for a number of tax and spending issues affecting public and community transportation. As passed by the House on the eve of its Memorial Day recess, the latest version of this bill no longer contains the continuation of increased federal Medicaid spending that was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, or the "stimulus bill"). The bill's COBRA extension also was removed before the final vote, but most other provisions - including the TANF emergency fund extension - remained in place.

So, at this point in time - unless some action takes place otherwise - two key elements for transportation under ARRA are expiring on December 31, 2010:

1. Federal spending under Medicaid, increased to every state under ARRA, will revert to pre-ARRA Medicaid matching rates. This represents a loss of $24 billion in otherwise-anticipated Medicaid funding to states, just at a time when they are trying to ramp up for Medicaid expansion under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, or the "health reform bill")

2. The amount of income that employees can use, tax-free, for transit and vanpools is scheduled to drop from $230 a month to somewhere in the vicinity of $120 per month. Under ARRA, the tax-free transit benefit has been boosted to parity with the amount allowed as a tax-free parking benefit, but that ARRA provision expires December 31, 2010, and there has not yet been any legislation introduced that would continue this level. At the ARRA levels, $560 million a year is being pumped into public transit systems' coffers as a result of this tax-free benefit; Internal Revenue Service and Congressional estimates all indicate that transit receipts through this benefit are likely to fall by more than half next year, unless there is a change in statute.

Given historical data on Medicaid spending through public transit, these two items alone suggest that the nation's public and community transit services are being slated for a revenue loss of more than $500 million in calendar year 2011.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Tax Extenders" Bill has stuff for transit, human services, too

House and Senate leaders have been preparing a must-pass bill to extend various expiring tax provisions. They're hoping to get this "extenders" bill passed by both chambers of Congress and onto Pres. Obama's desk in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

As drafted, this legislation will have provisions affecting a fair number of public and community transportation providers, including:

  • A six-month extension of the temporary Medicaid "FMAP" increases (i.e., the percentage of medical assistance that the federal government will reimburse to states' Medicaid programs) that were put into place in last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (this is estimated to channel another $24 billion of federal funds into Medicaid);
  • A one-year extension of the "emergency contingency fund" created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) as an add-on to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program , which will direct an additional $2.5 billion to states' TANF activities;
  • A one-year renewal of the special summer youth employment program created under ARRA, which will provide $1.0 billion to local workforce investment boards as a supplement to all their other youth employment activities this summer;
  • One-year extensions of New Markets Tax Credits, Empowerment Zones, and Renewal Communities, which are tax-favored opportunities to support reinvestment and revitalization of economically distressed communities (collectively, these extensions are estimated to provide for $1.4 billion in tax-favored community revitalization);
  • An additional allocation of $25 in lending authority for Recovery Zone Bonds, which were created under ARRA as a mechanism to provide quick, financially secure investments in local infrastructure projects; and
  • A two-year extension (and some tweaking) of the ARRA-created Build America Bonds program for financing infrastructure projects carried out by state and local governments, which should leverage an additional $97 billion between now and 2012.

These are not the extenders bill's highest profile features, although the Medicaid FMAP increase is its second-highest expense (top of the chart is the bill's proposed extension of federal unemployment benefits eligibility).

As drafted, the extenders bill does not address the treatment of transit benefits under Internal Revenue Code Section 132(f). Under ARRA, up to $230 per month of individuals' employer-provided fringe benefits for transit passes, vanpools, etc., are tax-free. This has pumped more than $1.1 billion into public transit since the enactment of ARRA. Unless Congress changes the tax code, the allowed value of tax-free transit drops to the pre-ARRA level of $115 per month on January 1, 2011, which will cut this revenue stream for transit in half. It's possible that advocates for this transit and vanpool benefit are carrying out other strategies in advance of the year's end dropoff.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Medicaid Expansion Under PPACA

[This is the first in an occasional series of postings about how health reform legislation is changing the landscape for coordinated public and human services transportation.]

President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) into law on March 23, 2010. With some further amendments as a result of the Health Care and Higher Education Reconciliation Act, which Pres. Obama signed into law on March 30, 2010, this is the legislation that the country has been calling "Health Care Reform."

Many aspects of PPACA affect the provision of transportation, but here's the most significant:

Section 2001 of PPACA establishes a new category of Medicaid eligibility. All persons with income at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty line who are not otherwise eligible for Medicaid or Medicare are entitled to participation in Medicaid. This will be a major shift for those states in which Medicaid coverage currently is provided only to persons with much lower income thresholds, in some cases as low as 17 or 24 percent of poverty. States are required to serve this expanded population on January 1, 2014, although they were allowed to begin serving this population as early as April 1, 2010. In fact, Connecticut and the District of Columbia already have made these changes, having moved thousands of their residents off non-federal coverage into their Medicaid programs.

People who fit this category of Medicaid eligibility (i.e., incomes up to 133 percent of poverty and not otherwise eligible for Medicaid or Medicare) are to be enrolled in “benchmark” or “benchmark equivalent” programs administered by state Medicaid agencies. “Benchmark” plans were first authorized by the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA), and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS) issued implementing regulations on April 30, 2010.

Two facts bear noting: one is that PPACA requires enrollment in benchmark plans, regardless of whether a state’s Medicaid agency was planning to provide benchmark-style coverage to any segments of its Medicaid population, and the second fact is that CMS regulations specifically require the provision of non-emergency transportation to all Medicaid enrollees, regardless of whether they are enrolled in a benchmark-style program of health coverage.

Estimates are that this expansion will add 20 million or more people to the country’s Medicaid rolls, in addition to the 40 million individuals currently enrolled in Medicaid programs. States have been concerned about the costs they would have to bear under this expansion. In response, PPACA establishes a special Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) rate for this category of Medicaid coverage. In calendar years 2014 through 2016, the FMAP for this population is 100 percent; it scales downward in 2017 through 2019, and from January 1, 2020, onward, the FMAP for this category of Medicaid eligibility is 90 percent. In contrast, for enrollees traditionally enrolled in Medicaid, the FMAP varies by state, ranging from as low as 50 percent to no more than 83 percent (although all states had their FMAP increased temporarily under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).

At some point, CMS will be issuing regulations or other guidelines for this Medicaid expansion. However, since it does not become a requirement for states until 2014, they are likely to wait a bit, as there are numerous other Medicaid deadlines within PPACA that are much more urgent. For a fairly complete listing of PPACA implementation deadlines and other implementation milestones in the law, visit the Kaiser Family Foundation website.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Transit Money for Indian Country

Every so often, I tell friends or family that one of the things we do is provide technical assistance that promotes better transit for people on Indian reservations and in tribal communities across the country. This fascinates them, and then they realize that yes, indeed, there are a lot of critical mobility needs among our country's first inhabitants.

Under the current SAFETEA-LU legislation, there is a small program of competitive grants to help tribes (by which the federal government also includes Alaska Native villages, and other groups, governments and communities officially recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA]) plan, capitalize and operate public transit programs to serve their residents. It's one of the most competitive programs within the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) budget.

Having said that, this is the announcement that tribal grant application writers had better fire up their computers right now, because FTA published an announcement on May 13 that this year's funding is now available for application.

The program is the Section 5311(c) Tribal Transit Program. Only BIA-recognized entities are eligible applicants. The federal share is 100 percent of project costs. There is a total of $15.1 million available for grants. Applications are due June 28, 2010. Because Section 5311(c) is a subset of the FTA program of transit grants for rural areas, BIA-recognized entities within urbanized areas (e.g., some tribal communities within certain portions of Arizona, New Mexico, California and Washington) are not eligible to apply for these particular grants.

The Section 5311(c) program is not the only avenue for funding transit projects in Indian Country. Tribes and tribal entities are eligible subrecipients under all of FTA's formula grant programs, including Section 5311 rural transit grants and Section 5307 urban transit grants, although these grants require tribes to participate in state- or metropolitan transit programs in ways that don't always mesh with the U.S. Government's stated policy of "government-to-government" relations with tribal nations. In addition, funds allocated to tribes through the Indian Reservation Roads program are allowed to be spent on planning, capital purchases and even operations of tribal transit programs, if those are identified as priorities in tribal transportation planning documents.

More information, including a history of past funding awards for the Section 5311(c) program, can be found on the FTA web site.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Making the Year Complete

It may seem pro forma, but it's necessary. On May 13, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) published a notice apportioning the entirety of its FY 2010 funds. Because of the previous short-term extensions of SAFETEA-LU, FTA grantees had only partial access to these funds until now.

The notice, and other information concerning FTA's apportionments and allocations, can be found on the FTA web site.

Friday, April 30, 2010

New Federal Rule Addresses Medicaid Transportation

The federal-state Medicaid program continues to be the largest single purchaser of public transportation services in the country. When provisions of the health reform legislation begin to kick in, Medicaid is slated to become an even larger purchaser of public transit services. Meanwhile, you may recall that there has been some controversy in the past few years, as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency that oversees Medicaid, made efforts to implement some significant provisions under the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA).

So, it's important to take note of a notice published in the April 30, 2010, Federal Register, in which CMS announces its final rules concerning "State Flexibility for Medicaid Benefits Packages." This rule implements a language in the DRA that gives states the option to establish Medicaid services that are "benchmarked" to other forms of insurance, such as the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, state employees' health coverage, etc.

State Medicaid agencies will be reading this rule in detail from beginning to end. For transportation providers, the most important thing is the new regulation at 42 CFR Section 440.390, which reads "If a benchmark or benchmark-equivalent plan does not include transportation to and from medically necessary covered Medicaid services, the State must nevertheless assure that emergency and non-emergency transportation is covered for beneficiaries enrolled in the benchmark or benchmark-equivalent plan, as required under Section 431.53 of this chapter."

In other words, states continue to be responsible, by CMS regulation, for assuring non-emergency medical transportation for all their Medicaid beneficiaries, regardless of whether those people are in a benchmark plan or are served by "traditional" Medicaid.

This rule concerning "benchmark" plans in Medicaid takes effect July 1, 2010. States' requirement to assure non-emergency medical transportation is nothing new; that has been in place for many years, first as a result of federal court cases, and then as a matter of CMS regulation.

Now that medical transportation providers may be feeling some level of justified comfort that their services are not going to be ended (that was a very real fear in response to CMS' initial proposals on this rule), there are some points of this latest rulemaking that bear careful consideration.

1. "Benchmark" plans are an option that is available to states. There is no requirement that states adopt this optional approach to elements of their Medicaid programs. However, CMS estimates that 90 percent of states will have some form of benchmark programs in place within a year or two. Given the nature and scope of the newest federal health legislation, that number is probably too low, and it's much more likely that nearly every state will have some form of benchmark-like coverage in their Medicaid programs in the near future. Therefore, anyone who's trying to set up systems for the future implementation of Medicaid should read more of today's rule, and see how CMS is beginning to instruct states in their relations with insurance companies, managed care organizations, and other intermediaries.

2. The rule on benchmark plans has some reminders that CMS has an option by which states can provide Medicaid transportation through a brokered program (defined by regulation at 42 CFR Section 440.170(a)(4), in which case these transportation expenses can be covered as "medical services" (and thus reimbursed by CMS at the state's Federal Medical Assistance Percentage rate, instead of the fixed 50 percent reimbursement for Medicaid program administrative costs) even if certain requirements for medical services (such as patient freedom of choice) are not part of the "brokerage." As with the benchmark program, it is very important to remember that such Medicaid transportation brokerages are an option available to states; they are not required.

3. For the first time that I've ever noticed, the benchmark rule has a requirement for public participation in Medicaid planning. It's a narrow window, and simply requires states to solicit public comment if they are preparing a state Medicaid plan amendment in pursuit of creating a benchmark program. Maybe there's always been a requirement for public input; if so, it may be something to be more aggressively publicized.

4. In case people hadn't been following this trend, in both the previous and current presidential administrations, CMS is having options and features of Medicaid being addressed by states through Medicaid plan amendments, and not through waiver requests. Although Medicaid planning is nothing at all like transportation planning, the fact that more process-driven approaches are being dictated by the federal government may give more opportunities for meaningful involvement by stakeholders as states pursue their Medicaid strategies.

5. And for those people who follow federal interagency coordination policies, there is this verbiage, as it appears in the CMS rulemaking notice: "We do not believe that Executive Order 13330, which relates to the coordination of transportation among Federal agencies, is relevant to this rule."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

More Money for Transit Sustainability Projects

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is seeking applicants for its newest round of Transit Investments for Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction (TIGGER) and Clean Fuel grants. There's even a little bit of additional money available for applications for Section 5309 bus and bus facility grants that meet certain FTA priorities.

Clean Fuels (Section 5308) and Section 5309 applications are due June 14, 2010. FTA has combined some funding in these accounts for a total of $81.2 million in available funding.

TIGGER applications are due August 11, 2010. There's a total of $75 million available for these grants, with MINIMUM project costs of $1 million per project, and a maximum of $25 million per project.

In all these, applicants must speak directly to three federal priorities: (a) breaking dependence on oil, (b) producing more energy at home, and (c) promoting energy efficiency. FTA wants to see high-value, technologically innovative, projects funded under TIGGER, with more mundane (that's my word, not FTA's) projects to be funded under Clean Fuels/bus & bus facilities. These FTA funds can cover up to 90 percent of project costs under these grants.

The only eligible applicants are public transit agencies (defined as units of state or local govt that are engaged in providing public transit services) and state departments of transportation. Nonprofit transit entities are not eligible to apply (but could benefit from states' or others' applications); it would appear that public agencies not engaged in carrying out transit probably can't apply for these funds, either.

This information appears in the April 13, 2010, Federal Register. Additional information is on FTA web site, at

Friday, March 19, 2010

One Extension Done, Others Still in Play

Earlier this week, Pres. Obama signed HR 2847, the "HIRE Act," into law. This legislation extends SAFETEA-LU highway and transit authorizations through December 31, 2010, making sure that about $20 billion is made available to cover existing appropriations (and anticipated appropriations for the first quarter of FY 2011). It also continues the increased federal share of Medicaid costs that were first established under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Back payment to US DOT employees affected by last month's short-term furlough during the lapse in authorizations remain up in the air. The House has passed a couple of measures to address this question, but Senate action has not yet occurred. The House attached the latest such back pay provision to HR 4851, the "Continuing Extensions Act," which otherwise addresses lapsing unemployment, COBRA and other provisions.

Returning to the HIRE Act, there was a bit of a conniption over how to treat the FHWA accounts that had been used to fund some high-dollar highway projects under SAFETEA-LU. Basically, the question was whether these accounts still need extension, even after those Congressionally designated projects had been funded. But in the urgent need to do something, that extension occurred.... Now, Congress is trying to set things straight, having attached a bit of correcting language to another bill, HR 4853, the FAA Extension Act (yes, the federal aviation program also has expired and needs reauthorization), which it passed and sent on to the Senate this week.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Jobs" bills -- a playcard

Turn to just about any news media this month, and you'll see or hear something about job creation legislation being passed or debated in Congress. There are a number of bills in play, all of which have something or another to do with transportation and the programs that depend upon transportation. Here's the mid-March rundown:

HR 2847, Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act

This bill has experienced a long and convulsive path through the Capitol. In its current form, House and Senate are using it as one of their job creation measures. As far as providers or stakeholders of public transportation are concerned, the leading feature of this bill is that it calls for extending current SAFETEA-LU authorizations through December 31, 2010. An earlier House-passed version of this bill included additional money, on top of SAFETEA-LU, for transit, as well as supplemental grants for job training, and an extension of the increased federal share of Medicaid costs, but all those provisions - other than the SAFETEA-LU extension - seem to have been jettisoned by the bills passed by the Senate on February 24, and by the House on March 4. At this point, the House and Senate legislation is not too divergent; it's possible that they can reach agreement on this bill (which mainly has $150 billion or so in tax provisions that are hoped to stimulate employment) and send it to President Obama for signature.

HR 4213, Tax Extenders Act of 2009

Every year, there are a number of provisions and features in the Internal Revenue Code that expire unless extended. This becomes a convenient, "must-pass" vehicle for other morsels of legislation. This year's Tax Extenders bill passed the House in December as a "clean" bill (ie, just extending expiring tax stuff, with nothing else attached). This week - on March 10 - the Senate passed its version of an extenders bill that included $140 billion of other stuff, including provisions that would extend the increased federal share of Medicaid (enacted under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) for another year.

HR 4691, Temporary Extension Act of 2010

As previously reported here and elsewhere, the main transportation feature of this bill was the short-term extension of SAFETEA-LU authorizations through March 28, 2010.

HR 4812, Local Jobs for America Act

This bill was just introduced yesterday by Congressman George Miller (D-Calif), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. The main feature, as touted by Congressman Miller's press release, is the authorization of $100 billion to help state governments ($25 billion) and local governments ($75 billion) carry out infrastructure projects, keep education systems open, pay salaries of firefighters and other essential personnel, et al. Although it speaks directly to the expressed needs of state and local governments, they shouldn't run out and spend that money right away; it's far too soon to say whether this bill, or its provisions, will advance through the legislative process.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

DOT: Back in Business, at least for a few weeks

Late last night (March 2), President Obama signed the "Temporary Extension Act of 2010" into law. Among other things, this legislation extends the SAFETEA-LU highway and transit authorizations to a new deadline of March 28, 2010.

As was widely reported among the DC news media, and in the transportation press, there was a bit of an issue, in that the Senate did not pass this extension bill before the February 28 expiration of the last SAFETEA-LU extension. As a result, there were a couple of days in which many DOT employees were on a furlough, work on some federally involved transportation projects was suspended, and there was a lot of blogging and finger-pointing about this delay.

But once TEA-2010 was signed into law, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood was on hand at his agency's headquarters, welcoming the employees back to work.

Note, though, that this latest transportation extension is only for a few more weeks. It's too soon to tell what may happen later this month. In the meantime, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, convened a hearing today (Mar. 3) at which she vowed to have her committee do its part on a SAFETEA-LU renewal -- not another extension -- before the year is up.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Extensions remain out of sync

In the bigger picture, it's not a huge issue. But if you're a state DOT or a transit agency, there's a dire need to know what's up with the extension of SAFETEA-LU, the current highway and transit authorization.

The Senate's just-passed job-creation legislation would extend these programs through December 31, 2010.

It's not clear what the House is going to do with this latest bill from the Senate. Therefore, the House just passed a measure that would provide short-term extensions for a number of things, including federal payments for unemployment benefits, Medicare payments for doctors, enhanced COBRA benefits, and a short-term extension of SAFETEA-LU. In this latest House bill, the highway and transit programs' authorizations would go through March 28, 2010.

In brief, though, there are pockets of resistance to the Senate bill among House members, and there are pockets of resistance to this House bill among Senate members.

The clock runs out on the current transportation bill in less than a week. Inevitably, Congress and the White House will come to terms on another extension, but there will be some moments of continued dispute and uncertainty until the 11th hour.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Does White House Health Care Bill Affect Transit?

After the nation witnessed Congressional action on health reform reach near-paralysis in the Senate, President Obama announced a White House summit on health reform for February 25, and issued what was touted as his administration's own legislative proposal for health reform.

In contrast to the Clinton-era health reform efforts, Mr Obama's proposal does not exist in detailed legislative language. Instead, he and his team have published many pages of bullet-pointed priorities on the White House web site.

There are many important and complex issues being considered in the health reform discussion. Most of these affect individuals, employers, and - of course - the medical and insurance industries.

Thus far, the main thing in the health care debate that would affect public and community transportation providers is an expansion of who's eligible for coverage under the federal-state Medicaid program. Both the House- and Senate-passed health reform bills would guarantee Medicaid benefits for a lot more people than the 40+ million low-income people currently covered. The President recommends this expansion, as well, and would have the federal government underwrite the full cost for this expansion in the first few years of enacted reform. After that, there would be a phase-down period of a few years, during which states would be expected to pick up a gradually increasing share of these increased Medicaid costs.

The reason this Medicaid issue is important to transit is two-fold. For one, Medicaid payments continue to be the largest single federal investment in public transit operating costs, as Medicaid requires states to assure access - and transportation - to non-emergency medical services. Although proposed Medicaid expansions are likely to bring in young adults and low-income working families, as opposed to the more-traditional populations of non-working, elderly and otherwise disadvantaged persons long covered under this program, there are bound to be some increased riders - and payments - for transportation services under this expansion.

From the transportation industry's perspective, that's the good news in proposed Medicaid expansion. The second point of concern, though, is that there eventually would come a time when states have to pick up more of the costs of the expansion. However, all budgetary evidence shows that the price tag for this Medicaid increase will hit states' coffers several years before they can expect to begin enjoying the fruits of any economic recovery, even under the rosiest scenarios currently at play. Drains on state budgets put a lot of transportation needs at risk, including social services, workforce development, and even the ability of states to assist with the capital and operating costs of public transit.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Senate "jobs" bill would extend transit programs

The political pundits and news media are writing at length about yesterday's cloture vote in the Senate concerning its version of a job-creating measure, currently called the HIRE Act

The $15 billion measure the Senate is expected to pass on February 24 primarily contains payroll and business tax breaks, intended to stimulate employment. Nothing there of direct connection to public transit or human services.

What is significant for transit interests in this bill is an extension of SAFETEA-LU, the current authorizing legislation, through December 31, 2010. According to reports, at least one of the votes for cloture, from Sen. George Voinovich [R-Ohio] was conditioned on a verbal commitment for the Senate to take up the overdue rewrite of SAFETEA-LU before the year is over.

In its current form, this Senate bill doesn't have any additional funding for transit, nor any of the other spending provisions found in the corresponding House legislation. The House bill, known as the "Jobs for Main Street Act," which was passed in December 2009, has provisions similar to those now arriving on the Senate floor, including the SAFETEA-LU extension, but also had approximately $150 billion in various spending programs, including $8.4 billion in supplemental transit grants, $1.2 billion in supplemental job training grants, and a continuation of the increased federal share of Medicaid costs that was a feature of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

No one's to be talking yet about what happens when House and Senate leaders seek to reconcile their two bills. First, it seems the Senate needs to pass something.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Transit Funds -- the installment plan

Right after the Presidents Day holiday, the Federal Transit Administration issued its notice allocating $5.4 billion in transit funds to states, cities and specific capital projects. Lots of numbers in this 100-page notice, but no surprises.

The main thing to note is that FTA was only able to allocate 5/12 of its FY 2010 appropriation. That's because SAFETEA-LU, the legislation authorizing these funds, was not extended through the full fiscal year. The current extension runs only to the end of this month.

Another SAFETEA-LU extension is likely to be included in any "jobs bills" that the Senate considers (the House version of a jobs bill extends SAFETEA-LU authorizations through the end of the current fiscal year), but that action awaits debate on the Senate floor next week. Assuming a remainder-of-year extension is enacted, FTA will probably then issue another apportionments notice, and is likely then to issue notices inviting applications for a few of its smaller competitive grant programs, such as transit in parks and tribal transit.

If you want to see precisely how much money is allocated to each recipient of formula-based transit grants, and how much is allocated to all the earmarked capital bus, bus facility, and "new starts" fixed-guideway systems, read the full notice on the FTA web site (NOTE: if reading the Federal Register notice, read the PDF file, not the "text" file, as the latter does not contain any of the funding tables).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

TIGER Grants Announced with a Roar

On the one-year anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, or the "stimulus" bill), DOT Secretary Ray LaHood announced the 51 winners of its $1.5 billion in ARRA-backed TIGER grants today (Feb. 17). Don't go looking in the Federal Register for this news....the announcement was the Secretary's "Fast Lane" blog, along with a PDF listing of the winners' profiles.

In keeping with ARRA, all the grants are for transportation capital projects, with an emphasis on construction and refurbishment of infrastructure. It's clear from the list of winners that preferred projects in this program were multimodal in nature. As you can see from the list of projects, another clear aspect under TIGER was the significant use of non-federal funds in these projects. Less clear is where the sponsoring state and local governments will be able to find their share of project costs, given the current state of public finance.

Given the emphasis on multimodality, it's hard, and a bit inappropriate, to classify specific TIGER projects as being "transit" or "rail" or "highway" in nature. For example, even the $10.0 million awarded to the South Dakota DOT for a highway project makes reference to improved access for local tribal transit services. However, 21 of the projects, accounting for $768 million of the awarded funds, have some kind of transit aspect. These include streetcar/light rail projects in Detroit, New Orleans, Dallas, Tucson and Portland Ore., and bus rapid transit projects in Las Vegas and Denver. Numerous facilities, ranging from $83 million in New York City to $8 million in Ames, IA, are included in the mix.

For human services accessibility, universal design, and complete streets, some champion projects were named in places as diverse as Dubuque, Kansas City and Seattle. Showing the extent of multimodal thinking, the award to Tulsa would help create prospective transit-oriented development, well in advance of the usual rail or BRT catalysts for TOD. The largest-scale bus-oriented award - $58.8 million - is for "priority bus transit" projects in the Washington DC area.

Aside from the TIGER awards to DC, New York, and Tucson, other large-scale TIGER awards included $100.0 million for the "CREATE" rail improvements in Chicago, $105 million for rail freight projects in Memphis and Birmingham, and $55.5 million in commuter rail expansion beyond Fitchburg, Mass.

While the winners get the glory, and the money, LaHood and numerous other bloggers have noted that there were many, many projects, some with considerable merit, that were not funded under TIGER. As LaHood said in his announcement, "DOT received more than 1,400 applications seeking more than $60 billion in support" for these funds. With TIGER projects spanning the country from Maine to Alaska, every region got something in this tight competition. As some are beginning to note, there are some conspicuous absences in TIGER grants: No projects whatsoever in Connecticut, Georgia, Florida, Utah, Delaware, New Hampshire, Nebraska, North Dakota or Idaho.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Less Need to Stay Up All Night Writing Proposals?

If you were interested in the Federal Transit Administration's solicitation for livability projects (announced on Dec 8), here's a bit of relieving news....

The application deadline has been extended two days, to February 10, 2010.

This notice appears in the Feb 4 Federal Register; hopefully, too, on the FTA web site.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

President's Budget Request Seeks New Dimensions to Transit Programs

It's dangerous to ascribe too much meaning to the many details that accompany a presidential budget request. However, some items in President Obama's budget request for FY 2011 lay down some informative markers that may shape Congress' response and eventual actions.

This year's federal transportation budget is a greater than usual challenge, for three reasons. One is the lack of an authorization (SAFETEA-LU expired last year, and is being sustained through a series of short-term extensions). The second is an expressed desire from this Administration for maintaining the federal motor fuels tax (which has been the source of nearly all federal transit funding since the 1980s) at the current rate of 18.4 cents per gallon, which is where it's stood since 1991. The third budget challenge is the President's expressed desire to freeze most discretionary domestic spending at current levels.

Given those challenges, the President was able to send to Congress a budget request that seeks to maintain most transportation accounts at essentially the same amounts as this year: highways @ $41.1b, aviation @ $16.5b, rail (including Amtrak and high speed rail) @ $2.8b, and transit @ $10.8b. Money was squeezed out of this tight framework to suggest a new $4.0b program of "national infrastructure innovation and finance."

Within the President's recommendations for the transit program, there is no talk of coordination, or human services, or mobility management. There is a recommendation to create a $307m livable communities program by combining the existing Job Access/Reverse Commute, Alternatives Analysis, Statewide Transit Planning, and Metropolitan Transit Planning programs. There is a recommendation to combine the Section 5310 program and New Freedom transit grants into a single formula grant program. Small amounts of funding are requested to jump-start Administration initiatives in rail transit safety and continued work in using transit as a vehicle for greenhouse gas reduction. The Administration also recommends an additional $150m appropriation for the Washington (DC) Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Under the President's request, formula grants for urban and rural public transit, and the amounts of funding available for buses, bus facilities, fixed guideway modernization and "new starts" major capital projects would continue more or less at their current levels, although the request is made that these grants be awarded on formula bases, or at the Administration's discretion, as opposed to the prevailing practice of Congressional earmarks.

Having thus made its request, the focus of action on the budget turns to Congress, where it will remain until appropriations are signed into law.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hey Drivers, Don't Text!

It's no secret that DOT Secretary Ray LaHood has been reminding drivers everywhere to put down those devices and drive safely. At last autumn's Distracted Driving Summit, he promised that the federal government would do its part to ensure that our roadways would be more safe from distracted drivers.

During that event, President Obama issued an executive order restricted texting and cell phone use by federal employees (and recommending federal contractors do likewise).

Over the subsequent months, Secretary LaHood marshalled the resources of the US DOT to create a website,, to promote distraction-free driving.

One of Mr LaHood's commitments was to take regulatory action to help stamp out distracted driving, which has taken place this week.

Specifically, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the arm of the DOT that regulates much truck and bus safety, published a guidance today (Jan 27) specifying that texting while driving a commercial motor vehicle is henceforth considered an unsafe practice that is in violation of federal regulation. This guidance takes effect immediately.

The FMCSA guidance affects all truck and bus operators used in INTERSTATE service, as defined at 49 CFR Part 390 (in this rule, "buses" are all passenger-carrying vehicles designed to seat 8 or more passengers, including the driver). Most local transit and human services transportation operations that do not cross state lines are not covered by this particular rule, although an increasing number of state laws restrict texting and cell phone use by drivers of many or all vehicles.

In addition to the Secretary's announcement of this policy guidance, there has been a good deal of media attention to the topic of distracted driving.

Stay tuned .... The DOT is planning to promulgate official rules on this topic in the motor carrier and rail arenas, and has indicated a desire to have greater authority to regulate these practices in the public transit arena.