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.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Funds Available for Intercity Bus Accessibility

It's a small program, but serves an important function. Every year, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) makes funds available to help private intercity bus operators improve the accessibility of their vehicles to persons with disabilities.

FTA has just announced the latest solicitation for these competitive "Over-the-Road Bus Accessibility Program Grants." The announcement appears in the January 15, 2010, Federal Register, as well as at the FTA web site. A total of $10.7 million is available this year. Private operators of intercity bus service, either in scheduled route service, commuter service, or charter and tour service, are the ONLY eligible applicants. FTA funds under this program will cover 90 percent of a project's cost, with the applicant responsible for identifying the other 10 percent from other sources. Applications are due April 15, 2010.

For the most part, grantees have used this program to equip over-the-road motor coaches with wheelchair lifts, but a number of other accessibility projects also are eligible. The American Bus Association has compiled some information on this program and its details, which can be viewed on their web site.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

DOT to Bring Livability Factors into Play

The transit community is abuzz over an announcement by DOT Secretary Ray LaHood concerning the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) “New Starts” rating criteria. The details can be found on the FTA website. The American Public Transportation Association quickly reported this news on their site, as did a number of transit-oriented organizations and bloggers, along with some members of Congress.

If you’re not engaged in planning or promoting new rail or other fixed-guideway transit projects, the immediate details may sound arcane (and don’t affect you), but the essence is that “cost-effectiveness” once again is only one of several factors to be considered by FTA in reviewing projects and recommending full funding grant agreements, not the leading factor.

The longer-term message from Mr. LaHood is that DOT wants livability to be taken into account when transit decisions are being made.

As FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff says, “the change is intended to bring our New Starts/Small Starts evaluation criteria into conformity with the Obama Administration’s goals for livability and sustainability.”

The policy change, which was presented as the revocation of a March 9, 2005, “Dear Colleague” letter issued by FTA, took effect immediately, and was described by Mr. LaHood as a return to the statutory framework of Section 5309(d) and (e). A more comprehensive rulemaking is planned to follow.

Despite what some media are reporting, this particular policy change only affects Section 5309 major capital investments for new rail and other fixed-guideway projects. What’s been issued has no bearing on bus and bus facility grants, nor on planning, nor on rail modernization funding, nor on urban, rural or specialized formula-based transit grants.

For most local transit and human services stakeholders, the more interesting part of this announcement is that FTA is beginning to explore more changes in its rules, with the stated purpose of assuring that transit projects make “valuable contribution[s] to our environment and to the accessibility, mobility, and economic vitality of our communities,” according to Mr. LaHood.

It‘s far too early for there to be any specifics, but indications are that the DOT is seeking ways for the six “livability principles” enumerated in the DOT-HUD-EPA Sustainable Communities partnership to find their way into more and more of the federal transit program, as already has been done with the recent solicitations for “Livability Bus” and “Urban Circulator” grants.

Since these principles call for more transportation choices for more people, improved health outcomes, affordability of housing, improved mobility options, and collaboration across programs, this week’s announcement augurs for more participation by more voices in the transportation decision-making of the future.

Friday, January 8, 2010

On Mileage and More

The Internal Revenue Service has announced its vehicle mileage reimbursement rates for the 2010 calendar year. Since many volunteer transportation programs peg their volunteers' reimbursements to these rates, it can be pretty important stuff.

Basic details are in a December 3, 2009 announcement on the IRS web site. More details are in IRS Revenue Procedure 2009-54, also available from that site.

In short, the standard mileage rate for tax-deductible business use of a personal vehicle is 50 cents per mile. The amount that individuals may claim when deducting their own medical travel expense is 16.5 cents per mile, and the amount that individuals can claim as a charitable deduction for travel is 14 cents per mile.

While the IRS can adjust the business and medical mileage rates every year, based on its economic analyses, the charitable rate is fixed by law in the Internal Revenue Code, and can only be changed by Congress. For many in the nonprofit sector, this has been a challenging issue, especially as fuel costs have soared in recent years.

Volunteer transportation is especially prevalent in the field of senior services. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, among others, has been noting that a fixed mileage rate, given the current trends in the energy industry, is an increasing challenge to the ability to find and retain volunteers for such important services as meal delivery, taking seniors to medical appointments, etc.

Fuel prices in general are expected to be a challenge this year in all sectors of the transportation community, including both the public and charitable sectors. The Washington Post recently had an article on this topic that helps set that stage for discussion.

A number of organizations are working to change the way in which the charitable mileage rate is calculated. Some analysis of this issue can be found at the Independent Sector web site, but PLEASE NOTE that neither the NRC or CTAA are encouraging any positions on the legislation cited in that site (Independent Sector is promoting a particular bill, but we don't do that here).