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.